January 31, 2021 / 4th Sunday after Epiphany / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / 2nd Reading 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 / Gospel Mark 1:21-28
By What Authority?
Coming of age back in the sixties, a familiar slogan of my generation was: Question Authority. These words appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts and random graffiti scrawled on walls. There were at least two motives leading my peers and I to question authority. One cause was serious doubts about the character, the competence and the intentions of persons who held positions of authority. Were they trustworthy? Were they capable? Were they serving anything beyond self-interest? Leaders from politicians to high school principals – and institutions in general – were viewed with a great deal of skepticism. The other cause, of course, was the desire to be liberated from authority – to be exempt from the boundaries and limitations imposed by those in authority. Question authority so you can be free to do what you want. Whether it was opposing school dress codes or the military draft – resistance was driven by a longing for independence and self-determination. Individuals wanted to assert authority over their own lives.
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At the same time, respect for authority did not disappear entirely. In spite of the so-called generation gap, like most all my friends I honored the authority of my parents. We had our disagreements, but I loved and trusted them – and was confident in their love for me. I didn’t have a high opinion of all my teachers, but there were many I respected and admired – and I gladly took their instruction. Likewise, I did not question the authority of the coaches and choir directors who supervised my extra-curricular activities. When I had my first experiences in the work force on any number of summer jobs – I recognized the necessity of acknowledging the authority of whoever was the boss. Persons who have authority can be a true blessing – and sometimes they are simply unavoidable.
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At the outset of his ministry, Jesus came to the synagogue at Capernaum – and began to teach. The text doesn’t indicate that anyone had asked Jesus to teach – he just showed up and began to speak. The response to his teaching was immediate and emphatic. His listeners were astounded by his words. They recognized in Jesus an authority unlike any other teachers they had heard. Subsequently Jesus proceeded to heal a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The people are now even more impressed. They exclaim: “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Throughout his ministry, in his preaching and teaching by healing and forgiving, Jesus demonstrated his profound authority. Those who recognized his authority became devoted followers. However, there were others who doubted. Some dismissed him as a false teacher. Others directly questioned Jesus, asking: “By what authority do you say and do these things?
I invite you to first consider: who has authority in your life? Who commands your attention: your loyalty? Your obedience? Then specifically: how does Jesus have authority in your life and mine? An easy answer would be to say that, well, Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord of all, so of course he has authority. True enough. But I want to suggest to you that Jesus comes to have authority in our lives not simply by asserting his divine power – but by earning that authority through what he does.
Let’s begin where Jesus began at Capernaum. Jesus earns our respect for his authority by teaching us – by showing us the truth. So much of what we hear from Jesus has the unmistakable ring of truth. His words give life and hope. His words have stood the test of time. And Jesus teaches not only with his words, but with his life. He shows us the truth of grace in action.
Jesus gains authority by healing us. Some have experienced miraculous, physical healing. Many more have known the healing Jesus brings to broken hearts, despairing souls and wounded spirits. Jesus is the one who has authority to bind up the broken-hearted and restore those in grief and pain.
Jesus has authority in our lives because Jesus is willing to be present in our lives. The incarnation is the wondrous story of Christ coming among us as one of us – sharing our joys and our sorrows. Wherever two or more gather in his name, Jesus is with them. He comes to us in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. His promise is sure: “I am with you always, to the end of time.” We trust Jesus because he shows up for us – and because he knows us.
Jesus earns authority by loving us: Constantly, compassionately, unconditionally. There is no quid pro quo with Jesus. There is no “I’ll love you if you do this for me.” One who is consistently compassionate commands our devotion.
Jesus shows authority in our lives by forgiving us. Once a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by his friends. Jesus said to the man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Some who were present were outraged, saying, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They doubted his authority. Jesus replied, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins – he said to the man who was paralyzed “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” And he did. To be forgiven is to be set free. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Jesus has authority in our lives by challenging us. And he challenges us by giving us authority. Jesus gives the authority to teach and to love and to forgive – and he challenges us to exercise this authority: At the last supper Jesus gives a new commandment “that you love one another as I have loved you.” His parting words in Matthew are a great commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you!” Jesus shares his authority with all who believe in him.
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I began by saying there are two motives for questioning authority. The first is serious doubts about the character, the competence and the intentions of those in authority. By the way he lived and loved, by his death and resurrection – Jesus removed all such doubts. The other reason to question authority is the desire to be truly free. In Jesus we discover the meaning of genuine freedom. To know his grace and truth is to be set free from all that would oppress us – free from sin and death. When Jesus sets us free, we are free indeed.
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We know from experience that at times it can be both appropriate and necessary to question human authority. I hope that experience has led you to know and to trust and to embrace the gracious authority of Jesus.