Where Does Authority Come From
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Mark 1: 21 – 28. Focus: Where does authority come from and what does leadership look like today. Check out the Rasaan Bourke & The First Presbyterian Church Choir.
When I went to college there was a button that many of us used to wear that said, “Question Authority”. It was pinned to backpacks and denim jackets on and off campus giving notice to those who thought they possessed it by title that we wouldn’t follow what they said like unquestioning lemmings. I haven’t seen that button in a long time. In fact I get a sense that most people would like to wear a button that said, “Whatever Happened To Authority?”
We hear about the breakdown of authority all over our country from the halls of congress to the classroom of our schools. Whatever happened to authority? And this question takes us back to a place called Capernaum where we are told that Jesus entered a synagogue and taught and all who heard him were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.
What is it about Jesus that makes people sense authority? How did they recognize his authority and what was so compelling about it? And to be honest we don’t know. Not a single word of Jesus’ teaching is remembered to us from his visit to the synagogue. What is remembered is that his teachings surpassed the teachings of those who were supposed to be the very people who had the religious authority in his day.
The scribes could claim the authority of knowing the written words that had been passed down throughout Israel’s history. They had the authority of tradition. They had the prestige of position and power. And yet Jesus taught with more authority than all of them. Something about his message was more compelling and more authentic to those who heard him than everything that the religious leaders of his day had to offer. And as we keep listening to the story we also keep hoping that Mark’s gospel will reveal the answer of his authority.
And then suddenly, a mad man interrupts us. Right in the middle of the service, perhaps in the middle of Jesus sermon, we hear a wild voice, disruptive, disjointed, crazy man cry. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Jesus comes down from the pulpit, departing from whatever text he had, and confronts the man, or rather the voice: “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, crying with a loud voice, came out of the man. And that’s it. Evidence that Jesus’ authority was recognized by a crazy man and that’s what we’re left with time and again in Mark’s gospel. Those who were crazy called him the Holy One; those who were sane put him to death.
You see in Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is the content of the teaching. His authority does not lie in a particular speech, but in this particular life. Jesus lived as one who had authority, an authority radically different form that of tradition and practice. Different from what had been expected. To understand this authority we must not only listen to what he says, but probably more importantly we must look at how he was with others.
When we see Jesus we see someone eating with tax collectors and sinners; we see Jesus healing on the Sabbath day, silencing the scribes’ objection not with an answer but a question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” We see Jesus out and about in the neighborhoods and homes of others not isolated behind the walls of the local synagogue or church.
In Jesus we see someone willing to be moved by the faith of a Syrophoenician woman, an outsider who dared to argue with him for the healing of her daughter. In him we see someone who admits to the limits of his own knowledge concerning the end of time: “Of that day or of that hour no one knows, … not even the son, but only God.”
Even when he’s standing in silence before Pilate we sense that he’s the one with the authority. And it’s this radically different kind of authority, which compels us to re-examine what authority means for us in the church. Jesus didn’t give us a systematic guidebook on authority. But in his life, we have seen and heard clues of how his authority was made known in the world.
And if we are not moved to clear answers we are at least moved in a clear direction. The authority of Jesus moves us towards inclusion rather than exclusion. Those invited into Jesus’ fellowship included tax collectors, sinners, poor widows, and prostitutes, little children as models of the reign of God and foreigners as models of faith.
We must therefore be suspicious of any religious authority that moves us towards exclusion. We must also be suspicious of any inclination that says that all we have to do is open our doors and expect others to come in at the expense of getting out and about in our neighborhoods.
Theologian and poet Gerhard Frost speaks to this in his poem “Loose-Leaf”. “When your options are either to revise your beliefs or to reject a person, look again. Any formula for living that is too cramped for the human condition cries for rethinking. Hardcover catechisms are a contradiction to our loose-leaf lives.”
Jesus’ authority cannot be contained on a button of any size. It cannot be reduced to a slogan or a tract. Nor is Jesus’ authority a word to hurl at our opponents. Jesus is the content of his teaching. We must pay attention to his whole life and listen even to his silence. Because authority comes from a life lived with integrity and direction. For us who claim the label Christian we are called to do live in like fashion. Amen