By What Authority?

Jesus the Woodworker

“Jesus in the Workshop,” detail of the Resurrection Window at All Souls, Harry Wright Goodhue, 1929.

To hear the sermon, please click here.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, and Mark 6:1-13.

A few years ago, as I was working with a couple to plan their wedding, one of them asked about a part of the wedding service that he didn’t see in our draft. To him, an important phrase was missing and, especially since he wanted family and friends to understand the full weight of what we were doing, he asked if it could be included. When I asked him what was missing, he said, “I really like the part where a minister says ‘by the power vested in my by the state of ____, I now pronounce you married. That’s especially important to us that our families understand the full legal aspects of what they’re witnessing.” “Of course,” I told him, “we can include that,” and we did. But until then, I hadn’t really thought much about our NOT including it in most weddings.

We all know that phrase, “by the power vested in me by the State of Wherever,” from television and movies and many weddings we have attended. But if one looks into it, it’s difficult to trace its origin. It’s not in any Book of Common Prayer, and its exact phrasing seems to vary. In fact, in 2010 when Erwin and I were married by the officer of the DC Superior Court, the officiant actually said, “Under and by the virtue of the authority conferred upon me as clerk of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, by the Congress of the United States, I now pronounce you legally married.” This seemed wonderfully ironic, given the composition of our Congress then and now.

“By whose power?” is a question that has been discussed in the media especially since the Supreme Court’s ruling last week on marriage equality. And it’s really a question of authority. The question is really: “Who gives you the right? Who allows you?” And “By what authority?”

Though July 4th celebrates the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution has been very much in the news recently. The Supreme Court has been, and continues to be, intensely interested in constitutional authority. Though I’m out of my field when I try to understand legal theory, I know that some of the court’s justices want to preserve what they believe to be the “original meaning of the constitution.” Whether the judge is an originalist, a constructionist, or a textualist– don’t really know.

But what I recognize is a view of the constitution that is, in many ways, similar to the way some people view the scriptures. One believes that the authors of the constitution wrote the words they wrote and so “it means what it means.” Some believe that Moses wrote much of the Old Testament and that the New Testament gives us a verbatim, historical account of the life of Jesus. Again, they wrote what they wrote, and it means what it means. I can’t argue too much about a particular philosophy of law, but when it comes to Holy Scripture, I would want to begin the conversation by pointing out that we don’t worship a book, however “Good” the book might be. As John Westerhoff has beautifully put it, “Christianity is a religion of a person, Jesus Christ, and not a book. Jesus is the Word of God absolutely.”

Jesus himself was questioned about his authority. We overhear it in today’s Gospel. He was teaching in the synagogue and people were astounded. “Where did this man get all this?” they ask. “What is this wisdom…Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” Jesus doesn’t argue with them. He simply moves on, demonstrating that the source of his authority is from God. That authority is then given to the twelve disciples, and they channel God’s authority over unclean spirits and all kinds of other things.

Jesus, of course, was not alone is being asked to prove his authority. Our first reading reminds us of the prophet Ezekiel who had a connection to God that led him to do all sorts of strange things to illustrate God’s point to the people. Many just thought Ezekiel was crazy. But he was crazy-in-love with God and willing to go wherever God sent him and to do whatever God asked of him. God tells him, “Some will refuse to listen. Some will think you’re crazy as a loon. But whether they really listen or now, they’ll know they have had a prophet among them.” So God promises Ezekiel that God will put a “certain something” in the mouth of Ezekiel, in the his heart and in his mind so that if people are open at all, they will apprehend that here, in this man, there is something of God, something transcendent, something truly different.

The Apostle Paul was asked, “By what authority” do you do and say the things you do? Recall that earlier in life, Paul had actually persecuted Christians. And now, look at him, preaching about Jesus, trying to get people to follow Jesus. It’s easy to understand why some might doubt his authority. But Paul talks about his experience of God—of God’s miracles and of people who’ve had visions of God, but also of God’s miracle of working strength through Paul’s own weakness, of God’s wonder of creating power out of pain. Paul’s method of preaching and living—of always pointing to Christ—is an important piece in how we understand authority as Christians.

Our Episcopal Church, as part of the Anglican Tradition, holds a unique view on authority. Before the Church of England, at the Reformation, there were two views on authority. The Roman Catholic view understood that authority comes through scripture and through tradition, with an emphasis placed on tradition (meaning mostly the teachings of the Church and the interpretations of the Bishops).
Protestant Christians, on the other hand, like Calvin and Zwingli and others, believed that Scripture alone was the means of authority in the Church and that the meaning of scriptures should be interpreted through the Holy Spirit, not the traditions of any specific time or place. The Anglican genius was to strike a middle way.

Father Richard Hooker, in the 16th century, is credited with organizing this middle way in terms of a three-legged stool. As Westerhoff explains, “God’s revelation was, … to be both inside and outside of the Scriptures, guarded and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures are intended, Hooker attested, to be a living word and not a collection of dead letters. That is, the Scriptures (and tradition) are not self-explanatory but require the use of reason to determine their meaning.” (A People Called Episcopalians, p. 8) Reason is not worked out alone or individually, and there are no independent authorities. Rather, there is a single authority compose of three intersecting sources: the Scriptures being the normative source of authority and reason and tradition helping to understand and interpret.

When newcomers approach the Episcopal Church from either a more Catholic background or a more Protestant background, they are sometimes frustrated at the lack of clarity in our tradition around the hot-button issues of the day? But make no mistake, our church has opinions, and they are carefully formed after much prayer, study, and conversation. The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church has just finished its meeting and a number of decisions, guidelines, and policies have come out of that meeting. The church has given the green light to same-gender marriage and is now calling it marriage. This is perfect example of how an Anglican understanding of authority informs our decisions and shapes our lives. Scripture has been studied and wherever marriage is talked about, the passage has been studied in light of its culture, its time, and the perspective of those who have written down those scriptures. Traditional readings of the scriptures are taken into consideration—again, read carefully, looked at given the culture and moral environment in which they were shaped. Then, reason is brought to bear as historians, sociologists, medical experts, psychologist, and others are consulted. And finally, there’s the witness of faithful Christians, follows of Jesus Christ who seek to be his Body in the world—how are they witnesses to God’s Truth on this issue? All these various sources go into our understanding of authority. There is prayer, there is conversation, and there is voting, as we believe God’s Holy Spirit will inform each of those aspects of the decision-making.

The Episcopal Church is a tiny church in the grand scheme of religious movements, but the second part of today’s Gospel talks about the faithfulness of poverty, the grace of being small, little, and insignificant in the eyes of the world. There are those who will not listen to us. There are those (some of whom we may deeply love) who won’t understand or approve of us. But as Jesus told the faithful followers in his day, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust on your feet.” Go, keep witnessing to my love and power, calling all to turn again to the God of love. And with THAT authority, you will see miracles, healing, and even the Kingdom of God.

At the closing Eucharist of the General Convention yesterday, Bishop Michael Curry, our presiding bishop-elect, preached the sermon. Though he didn’t use that term, Bishop Curry preached about the ongoing authority of Jesus. He said,

[Jesus] came to show us how to become the human family of God. And in that ….is our hope and our salvation, now and unto the day of eternity. [He then quotes the writer Max Lucado, who says,] ‘…God loves you just the way you are, but he [doesn’t intend] to leave you that way.’ [And Bishop Curry concludes,] Jesus came to change the world and to change us from the nightmare that life can often be to the dream that God has intended from before the earth and world was ever made.

Thanks be to God for the gifts of scripture, tradition, and reason that point us again, and again to the living source of authority, power, and love, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, world without end. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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