Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, September 27, 2020
Readings for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost : Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 78.1-4,12-16, Philippians2.1-13, Mathew 21.23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt 21.23)
Since Covid started, I haven’t met a single, solitary soul who enjoys wearing a mask in public, including here at All Saints. On the other hand, I’ve met very very few people who refuse. Most of us grumble, to be sure, because that’s our prerogative as citizens in a democracy, but at the same time, most of us seem to wear it with a reasonably good grace because we want to do out bit to fight the virus, which says something about our relationship with authority.
Now there are different types of authority. The authority of law prevents us from going into a store or a public place without a mask – we can call that compulsory authority. Many of our actions are not motivated by compulsory authority. We wear masks outside of our immediate circles – around grandchildren, friends, those at risk – out of a desire to protect them. We can call that moral authority. Moral authority arises from a desire to do right. A few weeks ago, when our church sign out front said “Love wears a mask”, it was talking about moral authority.
Often the two overlap. For example, compulsory authority slows us down when driving through school zones because we fear heavy fines, though moral authority slows us down because we just naturally don’t want to hurt children. Most of us I think have a somewhat grudging relationship with compulsory authority because we don’t like to be told what to do, even when we are rightly pulled over for speeding.
How does religion and authority work? The bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks a lot of compulsory authority – the Torah, the first five books of the bible, are full of laws, especially the Ten Commandments, which Christians still recognize. The “chief priests and elders” (Mt 21.23) who come to challenge Jesus in today’s gospel are the hereditary descendants of a priestly ruling class that the Romans kept in power to administer Palestine for them, so in essence a puppet theocratic government.
Today we associate theocracies with countries like Iran, and because Canada guarantees freedom of religion, we see our faith as a voluntary practice, meaning that we don’t think much about religion AND authority. We choose the churches we like, we follow the bible and preaching if we agree with them, and how we manage our relationship with God is pretty much up to us. Our church, the Anglican Church, is an organization with little central authority. I think it fair to say that if Jesus has any authority over our lives, it is moral authority, so that we follow him because we agree with him, and not because he orders us around. Is that the way it should be?
In actual fact, scripture talks a lot about Jesus’ authority. The word itself, from the Greek word exousia, meaning power, occurs 88 times in the New Testament. Usually exousia means power, as when Jesus has power to drive out demons and heal people, but usually it is power that is given to someone, like the power given to a policeman, or what I’ve called compulsory authority. Today’s gospel reading comes after Jesus has driven out the moneylenders and claimed it as “My house” (Mt 21.13), so when the chief priests come to interrogate Jesus they are asking about his authority in a human sense of who made you the boss of this place?
In answering the chief priests with another question, about John and whether his baptism came from heaven, Jesus is claiming that his authority comes from God in heaven, setting up the final challenge between Jesus versus the priests, Herod, and Pilate that leads to the cross. What Jesus is saying obliquely now in the temple, he says plainly in his final, post-resurrection words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth as been given to me” (Mt 28.18). Here, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus merely confirms what others – crowds, demons, cured men and women, have known all along, that Jesus’ authority comes from God (Mt 7.29, 9.6).
If therefore we seriously wish to be followers and disciples of Jesus, we have to admit that as God’s son he has been given authority over us, that Jesus has a claim on how we lead out lives. For the early Christians, Jesus was kyrios, lord, and no one on earth, not even Caesar, could rival him. Considering that earthy rules were mostly cruel tyrants, the lordship of Jesus was welcome because if offered a freedom and a dignity that the bulk of society – the poor, women and children, slaves – were never granted by their rulers. So how do we understand the authority of Jesus? Do we welcome it?
Our second reading from Philippians tells us that we have no reason to fear Jesus’ authority. Paul says that Jesus is “highly exalted” by God, that he is above anyone else, so that at his name “every knee should bend” (the Greek is simply kampto, will bend). Does every knee have to bend? Paul is saying that Jesus has the authority to compel our obedience, but he voluntarily sets it aside, so in the words of one of the first Christian hymns, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” and further, “he humbled himself” and obeyed the father’s will. The cross for Paul is where power and dignity as we understand them in earthly terms go to die. The power of emperors and presidents is revealed as being petty and hollow and small. True power, God’s power and authority, are revealed in love and service and sacrifice.
Philippians tells us that while God’s compulsory authority is absolute, God makes himself known to us in moral authority, in the Son who lives and dies to save us. To live the Christian life, we follow this moral authority – as Paul says, we imitate the humility of Jesus on the cross, we don’t think of our own needs before we first think of the way of others. In the kingdom of heaven, there are no emperors or presidents, there are only servants, who serve one another. We don’t follow Jesus because we must. We follow because we are convinced that we should.
Living as a subject of the kingdom of God means that we learn to see authority differently. There are lots of things that the world sees as authoritative – raw power, the will to win at all costs, wealth, privilege, institutionalized racism and inequality – that, if we see them through God’s eyes, look pitiful and empty. In the kingdom of God, authority lies in surprising places. Authority is giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty. Authority is loving a neighbour who is not like us but still seeing God’s image in them. Authority is the dignity of the worker. Authority is care of the sick, authority is teaching, authority is patience, authority is love. All authority in the kingdom of God is moral because it flows from the heart of God’s goodness and love. We obey Jesus, not because we must, but because we find the freedom God intended for us in his service.