The Crisis of Authority Deut 18:15-20; Ps 111; 1 Cor 8; Mark 1:21-28
Moses prophesied to a rebellious Israel in the wilderness; ““The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me…it is to him you shall listen—” (Deut 18:15; Ex 32; Num 14). That insubordinate generation had much in common with our Australian attitude to authority. Despite the scriptural teaching that all authority comes from God (Rom 13:1) Australians disregard their politicians; treat old people as an inconvenience instead of a life-resource, children treat parents as out of date and rare is that husband who exercises his God-given leadership in a marriage. In the shadow of Australia Day we must confess that as a nation we delight in opposing all forms of authority and God Almighty has handed us over to our own choices (Rom 1:18-24). If we would ever see our nation restored to righteousness and the Church empowered once again to take a moral lead in the land we must experience a restoration of godly authority in our midst. This can only come from a new experience of the authority of Jesus.
Authority on Earth
This is the first public response to Jesus’ ministry; ““they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes….And they were all amazed…saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”” (Mark 1:22; 27). If authority is the right to command then Jesus always manifested limitless authority. He heals a cripple with the astounding explanation, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins””; and at the stilling of the storm on Lake Galilee the disciples exclaim with amazement, ““What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”” (Mark 2:10-11; Matt 8:27). Those who were exposed to the authority of the Lord knew they were in the presence of someone greater than themselves. When the religious leaders in Jerusalem sent soldiers to arrest Jesus they returned empty handed with this report, ““No one ever spoke like this man!”” (John 7:46). To hear the voice of Jesus was to hear the voice of the Creator of heaven and earth, a voice that spoke with infinite holiness and limitless loving kindness (Gen 1:1; John 1:1 ff.). It was to be in the presence of the voice which created all things good and beautiful in their time (Gen 1:31; Eccl 3:11). The crowds hear Jesus “gladly” because they sensed that for the first time in their lives they were in the presence of an authority that only wanted to do them good (Mark 12:37; Acts 10:38). Who would not want to hear this voice and to submit to this will?
In saying ““The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”” (John 14:10) Jesus pointed away from himself to the Father as the source of his authority. Jesus possessed unlimited authority because as God made man he obeyed the Father in all things. He submitted to the call to be baptised, he was responsive to the Spirit’s urgings to go and fast for 40 days in the wilderness (Mark 1:9-13). His authority to command nature and humanity flowed from his own obedience to the Father. Whilst the demonic powers grasped this intuitively only one person in the Gospels seems to have truly understood it (Mark 1:24).
A Roman centurion with a paralysed servant said to Jesus; ““Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!””(Matt 8:8-10). The Lord was astounded this man possessed the spiritual insight to understand that the source of his own authority was to be under the authority of the Father. Jesus unashamedly confesses, ““I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”” (John 15:10) and ““the Father is greater than I”” (John 14:28). It was Christ’s constant recognition of the all surpassing greatness of God the Father that released the unlimited authority of heaven on earth. Yet submission involves sacrifice.
The Authority of Sacrifice
It was recently the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. His famous oratory, “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”, is so powerful because the “we” is genuinely inclusive. Churchill embodied a willingness to fight for England at whatever cost. Human beings intuitively understand that suffering for the good of others communicates real love. That’s why ANZAC Day is far more meaningful to us than Australia Day. The key to the power and presence of the Father in Jesus’ life was his willingness to sacrifice everything for the kingdom of God; “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18).
The climax of Christ’s authority will come in the triumph over death through resurrection. No religious figure, no political leader no philosopher has ever manifested this authority. ““I have authority to lay it (my life) down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”” (John 10:18). In the resurrection of Jesus the human crisis over the source and ultimate goodness of authority has come to a complete end. By the authority of his sacrifice Jesus has triumphed for us over the worst evil powers; “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same nature, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb 2:14-15). These realities should leave us puzzling deeply; what has happened to the manifest authority of Jesus in our churches?
Christ’s hearers were amazed at his messages but the most potent response we are likely to hear today is; “I enjoyed your sermon.” A naughty friend of mine always responds to these comments by saying, “How is the message going to change your life?” When Peter preached forgiveness in Jesus’ name his hearers repented of their sins were filled with the Holy Spirit and became avid disciples (Acts 2:28-47; 10:43ff.). In Australia each Sunday thousands hear a declaration of forgiveness but nothing much seems to change. What is wrong?
Jesus supplies the answer, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.”” (John 7:17-18). Since there is so little display of the glory of God across the churches we must speaking on our own authority; in more contemporary churches this takes the form of relying on the charismatic and visionary authority of the leader, in more traditional congregations there is an expectation that “the Church” as an institution will come up with some solution to its own decline. The presence of the power of God will only ever come upon us when we turn away from ourselves to Jesus. The name “Anglican”, or “St X” has no authority in the spiritual realm, only the name of Jesus.
I am reminded of a story about the famous English evangelist George Whitfield who drew open air crowds of up to 20,000 people to hear his compelling sermons. Faced one day with an apathetic audience he confronted them directly “If I had come to speak to you in my own name, you might well rest your elbows on your knees, and your heads on your hands, and sleep; and once in a while look up, and say, What is this babbler talking of? But I have not come to you in my own name. No! I have come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts” (here he brought down his hand and foot with a force that made the building ring), and I must, and will be heard.” He went on preaching with his characteristic effectiveness. We have lost touch with the authority in the name of Jesus. If Jesus is “Lord of the harvest” where are his converts, if he is Lord of the Sabbath why do his followers suffer from anxiety (Mark 2:28; Luke 10:2)?
Appearing as risen from the dead Jesus spoke to a very mixed crowd of disciples, some “worshiped him, but some doubted”, his words however possessed complete clarity to resolve uncertainty ; ““All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:17-20). Jesus delegates his authority to us so that we may speak with authority to others teaching them to obey. We will teach others to obey to the exact degree we ourselves obey Christ. This is the sticking point across the Church today; we fear the consequences of obeying a crucified Lord. In my attempts at obeying Christ I have been judged, foolish, irrational, intemperate and cruel to family, received anonymous vilifying letters, left without a place to attend church, stripped of position and income and various other things. Through such small things I have learned more and more to live as a man under the authority of my crucified and risen Lord To die with Jesus to reputation, comfort, financial gain and all such things is always to know his authority more and more.
It is plain that this diocese, and St Matthew’s as a representative congregation, is at a crucial junction of its existence. To adhere to all the old forms of respect and authority will lead to a natural death. Another form of death invites us; to die with Christ to everything but reliance on his power is painful but the outcome is sure- the release of the authority of the Lord of all (Acts 10:36).