“By what authority?”
Message preached on
October 1, 2017
When I first pondered this scripture, I thought my sermon was going to
be about the authority we have when it comes to doing the things we
have been called to do as followers of Jesus. I don’t know about you,
but I still wonder over this authority. For instance, as an ordained
minister, I stand here when two persons speak their vows to one
another. “By the authority vested in me,” I then say, “I now
proclaim you to be husband and wife.” When I really think about it,
that takes my breath away. Why me? What authority do I really have?
Or how about on a Sunday morning like today - why is it that you come
and listen to me? I guess I’m assuming that you do listen. Maybe I
shouldn’t. But if you do, why? It certainly can’t be because I’m all
that great a speaker. If it were just that, now, I might
consider giving up the pulpit. Why? Because it’s not about “me.” It’s
about the One on whose behalf I try to speak.
As much as I’d like to ponder what authority we have as Christians,
using this scripture as a diving board, I can’t. At least not at
first. Perhaps we’ll get there later. To be honest with this
scripture, though, I have to begin with a basic point - that this
scripture is not about “us.” Or, at least, if it does involves “us,”
the role we play in it may not be the one we at first think.
You heard the account. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree on when it
happened - this questioning of Jesus by the religious authorities of
his day. It took place not long after he entered Jerusalem to the
acclaim of the “hosanna”-shouting crowds. You might recall that soon
thereafter he headed straight for the Temple, and one of the first
things he did was some house-cleaning. He uprooted the money-changers
and scattered their animals because the priorities of God’s people
were really a mess. He turned things upside down to reveal how much a
mess it really was.
It was this “messing” around in the Temple that drew those religious
guys to him to ask their question. “By what authority are you doing
these things?” Now, here is where I originally jumped off in the
direction of wondering about the authority we have in Christ, assuming
that it gets questioned. I placed myself beside Jesus as one of his
disciples in this story, or maybe I even was trying on his sandals to
see how they fit. When those religious authorities came marching up, I
was on one side of the question. Perhaps, however, I should really be
on the other side.
After all, I am a modern day “religious authority,” am I not?
“By the authority vested in me,” I proclaim at a wedding, and that
authority comes not just from the gospel of which I am a minister.
That authority also comes from the state of Maryland, which grants me
the power to unite two persons in marriage in the eyes of the
Maybe I / we should first enter this scripture from the other side of
the question. We ask the
question, not someone else.
And we ask it not of ourselves,
but of Jesus. By
what authority is Jesus doing the things he is doing in our lives? Do
we ask that question when what the Lord is doing is obviously working
for our good - when we experience healing, for instance, or when good
things happen to us or around us?
Of course, those religious authorities back then weren’t just thinking
about the “money-changer episode” in the Temple, when they came and
questioned Jesus’ authority. The miracles he had performed - the good
stuff - these troubled them as well. Those guys weren’t stupid. They
realized that the miracles and the Temple cleaning, as well as his
teachings, were all woven together into one. It was the package deal
When the Lord does good things in our lives, there are often larger
purposes involved, aren’t there? When we experience some kind of
healing, for instance, it may be for a reason - possibly one that we
might not appreciate at first. Now, I’ve heard folks speak about how
the bad things that come our way happen for a reason. Well, what about
the good stuff? Perhaps it happens to help us face something more
difficult in the future. Healing as preparation.
What about forgiveness? That’s good stuff! In Christ, we may come to a
deeper awareness of God’s grace and mercy, and know that we have been
forgiven a great debt. And then comes Jesus’ call to forgive as we
have been forgiven. The other week, didn’t we recall the disciple
Peter’s question “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often
should I forgive? As many as seven times?” How did Jesus answer? …
“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven”
(Matthew 18:21‑22). By that he
didn’t mean 490 times and then we can forget about it. Nooo.
Forgiveness is a part of a larger song that never ends. It just keeps
going on, my friends.
Remember, also, these familiar words of invitation from Jesus, “Come
to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I
will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus calls us to come and lay our burdens at
the foot of the cross. His comforting words help us to let go our sins
and other heavy stuff, and allow God to restore us.
