By What Authority?

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Just the other day my 4-year-old son and I were waiting in my wife’s car for her to get finished with work and take him home. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat and he had gotten out of his car seat and was climbing around the front pushing different buttons and flipping switches. He has recently become enamored with the sun roof, especially, and at one point he reached up to open it but, unsurprisingly, it remained closed. He looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “It’s not working right now because mommy’s not in here.”

In fact, the sunroof was not working because the car was turned off and the key was not in the ignition but his assessment of the situation was clearly an indication of who really has authority in our household. I’ve known this for years, of course, that mommy’s authority in most matters outranks mine, and I’m OK with that. Mommy is a good authority, but this was the first time her authority was so great that her presence on its own could open a sunroof. We didn’t even need a car key. We just needed mommy to show up.

As soon as Jesus shows up in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry, people are impressed with his authority. It has power that no one has really seen before. When he teaches the Scriptures in the synagogue, people listen. They are impressed. They had been hearing teachings from the scribes for years and years but Jesus is different. His authority has some new power.

The scribes, by contrast, were the people who just occupied leadership roles in the synagogue and in religious life of the Jewish people. They were educated. They were experts in the law and in interpreting Scripture. They had been approved by the various religious leaders to do their jobs, but in many ways they were just in the passenger seat. They were just occupying a spot of leadership they had received from those who had gone before them. Jesus arrives and it’s clear he’s a driver. Whatever he says  leaves no doubt in their mind that he is someone to be listened to, someone to be followed.

And if that weren’t enough, he also has amazing authority over unclean spirits. While Jesus is in the middle of his teaching in the synagogue, a man wanders in who is possessed of something that has control over him. Even though he is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t barrel through with his teaching, trying to shout over the man. No, Jesus immediately turns to deal with him and rebuke the spirit.

And as it turns out, it is not just the people in the synagogue who recognize Jesus’ authority, but the unclean spirits. In some ancient versions this is translated as “demons,” and we probably shouldn’t get too worried about the man’s precise medical diagnosis. We may say they are forces of the world that stand in the way of God’s goodness, dark powers that corrupt God’s children and their thinking and how they go about world. Whatever they are, they too show up to challenge Jesus as soon as he is on the scene, even calling him the Holy One of God.

Isn’t it true that just the presence of good things brings out the haters? You can find an article about something so lovely and pure on the internet— a piece that talks about children sacrificing their allowance to donate food for the hungry, or a story about a police officer who goes the extra mile to help a victim—and if you read the comments below the article there is inevitably someone  being needlessly hateful and critical about it all, calling into question the good of the story. Jesus’ goodness and authority is never going to be well-received by the unclean spirits of the world. In fact, many times they seek him out and try to bring him down.

When Jesus deals with the haters, though, he first tells them to be silent. This is not the last time that Jesus is going to keep his identity secret. We may think it is strange that Jesus rebukes and tries to silence anything or anyone that would declare him for who he really is, but Jesus doesn’t want to primarily be known for these acts of authority, no matter how good he is. He does not mainly come to be a teacher about Scripture, and he does not mainly come among us to cast out demons. He knows his authority is going to be rooted in something more significant and far more powerful. Jesus is going to express his authority in self-sacrifice. Jesus is going to show the depth of his authority through service to others. Jesus is going to truly demonstrate the kind of authority he is by giving himself on the cross in love and mercy. It is one thing to show people how much you know and how strong you are. It is a totally different thing—and more powerful thing—to show how much you love them. And that is where Jesus’ authority is rooted.

What will truly drive out the unclean spirits that possess us—that is, the spirits of pretentiousness and pride, the demons brought about by individualism and self-righteousness? We must also consider the forces of false information and fake news, the desire to control other people with our viewpoints and prejudices or, at the very least, to have our biases confirmed? Only Jesus’ love will do this. Only the kind of self-giving and humble spirit that Christ possesses and which he lavishly pours onto each one of us will be able to accomplish that. And as these things are driven from us they are going to cause convulsions, especially depending on how firmly embedded the uncleanliness is. It is hard to let go of prejudices, especially when they’ve brought us power. Did you look along Monument Avenue this summer and fall? Convulsions.

