Many years ago, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball with my brother-in-law, Bruce, and I actually made a fairly decent half-court shot. I’d given the ball a pretty enthusiastic heave, causing it to thunder against the backboard before dropping through the net. Bruce smiled at me and gave me the compliment, “With authority!”
Authority? What is that exactly? In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4, Year B in the RCL (Mark 1:21-28) Jesus is said to teach with authority. Webster’s Dictionary gives a boatload of definitions for this word. It can mean the power to command (which Jesus certainly has in this passage), or the reliability of information, or self-assurance and expertness among other uses.
These days, I’m more than a little concerned about “authority” being used as “reliability.” If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a pretty intense attack made against the whole notion of reliable, authoritative information here in America. We keep hearing the term “Fake News,” and a lot of folks are wondering just who to believe these days.
Once upon a time, the church and clerics like my own dear self were considered “authority,” but in the current culture any boob with a computer can become an “ordained” minster with a few mouse clicks on some website. When the Westboro Baptist Church spews its hateful, homophobic poison, when TV evangelists preach more about wealth than compassion, and when we are still feeling the stinging pain of the sexual abuse of children by men who were supposed to be their spiritual guardians, who wants to locate authority in the church or its pastors?
For us as Christians, of course, there’s only one source of authority and that’s Jesus Christ. Jesus is our reliable norm and compass because of who he is and what he has done. The folks in the gospel story call him authoritative because he doesn’t just parrot old doctrine but speaks from his heart. And he proves his authority by what he does.
The Bible—which is our authority because it has revealed Jesus to us—tells of Jesus as a healer and one who casts out evil spirits. We also see him as one who breaks barriers of ethnicity, gender bias, and social class. We see him as a generous feeder of the multitude. We seem him as one who is willing to die in order to speak truth to the powers of this world. We see him act with humility. We see him encourage faith. We see him forgive enemies and heal with his words of forgiveness those who are tormented by their own sins. Because we have seen him living a life of love which speaks truth to our hearts, we want to listen to what he says. His deeds give weight to his words.
If I have any authority within my own congregation, it’s only because I have spent time here, taken time to get to know people, been present at significant moments in their lives, been patient during times of worry, and have convinced them that I genuinely love them. If my actions haven’t proven my integrity, my seminary degree and clerical vestments won’t either.
We in the church always have an opportunity to reclaim authority, but we can only do it by recognizing that all authority comes from Christ. When I stand at the font during the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, I can only repeat the words, “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Christian is as Christian does. We are called to be healers. We are called to be champions of forgiveness. We are called to speak for the poor and the ones left outside of society. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter, the homeless, welcome the stranger, protect the earth, and be givers of hope. If we can do all those things, the world will know that what we say is real.