Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Power or authority? Lording or serving?

Sermon for Pentecost 17, proper 20B, preached on Sunday, September 23, 2012.

    It sometimes seems like the Church is powerless in the face of her enemies.  Many have lamented that Christianity is like a toothless tiger with a big roar but no bite.  Some Christians are frustrated that our Lord and our faith are kicked around like old garbage in the media, in the Middle East, and by our own government.  We often wish we had power to force people to respect us and take our faith seriously.  Have you felt that way?  I know that I have.
    Power, however, is a worldly thing.  It is of limited supply.  It must be jealously guarded.  It can never be shared or it will diminish.  It can never be given up or surrendered.  Authority, however, is the nature of the kingdom of God. Authority is not taken but given and conferred.  It is given away and multiplied in the process.  It manifests itself not in being served but in serving others.  Jesus insists that the kingdom of God is not one of power but one of authority.  Jesus not only speaks of this but demonstrates it.
    Jesus never claims His own authority.  He claims only what the Father has given Him... to speak and to do.  The words are the Father's and the works are the Father's.  Most of all Jesus does what is the duty of the lowest of servants.  He washes the feet of His disciples.  He eats with sinners.  He welcomes children.  Most of all He demonstrates His authority by suffering and dying in our place.  It is this authority which He has bequeathed to His Church and those who would serve her.  Remember Matthew 28 when, after His resurrection, He sends forth His Church saying “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me... go, baptize, teach...”  Or the Easter evening ordination of John 20 when Jesus breathes His Spirit upon His disciples and gives them the authority to forgive and retain sin.
    Jesus' disciples did not understand such power.  I am not sure that we understand it any better.  While they were arguing about power, Jesus was speaking of authority.  Later on while they were still arguing about power, Jesus insists that His disciples were not to exercise power – like the Gentiles whose rulers lorded it over others.  Here is the issue.  We are still arguing about power and missing the authority that Christ has given to His Church and His people.
    Every time Jesus disciples came across others who were preaching or doing miracles in Jesus' name, those disciples wanted Jesus to make them stop.  When a place did not hear the message of the kingdom, they wanted Jesus to rain down fire from heaven and destroy those people.  What they thought mattered most of all was a respect demanded of others and the power to make that respect happen.
    Power always operates by demand, threat, fear, and punishment.  It is the way of the Law to demand obedience, to threaten wrong doers, to make the people fear and to punish those who fail.  It is the way of the Law but that Law earned us nothing.  We were left condemned and marked for death.  The Law could not redeem.  It could only punish. 
    People who act by the Law insist upon everything that is their right or their due.  They demand that people treat them in a certain way.  They insist that with respect others serve them.  This is the way Israel saw God – the only way.  He was a God who must be obeyed or else.  They feared His power and so they served Him.  But power can never create love.  The Law can make us obey but it cannot force us to love.  This is why Jesus condemned them for an external righteousness but an empty heart inside.
    The authority of Jesus is the authority borne of His service to us and for us.  In the kingdom of God everyone is of equal value – kings and commoners, adults and children, men and women, rich and poor.  The least is just as important as the greatest.  The test of love is not how you treat the powerful but how you treat the weakest and most vulnerable.  The authority of Jesus never demands service but it always serves.  Just as Jesus who insists He has not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  The Church has this authority to serve in Jesus' name those not yet of the Kingdom.  The Church exercises this authority by preaching the Gospel of the cross, by forgiving sins in Jesus’ name, by administering the sacraments of His institution, and by doing the works of mercy which Christ has done for us.  In the same way each Christian has this baptismal vocation of worship, witness, service, mercy works, and sacrifice.
    We should not be hearing people demand their rights or compete for place.  In the Church we gladly give up what is our right to serve and compete instead for the privilege of serving others as Christ has loved and served us.  We so easily forget this and choose instead to take up some earthly power while forsaking the very authority Christ died to confer upon us – the authority to proclaim the Kingdom and to forgive one another in Jesus name.  We dare not exchange this heavenly authority to forgive sins for puny power that must be constantly attended to or it will be lost and we left with nothing at all.
    This whole thing is illustrated in this way.  In the Church a bishop can always acolyte but an acolyte cannot never presume to be a bishop.  Those of higher office can always serve in a lower office but those of a lower office cannot claim what has not be conferred upon them.  The greater the office, the greater the burden of service.  This is what the disciples missed and what we seem to miss far too often.
    Power is accompanied by expectations and demands that must be constantly enforced.  These are a crutch and a burden.  On the other hand, service is freedom and blessing.  Why do we Christians find ourselves lusting after the power we see wielded in the worldly realm but forget that the greater “power” in the authority of the Kingdom, the authority to forgive sins, to proclaim the cross, to love and show Christ's mercy to all people.  People will fear power but they love the authority to serve.  It may not be efficient or as effective in the short term but power is always fleeting and always temporary.  Only the authority borne of the cross is eternal.  Heaven and earth may pass away but the Word of the Lord and the authority of that Word endures forever.
    It is so easy to become frustrated by the seeming weakness of the authority of the Gospel and yet this is the greatest authority of all.  Jesus suffered and died to receive this authority to seek out us sinners, forgive us, and serve us with His lavish grace and favor. Now He confers it upon us.  Will we exchange this eternal authority of the Gospel for some earthly and temporary power?  Or will we glory in the authority of Christ that saves?

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