Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore, M.D. at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, January 29, 2012
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.
‘For he taught as one having authority’…. and ‘At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.’ And spread it did…here we are today!
Who was this Jesus and why did his fame spread? And what about his authority? It is important to remember that this gospel reading occurs in the first chapter of Mark – Jesus is just beginning his ministry. So people don’t really know who he is. If we put it in context, there is this outsider who comes in, unknown, and claims ‘authority.’ What is authority?
Webter’s New International Dictionary defines authority as ‘legal or rightful power; a right to command or to act; power exercised by a person in virtue of his office or trust.’ It also says authority is dominion, jurisdiction, or authorization. It comes from the Latin word auctoritas.
Let’s consider authority for a minute. What are examples of authority in our lives? Parents come quickly to mind. Parents’ authority is absolute, at least for younger kids. After all, the parents brought them into the world, fed them, provided shelter, comfort, and all forms of sustenance. It is only a little later that kids begin to question the authority of their parents.
Authority can be formalized. In England citizens curtsy or bow when they meet the Queen or another member of the royal family. It is done out of respect for the office and for the individual. Authority and respect go hand in hand. Some of our presidents, reportedly, have exercised the custom of never entering the oval office without having on a coat and tie – a sign of their respect for the office, the oval office, and the presidency.
Consider another form of authority. I had an interaction with a policeman this week who exercised his authority. I did nothing wrong, mind you. But my vehicle broke down and I pulled it as far over as I could, almost but not fully out of the traffic lane. It wasn’t good enough for him and he berated me for ten minutes about how I could have done it better. Because I knew he had the power over me and my situation, I didn’t argue with him. He had the authority even thought he didn’t treat me well. And in the realm of authority figures not treating people well there is the authority of national leaders, think the Arab Spring and the authorities treating people badly because they are in charge, because they can.
Worldly authority is not always well respected. This week President Barak Obama had Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona in his face wagging her finger at him over immigration policies. The news media had a heyday with it. The office of the President of the United States and the individual Barak Obama were not being respected. An affront to his authority.
On the other end of that spectrum, when I was in college and medical school, I respected my professors because of their knowledge, what they could impart to me. They were authority figures because of their learnedness. We grant authority because of the office or due to the characteristics of the individual.
There is the story of a former governor of Massachusetts, Christian Herter who was running hard for a second term of office. One day, after a busy morning of chasing votes and no lunch he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and he was famished. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said.
“Sorry,” the woman replied again. “Only one to a customer.”
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around.
“Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.” Authority comes in lots of sizes and shapes! And earthly authority is relative.
When we grant authority to someone it is because we value them either because of their position or as an individual. The Bishop, the Dean, the Vicar, the Mayor, the Governor, a professor. We respect them because of their position, and hopefully also because of their substance, their character, their mettle. You may not always agree with their decisions but as persons of position and personal integrity we respect them. This consideration of authority is not given lightly; it is earned and must be lived into. The authority of a political leader, the authority of a religious leader, or the authority of a local official – they are all granted authority by our social interchange.
But the authority of Jesus is different. Way different. And people knew that. People knew that Jesus was the real deal. In our gospel story today the unclean spirit residing in the man in the synagogue knew who Jesus was ‘I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ The Holy One of God. Pretty good authority. Authority and respect and trust. Pretty absolute in Jesus.
Jesus’ authority was different. It was threefold. First and foremost He was the Son of God. And that was recognized by the unclean spirit mentioned in our gospel story today. There are many other similar stories in the gospels of Jesus being recognized thus. When he called the disciples Simon and Andrew, as we heard in last week’s gospel, they knew there was something different about this guy and ‘immediately left their nets and followed him.’ He was baptized by John in the River Jordan, the dove came down and the voice thundered, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Pretty clear lines of authority there.
Second He was a learned rabbi, teacher. He had studied the Torah, knew the Jewish scriptures and ‘taught as one with authority.’ What it must have been like to sit at his feet and listen to him expound on the Hebrew Scriptures. Talking about the psalms. Applying the lessons to real life.
And third, He was an outstanding human being who practiced charity and demonstrated love like no one before or since. The woman caught in the act of adultery – let the one with out sin cast the first stone. Turn the other cheek. Forgive not seven times but seven times seventy. And he served by serving. Washing the disciples’ feet. ‘I came not to be served but to serve’ he tells us. Servant leadership. He led by example, praying to the Father.
One way to look at it is that Jesus’ authority is best validated by his legacy. Look at this track record. One person who only lived thirty-three years, gathered a group of twelve followers, was put to death, rose again, wasn’t a CEO of a major corporation, founded a faith that persists two thousand years later and has had countless adherents. Currently it is estimated there are 2 billion Christians in the world. God only knows how many over the millennia. This church has weathered persecutions, schisms, theological disputes, political disputes, and time. Based on one guy two thousand years ago!
Historians and sociologists can’t explain well why the rise and endurance of Christianity, despite the odds, occurred. It is not logical. It doesn’t make sense, and it certainly isn’t rational.
I can’t explain why you come to church most Sundays for a tiny sip of wine and sliver of bread that doesn’t quench your thirst or relieve your hunger pangs. I can’t explain why many of you come to the Eucharist on Wednesdays or attend Noonday Prayer here daily. I can’t explain why people pray to Jesus and are rescued from the clutches of depression or addiction. I can’t explain why sitting and meditating for twenty minutes in quiet does something to our psyche beyond description. I can’t explain why miracles occur. I can’t explain why I came back from the Holy Land a different person and became a priest. I can’t explain why the phrase ‘the peace that passes all understanding’ is such a powerfully true phrase that sustains. I can’t explain, it doesn’t make sense…
Unless this Jesus of Nazareth is truly who they said He was. The Son of God. The triple authority figure. A person of servant leadership, learned rabbi/teacher, and truly God Incarnate. His fame spread from then and there to here and how.
Who is Jesus? What is his authority? Why do we talk about Him? Here we all are… I can’t explain it rationally, it doesn’t make logical sense, unless… Son of God means just that!