February 1, 2015 – Something New
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After Jesus had called Peter and Andrew and James and John, they all went into the fishing village of Capernaum, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and Jesus preached a sermon. And besides that, he also cast an unclean spirit out of a man who was there. Everyone was pretty amazed, by what Jesus said and by what he did, and there was all kinds of muttering, everybody all flustered and excited and asking everybody else, “Who on earth is this man? This is a whole new kind of teaching – teaching with real authority.”
There was something in Jesus that the people of Capernaum had never seen before, some kind of authority that astonished them. Now, there are different kinds of authority. One kind of authority is an authority of power or control. The State Trooper whose flashing light you see in your rear view mirror has authority over you, because the state of New York has granted him the power to stop you and give you a ticket if you are driving faster than the speed limit, or if you run through a red light, or if you pass a stopped school bus, things like that, that are against New York state law.
The people of Capernaum, like all the inhabitants of Judea and Galilee and the surrounding regions, were pretty well acquainted with that kind of authority. Power and control were nothing new to them. Not only did the High Priest and the Pharisees and the scribes exercise control over pretty much every area of Jewish life, but the whole nation had been under Roman rule since before any of them were born – the Roman legions had had Palestine under their thumb for nearly a century by that time. A man who held power over the people, a man whose presence filled them with fear, that wasn’t really anything new to them.
But another kind of authority has to do with knowledge rather than power. When we call someone an authority we often mean that he or she has extensive knowledge about something. My little granddaughter Aubrey had to be taken all the way to Burlington to find a doctor when she had seizures because that was the nearest they could find a pediatric neurologist, who is the authority, the one who has studied and who best understands, that kind of medical condition in children. We acknowledge all kinds of authorities in our modern era: teachers of math and science and grammar, financial advisors and weathermen and auto mechanics, all those people who know stuff.
In Capernaum in the first century life was quite a bit simpler: pretty much, the kind of knowledge people needed for daily life was knowledge of the Scriptures and the teachings and traditions and regulations of Judaism. And people knew where to look for that kind of authority, too. It was primarily the scribes whose authority they relied on, because it was the scribes whose job it was to study the intricacies of rabbinic teaching, and to understand the fine points of the Law, and to be thoroughly knowledgeable in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is our Old Testament. The scribes were highly respected authorities in that time and place.
But when the people heard Jesus teach, they knew at once that there was a difference. Here was something completely new. Powerful, yes, but not at all with the arrogant, bullying kind of power that the Roman legions exercised over the Jewish people. Jesus’ teaching filled them with awe; it didn’t make them cringe with fear.
And certainly he was knowledgable – clearly this teacher knew what he was talking about; he taught with truth and with wisdom, but it was nothing like the dry, scholarly teaching they were so used to hearing. This man taught with authority, yes, but somehow he isn’t at all like the scribes, they said to one another – not like any teaching, not like any authority, they had ever known. The difference was that authority belonged to Jesus, just because of who he is. “This is my beloved Son,” the Father proclaimed at the time of Jesus’ baptism, “This is the one in whom I delight.” That is the source of Jesus’ authority.
All human authority has to be acquired. The Romans seized Palestine by military conquest. Scribes and doctors and professors earn their claim to authority by years of intensive study. The State Trooper that pulled you over earned his authority through his training and hard work and the legal backing of the state whose laws he is enforcing. All human authority has to be seized and can be lost through human error or presumption or when some other human manages to acquire even greater authority that trumps the authority of the first.
Only the authority of Jesus Christ belongs to him by right, only he is truth and wisdom and power and strength in one man, not by conquest but by his very being. And on that day in Capernaum even the unclean spirit recognized that authority so that it had no choice but to obey his voice. Later on the wind and the waves of a great storm on the sea of Galilee heard that same voice and obeyed, stilling themselves instantly at his command. And on that day, once again, the disciples who were with him were astonished and asked one another, “What kind of authority is this? Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves obey him?”
