By What Authority?

The Rev. John Scott Trotter
St. Stephen’s, Blytheville; Calvary, Osceola
Proper 21A
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Today, the Hebrews are in Rephidim, thirsting, and once again complaining. Once again they are questioning Moses: Why did you bring us out to die of thirst?

Sounds like last week: Why did you bring us out to starve? And the story just before that: Why did you bring us out to die of thirst?

All of these complaints evoke the memory of the Hebrew asking Prince Moses, Who are you to rule and judge us? And of course, you remember Moses at the burning bush asking God all those “what if the people …” questions. At this point they seem prophetic. And although we don’t actually hear the phrase until Deuteronomy, from the very beginning it seems the Hebrews show they are a stiffed-necked people. In essence, they are always questioning Moses’ authority—andGod’s authority?

This morning’s Gospel story opens with the chief priest and the elders asking Jesus, “Who gave you authority?”

Not much has changed. In fact, the question of church authority has rung loud through the ages in the church. Much of Acts is devoted to the Apostles working out questions of authority. Many of the letters discuss issues of authority. The great councils of the early church dealt with questions of authority. For instance, the First Council in Nicaea dealt with the authority of bishops in their areas of responsibility. A later council dealt with authority among Bishops: Who is bishop of bishops? A question eventually settled by the Western Church picking the Bishop of Rome to be first among Bishops.

The history of the Church of England is replete with issues of authority. From Augustine’s arrival it was an open question: Was the King or the Bishop (the Pope) the head of the Church in England? That particular issue of authority was settled by Henry VIII, in what turns out to be the Reformation in England.

To this day, the monarch is the head of the Church of England. The history of the Reformation, on the continent, reveals authority moving from the Pope to different clergy, and eventually, in some places, to lay people. There is a similar movement of the authority of governance. Once solely vested in monarchs, then beginning with the Magna Carta and later the American and French Revolutions, we see the authority of governance move to the people.

In seminary I wrote a paper about the shift of authority from very hierarchal forms of church governance to structures that to varying degrees saw more and more authority within the gathered people of God, who then selected people to bear the responsibility of exercising authority. The paper essentially placed authority in the midst of the people. It was a well-researched, carefully argued paper. At least I thought it was. The only comment my professor wrote was I thought all authority came from God. And that brings us back to the Gospel story.

The chief priest and the elders ask Jesus, “… by what authority …?” Jesus does not answer their question. His reply is a question about the baptism of John the Baptist and a parable. It’s a tale of two brothers. The first is asked to go work in the fields. He says no, then later changes his mind and goes to work in the fields. The other brother is also asked to go work in the fields. He says yes, and later changes his mind and does not go into the fields. We all know the answer to Jesus’ question about doing God’s will is the first brother. A gleaning from this parable in the context of a question about authority is that we know who has authority by seeing who does God’s work. This gleaning also applies to civic governance when we hear Paul proclaim all governance is established by God for the people of God, which we know is all humanity.

We have established we know who is operating with legitimate authority, God’s authority, by seeing who is doing God’s work. Of course this raises the issue of just what is God’s work? When we step back from this Gospel story and look at the Gospel as a whole, we readily see God’s work is Jesus ministry to heal the sick, etc and proclaim the Kingdom of God is near. Matthew ends his Gospel account with Jesus commissioning the disciples to “go make disciples of all nations.” Luke records Jesus sending the disciple out to heal the sick and proclaim “The Kingdom of God is near.” As baptized Christians, we are heirs of the disciples’ commission to be stewards of Christ’s ministry. It is important to note we are NOT stewards of the Old Testament prophetic traditions. The Christian calling to be stewards of Christ ministry is all about, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, lothing the naked, and proclaiming The Kingdom of God is near.

In summary, all legitimate authority comes from God. We recognize legitimate authority in that it results in the sick being healed, the hungry feed, the naked clothed etc, and the Kingdom of God being proclaimed. And all that can and does manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Nonetheless, that’s the fundamental criteria.

A closing note. Admittedly this has been an quick exploration of legitimate authority. However, it also reveals that the fundamental criteria of stewardship is our charge to carry on Christ’s ministry, not responsibility for money, or more crassly, funding a congregation’s expenses.

I rather suspect that as we more and more deeply understand both stewardship and authority as expressions of The Kingdom of God, the more our lives will be transformed, and those around us will be invited into the transforming presence of God.