a sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Jesus came to turn the church upside down.
Today’s Gospel reading talks about Jesus’ authority. In the dictionary, there are three definitions of Authority. The first is “having the power or right to give orders, make decisions, or enforce obedience.”
In Jesus’ day, the people who had this kind of authority were the Roman occupiers and the Jewish officials in the Temple – the chief priests and scribes. In any large organization, such as the Roman Empire or in a Religious Institution, like a synagogue or a church, there are people in charge. You can normally identify who’s in charge because they wear special uniforms, or insignia – maybe they have stripes on their sleeves, or badges on their chests, or stoles around their necks…. (Yep, I’m the sherrif of St. Simon and St. Jude.)
Of course, the problem with this kind of authority is that it’s very fragile. It depends on power to really work. A policeman has authority because he’s backed up by the Town of Irmo. A soldier has authority because he has a weapon.
The second definition is this: “the confident quality of someone who knows a lot about something or who is respected or obeyed by other people.” There are really any number of things a person can become an authority on. All you have to do is study a hard and get somebody else to call you an expert. For example, I spent three years in seminary to become an authority in the church. I was supposed to learn how to be the local expert in all sorts of things: the Bible, how to run a worship service and preach, how to pray for others in time of crisis, and which fork to use at a fancy dinner.
Of course, the problem with this kind of authority is that it’s very narrow. You can be an authority on one thing, and a complete idiot on everything else.
Then there’s the third definition of authority – “a quality that makes something seem true or real.” I believe that this kind of authority that what people saw in Jesus. He had authority not because he had power, not because he was an expert, but because he is the most real human being there ever was. In fact, Jesus is the very ground of Truth and Reality.
One of the things that we professional church people often forget is that the only authority there is in the church is Jesus Christ. I am not in charge. The bishop is not in charge. The pope is not in charge. Only Jesus.
There is a painting that was done back in the middle ages that shows the entire organization chart of the Church. At the top was Jesus. Directly below him were the angels and archangels. And Mary was a little below that, but still in a direct line with Jesus. And then were were the Apostles, and then the Pope, and so on. Then you had the cardinals, and the bishops, and of course, the priests. And then, at the very bottom of the painting, were all of you. Yes, millions and millions of people, all working to support everything that was up above them on the chart.
As a piece of art, the painting is beautiful; as a piece of theology, it is terrible.
Because as Jesus demonstrates in his ministry, he came to be servant of all, not to lord over all. In other words, Jesus came to turn that org chart upside down.
The ministry of Jesus was a servant-ministry. Jesus came to equip the saints in ministry, to empower them to go out and serve the rest of the world. Jesus’ authority, the TRUTH that Jesus represents, is that all of us and beloved by God. God wants to have a relationship with you.
As your rector, ministry here is supposed to facilitate that. You have blessed me and raised me up to be a prophet among you, as our Old Testament lesson puts it. Anything that I do that strengthens your relationship with God and with each other is good. Anything I do that weakens or damages it is not so good. On Jesus’ org chart, you are above me.
Last week, your vestry and I met to pray and to discuss what God is calling us to do over the coming year or so at St. Simon and St. Jude. And one of the things we talked about is how to turn our orgchart upside down, so that Jesus, who is the ultimate authority in the Church, is always our foundation, the ground on which we stand. And so that you, each and every one of you here, are more empowered to do your ministry in the world. We discussed the respective roles of the rector and the vestry, as well as the importance of the vestry learning to become enablers of your ministry. The work of our church needs to flow up and out into the world through the active engagement of all of you, who work in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job is to empower and enable you, the real ministers of the church, to go out and be Jesus in the world.
That means that we need you to be involved in the workings of this church. We need you to be involved in providing Pastoral Care to one another, to help educate our children and adults, to plan our worship and our social events and decide whether we have coffee or not. We need you to sing in the choir, serve as an acolyte or reader, arrange flowers, or dress the altar. We need you to welcome the strangers who come to our doors, and even invite more strangers to come and see what’s going on here. We need you to feed the hungry and provide shelter to the homeless, and help tend and care for the small amount of property that we have.
The fact of the matter is that this church, St. Simon and St. Jude, has always been led by the laity. We have always had strong lay engagement in everything. And it is through that engagement that we have lived into our mission to welcome, to rejoice, and to be Jesus in the world.
“What is this?” they asked. “A new teaching?”
Jesus Christ is the only authority we have. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Let’s turn our orgchart upside down, and in so doing, we just might change the world.
Thanks be to God.