But the most powerful proof of the authority of Jesus is that he didn’t hang onto it. Only true authority could be truly humble as he was, emptying himself of the glory and power that were rightly his, and, putting on the flesh and blood of real humanity, willingly taking on the role of servant to us all. “I didn’t come to be served, I came to serve,” Jesus told his disciples, who had a real struggle figuring out this whole authority thing. Real authority, real power, makes real sacrifice possible, because real authority gives freedom.”The Father loves me,” Jesus said, “because I lay down my life so that I may take it up again. No one takes my life away from me; I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
The people in Capernaum recognized that they were seeing and hearing something altogether new, something un-earthly, something that doesn’t belong to the kingdom of this world. “A new teaching – with authority – but nothing like any authorities we’ve ever known.” We who live on the other side of the cross and resurrection know what it was they saw. We who call ourselves Christians know that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, whose teaching they heard, was actually the Son of God. But what I think we don’t generally recognize is that the authority and the power that they saw in Jesus, the authority and the power we see in Jesus – they now belong to us as children of God, in whom the Spirit of Christ has made his home. It is almost scary to say that; it feels like I am claiming too much.
But I think our tendency is rather to claim too little, to see ourselves as less than we really are, as if we were being humble by denying who we really are. What if we really believe what John wrote: “To all those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” If we are children of God by right; not by any merit or virtue of our own, but purely through the good will and pleasure of the Father himself, that means we are called to speak and act in his authority. It means that the world has no real power over us. It means that when we pray, for healing or for comfort, or for help, we aren’t just sending up kind thoughts and concerned wishes; it means we pray in the full authority of the Spirit, with the full assurance that our prayers are heard by our Father. It doesn’t mean that our words and our actions are never foolish or weak or selfish or even wicked. But it does mean that we have, that we own at all times, the authority and the responsibility of being God’s children.
And if we follow Christ’s example, then what our sonship means above everything else in this world, is that we have the authority and the power to lay it all down: we are free to set aside our rights and our privileges and even our lives. It is because we have authority as children of God that we are completely free to forgive the sins of those who harm us, to release them from guilt and blame just as Jesus freely forgave those who nailed him to the cross. It is because we have authority as children of God that we are free to serve others instead of being served, that we can set aside our rights for the rights of others, that we can consider others more important than ourselves without being threatened or crushed or diminished in any way.
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” He was teaching us the kind of authority that we have as his followers and fellow citizens of the Kingdom. We walk in a world full of sorrows and pain and evil, just as he did. But we walk as free people, with authority, as he walked, to choose servanthood rather than trying to lord it over people, to choose forgiveness rather than vengeance, to choose to lay our lives down, because we know that we will take them up again just as he did.
There was an article in the Watertown Times this morning called, “Godless children turn out just fine”. The gist of the article is that children from the increasingly large percentage of homes that have no religious affiliation are actually turning out better than children from religious homes. And the conclusion drawn by the author is that the world has a better hold on morality than the church. And the thing is, that’s just fine. It’s something even the church keeps forgetting over and over, that our authority was never meant to lie in our rules and regulations. The world on its own might well come up with something like the Ten Commandments. The world loves rules and regulations, and rights and fairness, at least in theory. But the world on its own would never have come up with anything like the cross. The church’s power and authority doesn’t lie in morality, but in the love and self-offering of the cross. It is something utterly new and foreign to the world It is what we were re-born for.
Jesus had authority over unclean spirits, over the wind and the waves, over blindness and lameness and leprosy. More than that, Jesus had the authority of all of heaven, as the Son of God. But he chose to wield his authority, not with a sword or a club, but with a cross, by offering himself as a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, laying down his life in order that he might take it up again. And he calls us to follow him, to take up our authority as children in his kingdom by carrying our own crosses with love, willing servants of the world he came to save.
The cross looks like weakness in the eyes of the world – whether it is the cross of Christ, or us, as members of his church, carrying our own crosses: forgiving someone the world deems unforgivable, welcoming and loving someone the world sees as unloveable, or just holding on to hope when we are faced with grief and suffering – but these are really acts of power and authority. The world sees the cross and despises it as the crutch of those too weak to make it. But in truth it is the symbol of our greatest power and freedom. Because as unbelievable as it might seem to us, we have become bearers of the authority that the people of Capernaum recognized in Jesus Christ, the authority that belonged to the Son of God, and that now belongs to us as God’s adopted sons and daughters,, heirs of his kingdom, co-workers in the restoration and healing of this creation that he came to rescue, in all love and all humility, with all authority.