Driving out the unclean spirits of our culture

As it happens, this was Paul’s very message to his beloved congregation in Corinth. These were people who were very enamored with things like status and knowledge and credentials. They were giving a lot of authority to these things, and it was a like an unclean spirit infecting the church. The particular case we hear Paul mention this morning has to do with how certain mealtime practices were causing division in the community. In Corinth, the main way you could come by meat was at temple where people would sacrifice animals to foreign gods, or idols. Butchers in the temple would then sell the remains so as not to waste it. Some early Christ followers in Corinth did not want to be associated with those temples and those idols in any way so they would not buy meat there, which meant they were effectively vegetarian. They just went without meat as a sign of their faithfulness to Jesus.

Some Christians, including Paul, felt that eating meat from these places did not automatically make you an idol-worshiper. You could in good conscience buy meat from those butchers and still eat it and be a faithful Christ-follower. But, Paul says, if his eating of meat might lead one of the weaker members into eating meat and destroying their faith, to fall back into their old idol-worshiping ways, then he would rather abstain. Paul says, he knows it’s absolutely fine from a faith standpoint to eat meat sacrificed to gods that don’t even really exist—one, you might say, has the freedom to do it—but he is willing to go without for the sake of the love he has for his fellow believers who still have problems with it.

The authority they are to follow, you see, is not the knowledge of what is or what is not theologically correct, or their rights to do this or do that, but the respect and compassion one has for one’s neighbor. Paul demonstrates a spirit of self-sacrifice and humility, meeting other people in his community where they are. It is one of the many ways he says that love builds up the whole, sometimes at the cost of the individual’s freedoms.

If we’re listening, we can hear Paul talking to the church today about how to live and worship in a pandemic, racial change, and political tension. He might talk about facemasks, and how some people don’t feel it’s necessary to wear them. They themselves are not afraid of catching COVID, or maybe they just don’t think it’s a very big deal. That is an authority based on knowledge, which only puffs those people up. Even if someone feels that way, the loving and Christlike thing to do, Paul would suggest, is to go ahead and humble oneself and wear a face mask for the sake of those who are afraid of catching COVID. Some people are strong in their faith and are not afraid of worshiping in large groups during this time, even if it causes the disease to spread. Paul would say, the authority of love would instruct us to refrain from doing that for the sake of those who are not as confident in that knowledge or in their faith.

Paul would probably be concerned that we Christians have on the whole not come to be known for the authority of love during the past year. In many cases we’ve been unwilling to make personal sacrifices for the good of others and for the glory of God. He’d warn us that it seems we’d rather be known for standing up for our supposed right to worship however and whenever we want, than tp be known for the ways we show humble, Christlike concern to others, even it means scaling back worship. One article in Christianity Today this week reports that half of Protestant pastors in America have encountered conspiracy theories in their congregations. That is, half of the pastors in Protestant churches have heard people in their parishes espouse things promoted by QAnon or other right or left wing groups. Conspiracy theories, by definition, are based on authority of knowledge and secret wisdom that tries to control other people, not release them in love and openness in the way of our Savior. Paul might say too many of us are concerned about the freedom of our speech and not concerned enough about the truth and love of it.

socially distanced, silent worship

Jesus has made it his plan for us—he has nothing to hide, no confidential story to keep in the dark. He lays himself out there in full, arms open, and we can pick him apart as we will. As the psalmist says this morning, “the works of your hands, O Lord…stand fast forever and ever because they are done in truth and equity.” Jesus’ truth is based on coming to where we are in our weakness, not demanding we come to where he is. And his equity is in making sure everyone is together. And now we can do the same for the rest of God’s people, as we are ruled by the authority of love.

That is a tricky, tricky witness, and these are certainly stressful times to do them in, when all kinds of demons are all up in our grill. I heard someone say recently, “I’m tired of living in unprecedented times. I’m ready to live in some precedented times.” Amen to that, but may we never tire of living in God’s unprecedented love, a love that arrives on our scene, in our heart, and is ready to be the driver—a love that says, from the center of the cross “I am in control and no matter what you will always ride with me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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