And then Jesus adds the next line - which should catch us up, if we
truly listen. “Take my yoke upon you,” he said, “and learn
from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest
for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
(Matthew 11:29‑30). Wait a
minute, Lord. In one breath you invite me to lay my burden down. In
the next, you ask me to carry another. “Easy” and “light”
you say, but it’s still a “yoke.” Something good leads to a
larger purpose, a calling that may ask of me my very life. When we
consider what taking up this yoke truly involves, might we also not
question the authority behind this call?
Our walk with Christ involves times of “house-cleaning,” when
the Lord turns our lives upside down, flipping over our own inner
tables, driving out our ill-conceived notions of what God requires of
us. We may think it’s our own little religious rituals that draws us
closer to our Creator, when in reality it is God who is drawing us to
himself. Or, from a different perspective, we may think of “faith” as
a noun not a verb. Really, though, belief is a way of following. When
the children of Israel stood at the edge of the sea and God parted the
waters for their escape, was “faith” a noun or a verb? To believe, for
them, was to step forth and walk into the parted sea.
“Faith” is not a religious ritual, nor is it a theological statement.
It’s a sometimes frightening step in a particular direction. “Take
up my yoke,” Jesus says. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus says.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer..”
(Matthew 21:13, cf Isaiah 56:7).
His words and actions should give us pause, such that we stand like
those religious authorities did back then and ask, “by what
authority do you say and do these things?” Not just long ago, but
Those religious guys back then knew it boiled down to two options,
either his authority was derived from the author of Creation, from
God, or else it was something much less.
Whenever we hear the word “authority,” by the way, we should
break it apart and hear the word “author” within. Are these words and
actions “authored” by God or not? When Jesus flipped the question back
on them, in good rabbinic fashion (something they should have seen
coming a mile away, if you ask me), those were the two options they
debated. Either his authority was from God, or it was just his own
That’s the issue for you and I. Is this stuff from God or not? If so,
what are we going to do about it? Jesus followed up this encounter
with a parable. In Matthew’s gospel it is a story of a man who had a
vineyard and two sons. He asks each to get to work. I don’t have a
vineyard, but I do have two sons. When they lived with me, they
sometimes would balk at doing what I asked, but then do it anyway.
Other times they said they’d do what I asked, but didn’t actually get
to work. Those were the two outcomes in Jesus’ parable. He asked the
religious leaders which son did what the father wanted - the one who
first said “no,” but went ahead and did it anyway, or the one who said
“yes,” but didn’t. Of course, their answer was the first son.
Those religious leaders had heard God’s call through John the Baptist,
as they had heard it through the prophets who came before him. They
had said their “yes” to God, but they weren’t really doing what God
had asked of them - like justice (not just talking about it, but doing
it); like extending mercy (forgiveness as a lifestyle, not a ritual),
like humbly walking with God (allowing faith to be a verb, not just a
noun) [see Micah 6:8]. You know,
the difficult stuff. Turning God’s call into more than just a bumper
When we listen to this story of Jesus as if we are the ones who
question him, we become aware of our own inner resistance to the true
authority in our lives. Are we really allowing the author of Creation
to write his Word (remember “author” / “authority”), not just on our
bumper, but on our heart? How do we know it is written upon our
hearts? When faith becomes a verb, not just a noun. When our own
authority is not something we assert, but something we release, that
the author of Creation may write it upon other hearts.
Did I end up answering my original question anyway? You know - by what
authority do we do what Jesus has called us to do? A better scripture text
for that might be what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, words
with which I sang this morning. The song speaks of Jesus’ authority in a
different way. According to this view of authority, it says, Jesus was
totally equal with God, but he released it all - he let it go - and became
like us. In so doing, he did what God wanted. His death upon the cross,
then, bore the handwriting of the author of Creation. Because of this, the
song says, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is
Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
His authority was not in any crown he wore, any badge of honor pinned to
his chest, any claim to fame he may have made. His authority is ours when
we allow this same handwriting to be etched upon our hearts and minds. “You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.” The greatest commandment, Jesus said. And
right after that: “you shall love
your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew
22:36-40). Therein lies whatever authority we have.
(revised from 2002)