February is Black History Month. I finally got to see the movie Selma on Friday. It’s a moving account of events leading up to the march there, specifically efforts to counter the suppression of voting rights for black citizens. A theme running through the film is the question of authority. Who makes decisions? Who is responsible for doing the right thing? Who is charged with enforcing law? Is it the president, Lyndon Johnson? Is it the governor, George Wallace? Are decisions about who gets to vote left in the hands of individual county clerks like the one who denied a voting card to Oprah Winfrey (well, her character Annie Lee Cooper)? Ultimately, those who had legal authority shirked their responsibility because of fear and outright prejudice. So a series of non-violent actions was launched, and laws prohibiting the suppression of voting were enacted as a result. Rev. Robb Lapp from our church was one who was present in Selma that week in support of voting rights.
Are you a person who has authority in some sphere of your life? If so, how did you get it? One kind of authority is positional authority. If you’ve ever encountered a person offended by what you’ve said or done and who looked at you and said “Do you know who I am?? you have come up against someone with positional authority.
This is one of my favorite stories: A Department of Water Resources representative stopped at a Texas ranch and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher: “I need to inspect your ranch for your water allocation.”
The old rancher said, “Okay, but don’t go in that field over there.” The Water rep said, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me. See this card? This card means that I am allowed to go wherever I wish on any agricultural property. No questions asked or answered. Have I made myself clear? Do you understand? The old rancher nodded and went about his chores.
Later, the rancher heard loud screams and saw the Water rep running for his life. Close behind was the rancher’s bull. The bull was gaining with every stop. The rep was clearly terrified, so the old rancher immediately threw down his tools, ran to the fence, and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Your card! Show him your card!”
Earned authority is something different. It is the end result of gaining respect and being seen as someone who is worth listening to and following.
Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum and began to teach immediately after calling some of his disciples. Those who listened were amazed and remarked that he spoke as one with authority, not like the scribes in the temple. Jesus did not have positional authority and he hadn’t been around long enough to have earned authority, and yet the story says that people recognized something innately authoritative about his words.
Capernaum is a little fishing town that mostly exists today as a tourist stop near the Mount of the Beatitudes and the place where fish and bread were multiplied. Dominating the historic site is a large, modern church that looks like a space ship hovering over the ruins. It’s a bit disturbing, but from the altar of the church it is possible to peer through a glass floor and see the remains of what many believe was the home of Simon Peter. It’s all a bit questionable, but one of the most authentic sites in the Holy Lands is the synagogue next door. The ancient columns are not from the first century edifice where Jesus taught, but the synagogue is believed to have been built on the same site where today’s story took place.
The story takes an interesting turn at this point. A man in the synagogue interrupts Jesus’ teaching with shouts and questions and claims about Jesus spoken in an accusing manner. Jesus responds by identifying the words as demonic and performing an exorcism right there on the spot. I imagine he finished up his lesson, but all that is recorded is the fact that people were further astounded by the apparent authority of Jesus over unclean spirits.
What does it mean to us to say that Jesus has authority? I think that’s an especially good question in a church such as ours with broad diversity of thought and belief. There are many spiritual authorities within branches of Christianity, and other faith traditions have their own authoritative figures. The Pope is an authority for the Roman Catholic Church, though it’s clear that even church members do not always agree with what the Pope says. Even though his statements of faith and policy are considered infallible. In the United Church of Christ, we don’t have a pope or even bishops or others who lead us except in an administrative function. No living human being has ultimate authority in our church, and our denominational statement of faith says that Jesus is the sole head of the church. So in that sense, there is a recognition of Jesus’ authority. But what is authoritative about him or his message?
Interestingly, Buddhism, as a non-theistic system of life and practice, has many branches, just as Christianity has many denominations. Although there is a common adherence to the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism, which are the Buddha himself, his teaching, and the community of followers, there are differences regarding which writings are considered canonical, or authoritative.
In my former denomination, there is increasing angst that many predict will lead to the splitting of the church at the next global gathering in 2016. To say that I am happy not to be involved in that right now is putting it mildly! For many who are a part of that large, historic denomination, the root of the issue threatening to divide the church is what is believed about the authority of the Bible. Words like inerrancy and infallibility are attached by many to the Bible, lifting it almost to the status of an idol. The problem with claiming biblical authority is that people really can’t agree on what the Bible actually says about the various issues they debate. So it’s really their own understanding of the Bible that becomes authoritative for them.
In the synagogue, Jesus cast out a demon who appeared in the form of a voice that interrupted his sermon. Years ago, I pastored a church in which a member would regularly do the same thing. I got used to it and came to understand that the man suffered from a mental illness. I did not stop attempt to exorcise a demon! Many people believe that the numerous incidents of demonic possession and deliverance contained in the gospels are describing persons with untreated mental illnesses. The Bible is not a science book or a medical manual, and it expresses the world view and understanding of people living in first century Palestine. All of that raises important questions about biblical authority. Is it an authority that we should look to if we want to understand the treatment of mental illness, for example, based on Mark chapter 1? Probably not.
When we say the Bible is our authority, and then we assume we are right in our beliefs and then use the Bible to back up our position, the next step is to use it as a weapon to hurt others. Jesus’ message can’t be used in that way if we take him seriously. At the core of what he taught were concepts like “Love your enemies and pray for them”, not “figure out what’s wrong with them and then bludgeon them with your Revised Standard Version.”
If we embrace the belief that Jesus himself is an authority for us, then acknowledging that belief goes beyond saying “Yes, I believe.” It has much more to do with our actions. The first time I attended a theologically progressive church, at a time I was really grappling with my own faith, the preacher made this statement: “Many if not most people who claim the name ‘Christian’ are more interested in worshiping Jesus than actually doing what he told us to do.” That had a huge impact on me, and I began to re-evaluate much of what I had previously believed about what it means to be a Christian.
We know that being a follower of Jesus is not primarily about church membership or attendance or being admired by others for religious acts. It’s about letting our lives be shaped by the teachings, the values, and the wisdom of Jesus. In our relationships with others (and that’s really the most important part of our life here on earth) it’s about genuinely and sacrificially loving others the way Jesus loved us.
Progressive Christian Churches such as ours proclaim as we do on our website that there are many potential paths to God. We honor and learn from the paths of others, while we follow in the way of Jesus. Our church is perhaps unusual in that we intentionally welcome and include persons who choose other paths but are drawn to this faith community.
Last Tuesday, I thought I’d go hiking in the foothills and selected a trail between Lyons and Estes Park leading to Homestead Meadows. Part of the trail was still obliterated from the flood, and part was covered with ice and snow. I spent an hour or so trying to figure out the right path and finally decided to wait until spring. I know the path was there, and I will explore it fully. There was evidence of other trails there as well, and those have captured my interest, too.
What or who is your source of spiritual authority? I imagine that would open up an interesting conversation here. What path is primary, and why do you choose that path over others? And what can you learn from the trails that others choose?
Jesus’ authority came not just from God or from the many titles given to him in scripture. His authority was not merely about position or rank. The authority he gained during his ministry ultimately came from his ability to love and care for people who needed his word of hope or his touch of healing. By serving others, rather than pressing others to serve him, he gained the respect and devotion of his followers, even those who follow him two thousand years later.
May we serve and love like Jesus. Amen.