“So, Nazarene, where do you get your authority to preach in our Temple? All this wandering around Israel, making people think you’ve got something from God to say, when everybody knows we are the ones who God has made the guardians of the faith. We’re the ones with the credentials. What have you got?”
“I don’t even know if I want to go into it with you. All I will tell you is this. It’s not from the likes of you, for sure. No. Wait. Maybe I will tell you, but first you’ve got to answer this question. What about John the Baptist? Where did his authority come from?”
Jesus had them right then, and they knew it. If they answered it came from God, then everybody would want to know why they dismissed him as a lunatic running around in the wilderness. It they said it was all made up, not from God but from people, then the crowd, who took the Baptizer very seriously, would turn against them.
Did you ever watch those Apple Dumpling Gang movies? It’s Disney fare about a gang of outlaws who weren’t very good at it. We used to watch those movies with the kids. Sometimes I think the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are like the Apple Dumpling Gang. As much as they try to trap Jesus, they are always the ones getting caught.
There are a couple of important differences between the Apple Dumpling Gang and this gang, though. They weren’t nearly as sweet and lovable as Don Knotts and Tim Conway. And they did manage to get Jesus killed. But even that didn’t quite work out the way they thought it would.
Jesus was always having to deal with these people. They not only saw themselves as the guardians of the faith, but they kept it locked up and shackled so it was no good to anybody, including themselves.
It was like that story Jesus told them. They were that son who promised to go out into the field, but never got around to it. They sure liked talking about how God asked them to take care of things and what a great job they were doing, even though they spent all their time inside. In the meantime, those who the religious establishment never imagined would find their way into God’s vineyard were the ones out there taking care of it and bringing in the harvest of God.
And it was from the ones out there in the fields that Jesus got his authority, the hookers and bums, the socially and politically and spiritually marginalized. They were the ones changing, the ones who were paying attention to Jesus and finding God and God’s Kingdom. They were the ones who told Jesus to go for it, while the religious establishment did everything they could to stand in his way.
Jesus’ authority came from whores and crooks, from a thief on the cross next door. Do you remember what all those poor and struggling folk, the ones on the outside, said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. “He taught with authority.” They heard something from Jesus they had never heard before, and the recognized it as the Word of God. It was nothing like the dribble from the Scribes and Pharisees, the ones claiming how important their work was in the field, but never quite getting out there and doing it.
Jesus wasn’t looking for approval from the establishment. All he wanted was to proclaim the love of God and see how it changes lives and the way people live in this world. His authority would come from people who were giving themselves over to God.
The religious establishment could not understand that for Jesus it was never about being in power, not that kind of authority. He rejected the idea of being a king, though, a couple of centuries after the idea of monarchy has lost all credence, we still keep trying to make him one. Rather it was about people opening themselves up to God’s Realm and empowering each other, giving authority to each other to build a new world.
Mary and I and Glenn and Kathie were in Rochester last weekend for the ABCRGR Annual Meeting where we were celebrating the history of Women in Ministry in our Region. Helen Barrett Montgomery was licensed to preach 110 years ago. Where do you think she got her authority to not only preach but eventually become President of our denomination in 1922? It wasn’t from the religious establishment for sure, who were doing everything they could to keep women out then, and many of whom are still trying to do to this very day.
But the people of Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester back in 1898 knew what was in Helen Barrett Montgomery. She got her authority from them.
And one of the current women in ministry in our Region, Carolyn Piper, pointed out that all of us, men and women, lay and clergy get our authority to be about our ministry, our witness to Jesus Christ, from the same place, each other.
That is what, to me, is so marvelous about today’s story from Matthew’s gospel. It’s not just about the authority of Jesus, but the authority we all have, and we all offer each other.
By whose authority did we say Mary Hammond was going to pastor this church? By whose authority did we say that gay and lesbian people were going to be welcomed fully into this church? By whose authority did we say we are going to minister to students, faculty, and staff at Oberlin College? By whose authority did we say we are going to stand clearly for peace and non violence because that is the way of Jesus? By our authority, by the authority we have given each other.
By the authority we give each other we preach the good news of Jesus Christ and call people to follow him. By the authority we give each other, we take care of each other, and tend to each other’s needs. By the authority we give each other we are building a church and staking our claim in God’s Kingdom.
What underlies that authority? What’s it built on? It’s built of the work of God in our lives. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone on which our authority to be the church with each other is anchored. It is the authority of grace, the authority of lives made new by Jesus Christ.
Nobody has to validate our ministries, what we all do to be the people of Jesus Christ. The validation comes from the Spirit of God, who simply calls us to walk this way with Jesus. And with eyes to see, we see the Spirit at work in each other. With ears to hear we are learning from each other how to follow Jesus. That’s all the authority we need. We don’t challenge each other’s authority to bear witness to Jesus, we recognize it and rejoice in it and grow, together, in the ways of God.
So the issue isn’t defending our authority to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, to be seekers of God’s kingdom. We don’t have to defend ourselves any more than Jesus did. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody. The more important question is claiming our authority. God’s Word rests in us. The Spirit is calling us forth. As the Apostle Paul says it in Romans 8, all of creation is waiting for us to claim our place, to take on the authority as followers of Jesus and remaking this world.
Jesus showed us that authority isn’t about who has the power, but who is willing to give themselves over to God and to others. That’s what that passage in Phillipians is about. Of all the possibilities Jesus had for himself, he chose to become like us. That’s where his real power and authority came from, not from what he claimed as his superior status, but what he was willing to become, trust God would make of him, as he became like us.
All summer long we have been talking about how the same Spirit that was in Jesus in us. The God Jesus believed in is the same God we believe in. That’s why Jesus has so much confidence in us and what we can become.
We use the word of authority is a couple of senses. One of course, is the authority that means being in power. If you mess with the authorities, you could end up in jail. That is authority as power.
There is also the authority that we talk about when so and so is the leading authority on ancient Greek manuscripts, or power back up systems. That is the authority of knowledge.
Did you know that each of us not only has the authority to follow Jesus Christ, but we are the authorities? Our credentials are probably as good as those hookers and crooks who validated the ministry of Jesus. The same grace that saved them, saves us.
They weren’t authorities because they had this whole thing of what it means to be a Christian figured out. It was because in Jesus they saw the possibility of something new for their own lives and this world and they were going to follow him and find out what it was. That’s what made them authorities, the experts, and it’s the same for us. It’s the authority that grace brings into our lives.
“So Jesus, is your authority from God or people?”