Authority—sermon for 27 August 2017
August 27, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
I don’t know how many of you ever watched the TV show South Park. You might remember seeing images of one of the characters—Eric Cartman—riding around on his big wheel screaming, “Respect my authority!”
Cartman was always trying to get people to respect his authority. It was comical because as perpetual 10 year old he had no real authority. He was a bully and a blowhard who constantly led the other kids into all kinds of trouble. He seemed to be utterly incapable of learning anything. But he demanded authority and occasionally got acquiescence in place of it.
Questions about authority—where it comes from, who has it, and why or why not—are all through today’s readings.
A new king has arisen in Egypt…that’s an announcement of authority…it’s traditional, hereditary authority, mixed with religious authority since the Pharaohs mediated between the gods and humans, and oversaw all state religious activity.
This new king wants people to respect his authority, but clearly that authority only goes so far…because things don’t go as planned…“the more the Israelites were oppressed,” we’re told, “the more they multiplied and spread.” “The more he tightens his grip, the more they slip through his fingers.” And Pharaoh’s increasing oppression leads some Egyptians to some not-so-subtle acts of resistances. The midwives say: “Oh, you know how those ‘foreign women’ are…they give birth so vigorously we just can’t get there in time.” It’s a classic form of resistance…publicly going along with it, but in private not really doing the work, or only doing the bare minimum, or dragging your feet—those of you who have raised teenagers are undoubtedly familiar with these kinds of resistance… (those of you who have ever been a teenager, might remember those techniques as well).
Pharaoh exerts power to claim authority, but authority isn’t the same thing as power. They’re related but they’re not the same. Authority might sometimes be claimed, but more often it is something granted—authority is relational—it’s “a legitimate or socially approved use of power.” The reason I get to stand up here in these lovely and odd clothes is because you all, in calling me, and the church at large, in ordaining me, has granted me a certain authority: the authority to preside at the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, the authority to pronounce the church’s blessing, the authority to absolve sins…but I can’t do any of that on my own or by my self. Any real authority emerges from a relationship and must be enacted within a community.
I imagine that those of you who grew up in a Roman Catholic tradition know this passage as the primary support for the authority of the papacy. For a very long time, Roman Catholic teaching was that Jesus, in saying “on this rock I will build my church,” and giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, was establishing the papacy, with Peter as the first Pope and all the authority that came with it was transferred down to each succeeding Pope.
Those of you who grew up in more Protestant traditions, might have heard this mentioned, but were then told that the Catholics got it wrong, and Jesus wasn’t talking about Peter himself, but about Peter’s faith (or his testimony that Jesus was the Christ) and THAT was the rock upon which the church would be built. And still others are probably wondering why any of this matters…isn’t this the kind of arcane theological stuff that makes people want to run away from church? The point is, we ascribe authority differently depending on our relationships and our communal commitments.
But there’s something else really interesting about the way Jesus’ authority as the messiah, the Son of the Living God,”—and Peter’s authority as the designated spokesperson—gets articulated here. It’s important to note that this conversation with the disciples takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi, in other words, this is the regional headquarters of the Empire…the place where the power and the authority of the emperor…is strongest. And it’s in the heart of this imperial authority that Jesus starts probing about this Son of Man figure…the Messiah…who do people expect this figure to be? And there’s naturally some disagreement, Elijah, John the baptist, Jeremiah or another prophet…then he asks “But who do you—the disciples—say that I am?” And Peter, speaking on behalf of all of them sort of blurts out, …”You are the Messiah. The Christ.” What’s interesting…is what Jesus says next: “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.” See, everyone, especially the religious authorities, have been trying to figure out for months where Jesus’ authority comes from, but it’s not something you can figure out…Peter hasn’t deduced this…it’s a response that emerges from a revelation…it bubbles up from the deep trust born from a long standing relationship within a community. Jesus’ authority is not conferred, or ascribed, or passed down, it is revealed. It is revealed to each of us in time.
Suzanne Guthrie, an Episcopal priest who writes the wonderful blog called “at the edge of enclosure” wrote of her own experience of this revelation in her reflection this week.
She says, “I raged. I paced. I muttered under my breath and aloud. I sat in the back pew of church with a dark cloud over my head. I left. I came back. I muttered some more.
What kind of a Christian can’t fit Christ into the landscape? I had no problem with Jesus the rabbi, walking “the dusty roads of Galilee.” But after the crucifixion? Resurrection appearances? Ascension? The Christ of the Church? The Cosmic Christ? No. I don’t think so.
And yet. And yet. Something drew me to Christianity. To church. To community. To prayer, now getting quite intense. To study […]
I met the Divine Presence in solitude and silence. In dark, loving, holy nothingness. Without words, images, agenda.
I stole those moments. I used to pray after dropping the children off at day care and the church nursery school. I had, say, twenty minutes to meditate in silence in the sanctuary before taking off […] to go to class.
But once, a set of words floated up from deep inside.
“Who do you say that I am?”
I knew the answer.
You are the Christ.
“One day,” she concludes, “in the most mundane way, the question comes from beyond bone and marrow from the depth of the soul: Who do you say that I am? [And] When this moment of consciousness comes, this utterly surprising breakthrough, you are given the keys to the kingdom.”
It just happens. Sometimes when you least expect it. Probably Peter didn’t expect it…I imagine Peter might have been the most surprised one of all. After all, what authority did he have to make such pronouncements? None. Except this deep, ongoing, never-quite-what-you-think-it-is relationship with Jesus.
What authority do we have to speak the Gospel…to spread Good News in this world with so many Pharaohs and Caesars demanding our attention and our allegiance? What authority do we have to act as Christ’s hands, and heart, and feet in the world? None. Except what has been revealed to us in the breaking of the bread, in the hearing of the Word, in the gathering prayer of the community.
The powers of this world…the princes and the potentates…they often confuse power with authority. They have power to be sure, but their authority is always limited, time and term bound, and often easily resisted or rejected. God on the other hand has authority that is absolute, eternal, and utterly irresistible. As Christians we don’t need to insist that anyone respect our authority, we must simply be open to the irresistible authority of God as revealed to us, and ready to respond when that question bubbles up from the depth…Who do you say that I am?