Jan. 29, 2012 Epiphany 4 “The Bridge of Authority”

Just a few years ago, a tourist boat set out on an excursion, filled with cars and passengers on vacation. But when the boat left its port, the doors were not shut properly so that by the time they reached the open sea the water began to pour into the boat. Very soon there was a general panic, with people screaming, terrified, not knowing what to do.

All of a sudden, one man, not a crew member, just a person with a clear head, took charge. He was so calm that people looked to him with relief, reassured to have someone with authority to listen to. He directed the people on the upper deck to the lifeboats, and many people were saved who would have lost their way in the dark and the chaos. Then he went down below into the hold, where people were trapped as the water filled the boat. And this man made a human bridge of himself. Holding onto the ladder with one hand, and onto a part of the boat that was not yet underwater with his other hand, the people climbed across him to safety. When it was all over, they found that this man had drowned; in taking on the authority of helping others to safety he had given his own life.

When the synagogue leaders in Capernaum invited Jesus to teach, the first thing the listeners noticed was this: that Jesus’s teaching was nothing like the teaching of the scribes that they were used to hearing. It was the job of the scribes to study the Scriptures and to pass on the traditions and teachings that had been collected over the centuries. These people were used to coming to synagogue on the Sabbath – that would be our Saturday – to hear the Scripture reading and then a teaching that began something like this: “As Rabbi so-and-so once said…”

But when Jesus taught, they knew at once that here was something completely new. Jesus didn’t reflect on the word of God; he reflected the word of God, because he is the Word of God, and when he spoke the Word was a living thing, it had power, it had authority, like the voice of that man in the sinking boat. When Jesus spoke, people might be filled with hope or curiosity or anger or fear, but they would never have sat there fidgeting or reading the bulletin or checking their watch to see how much longer the service was. Whatever else Jesus did, I don’t think he ever bored anyone, and this day that we read about this morning was no exception. The synagogue was buzzing with amazement – who is this? What kind of teaching is this, teaching with authority? We’ve never heard anything like it before!

But it was not only the people who heard Jesus teach who were amazed. The spirit world was shaken, too. This voice of authority was a threat to them – a threat they had not faced before. Unlike the people in the synagogue, the demons knew who he was, they knew that here was the Son of God, and they knew that here was the one who could put an end to the hold they had on the people of this world. Here was the one who had come to make a bridge between the sinking ship of this broken and wounded creation and its Creator. Here was the only one by whom the creation could be saved from the darkness that threatened to engulf it. Here was the one by whom alone people could find their way to safety. Bad news for the demons, but very, very good news for us.

In everything that Jesus did, whether he was teaching or healing or casting out demons, because he was the one who was both man and God, he was making a bridge for us, a way for us to pass from sickness to health, from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy, from death to life. And he never let go for a second, until he had finished his work, even though it meant giving up his life. He held on with every ounce of his strength, with every breath in his body, until he had finished his work of bridge-building on the cross – not because he had to, not because he was forced to, but because he loved each one of us so much, and because we belong to him.

When the people in the synagogue at Capernaum recognized Jesus’s authority, whether they knew it or not, they were recognizing that they belonged to him. The word “authority” is related to our word “author” – one who writes stories or poems, one who creates something. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him – by grace you have been saved…For we are his workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.” That word that is translated “workmanship” can also be translated “poem” – so we could say truly that we are God’s poetry, we were made to be expressions of God’s beauty and goodness and truth and love.  We belong to him; and by his authority he became the bridge for us to climb to safety.

That is the good news, and the even better news is this: that at the darkest hour, when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross and when the demons were surely getting ready to party, the last stage of the bridge was finished. The connection was complete, and the power of death was destroyed, and Jesus himself became the first man to cross over the bridge into eternal life. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote: – and this is from a paraphrase version of the Bible called “The Message”

everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. 17He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. 18And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.

He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. 19So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. 20Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.”

Have you ever played with a strong magnet? If you touch a pin or to the magnet, of course it will be held by the magnetic force. And then, if you take another pin and touch it to the end of the first pin, it will be held onto that pin. If the magnet is strong enough, you can have an impressively long chain of pins, all held by the pull of the magnet, and that magnetic force will still work through the last pin on the chain. Jesus’s authority is a little bit like that, though of course infinitely stronger. Now that he has made a bridge from death to life, he passes his authority on to us, his church, so that we too become bridges. His makes his healing and his comfort flow through us to the people around us; he speaks his word through us – not because we are special, not because we have any power in and of ourselves, but because we are connected to him. We are part of the bridge of life, abiding in him like the branches that draw their life from the vine.

But the power is not only there for us to hold onto, to keep us safe; it’s a power to be shared, it’s a power that is made to flow not just to us, but through us. Through you, Jesus can reach out and hold onto another person if you reach out to them, not by your own power but by his power. As long as we stay a safe distance from the people around us, they will never know how strong the power of Jesus’s love is, just like the pins that lie outside the field of the magnet’s attraction.

This week, you and I are called to be conductors of Jesus’s authority, builders of his bridge of life and love, to someone in our lives. I’d like us all to take a few minutes of silence now and to ask the Holy Spirit who it is that he wants you to reach out to. It might be someone you love, someone you’ve known for a long time, it might be someone you hardly know, or someone you really don’t care for. Just ask him to show you. And as he brings a certain person to mind, let’s offer these brothers and sisters of ours up to him, asking God to answer clearly the cries of their hearts, that he alone can hear, and to make us the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in their lives this week.

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