“By what authority?”
Well, there’s a good question.
Authority is the question of the day. Or, is it a question of the past?
We live in a time when authority is rightly questioned. Not new, according to this passage from Matthew. And to what extent those in power had every right to question Jesus’ authority. After all, what had Jesus done, what had he said, that would justify his rather obtuse claims? Before we vilify the chief priests and the elders of the people, we should be honest — their question is often our question. Many claim authority. And rather indiscriminately.
You get authority based on a position to which you are elected. And yet, you do not have to prove or justify that your authority authorizes. In fact, it could very well be rejected. Just because you hold an office that has had a history of authority should not necessarily mean that authority is granted to you. Authority is proved. Tested. Lived. Otherwise, we have every right to say “no” to it, to question it, to resist, to take a knee. You do not get to authorize my life. You do not get to author how I make sense of my life. You do not get to assume my automatic acquiescence to your authority.
I am astonished, saddened, and dismayed by those who claim authority when it comes to God and yet have absolutely no sense of the impact that kind of claim actually has. And anytime personal authority starts to take the place of God’s authority? We are in big trouble.
Preachers, we are granted authority. But Jesus’ words this week remind us that we can never presume that authority. Or take it for granted. Our authority is sacred. And I mean that. We are invited into places and spaces that are holy, including a pulpit. As soon as we think we deserve to be there, we have violated that space. That is different from saying we belong there. We do. But we are invited in. By an authority that exists outside of ourselves.
We are in a time when authority is not a given. And for us, Dear Working Preachers, that means authority on every level. Far too long we has assumed authority for interpreting the Bible and look where that has ended up? People in the pews who lack biblical literacy — not because they don’t know the Bible or don’t have enough information about the Bible or because we have not planned enough bible studies, but because we have communicated — in our preaching — that they cannot read it on their own. The answer to biblical illiteracy is not more knowledge. It is empowering people to read and interpret and trust that their experiences of God matter and make a difference.
Far too long we have insisted that theological and doctrinal claims about God should usurp experiences of God, that only those in the know can really know God. And as a result, we have protected our authority as theologians, perpetuating the façade that we have all of the answers. That we are the residential theologians, as if those in our pews are not theologians, when in fact, they may be better theologians than we are.
Far too long we have preached that a sufficient faith is a creedal faith. Believe it, and you are saved. Come to church, listen to a sermon, and you are good to go. Our sermons have absolutely no authority at all if they do not compel our people to live their faith. They have no authority at all if they don’t help our people interpret the world theologically. They have no authority at all if they do not articulate what it looks like to embody faith in the real world.
If people are questioning your authority, they should, according to Jesus. True authority demands a perceived and palpable connection between who you are and what you do. Between what you say and what you do. Authority never goes over well when it is supposed. This is, in part, what Jesus is saying. There is a correlation between word and deed, between ideas and implementation, between vision and action. Authority should only be granted when there is integrity. If persons enter into positions of authority with nary a nod to how their words are lived out, their authority should, at the very least, be questioned and ultimately, be stripped of its power.
Somehow, some way, and especially these days, we preachers need to incarnate an authority that reveals the integration of self and call. Of identity and vocation. Of authenticity and embodiment. And when it comes to the church, ideas, creeds, doctrines, even Scripture, are not our authority. The true test of our authority is whether or not we believe in and make possible Immanuel, “God with us,” in the world.