THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS
Mark 1: 21-28
Is there an authority crisis in our world? Those with authority sometimes wield their power carelessly or in self-serving ways, like the doctor examining our young female gymnasts while violating them. Or powerful bosses have also been shown to bully or pressure people into doing thing against their will. With the exceptions of dictators or pharaohs or monarchs, we hope for justice and a balance of power. Until the last few years, Cuba has been kept years behind other countries because of the oppression of the Castro regime. North Korea puts up a good front of authority, but visitors who get a peek behind the veneer see poverty and ignorance. It was this week in the year 2000 that General Douglas McArthur’s widow passed away over one hundred years of age. McArthur at one time had unquestioned authority and power. But it was not his own; it was granted to him. Yes, generals act in consultation with their governments. CEOs of major corporations may share power with their board or staff. By contrast, in the Presbyterian Church, by the design of founder John Calvin, our General Assembly has the authority to enact only what its commissioners empower it to do. The actions can start with church members, then go to a local Session, then on to a presbytery and, perhaps, a General Assembly. There is purpose in the way we are ordered. “Absolute power can corrupt absolutely” Calvin said, so no one individual is granted the authority that we give to Jesus, and to the Bible, or God. But any of us can call on God for strength and guidance. The twelve disciples—and by extension you and I—have the power of Jesus for helping, healing, and witnessing if we call on that power! Jesus empowered us when he said this “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Powerlessness may have pervaded many areas of society, but recently some women, people of color, and people of poverty are working to reclaim dignity and power.
Whether we are looking at this century or the first century, into a hope-dimmed world slips glimmering beams of power. Mark’s gospel tells us that the teachings and actions of Jesus were such that all who were around him said he taught “as if he had authority.” Even the ones in power were amazed at his power to exorcise unclean spirits. (Mark 1:27) Into the world of the seemingly possessed; into the world of the seemingly incurable came the power and authority of Jesus. We know Jesus had the authority to do what he did; he always told others it came from above, it was not his own. At the end of Matthew’s gospel in what is called the “Great Commission,” Jesus claimed his power saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” After that, the implication was to go and do what he told us to do: baptize, make disciples, and teach others about Jesus. We have been commissioned to do that, and like a military command, it is an order, not a softly worded request. Jesus empowers our work by the Holy Spirit! Jesus needs our partnership because he no longer has a physical body! We—the church—have become the body of Christ, going into the world with human care and hope. We have the authority and the commission to do that! Jesus is counting on us!
Do you wish you had great power when dealing with human issues? Sometimes situations can make us feel powerless. Here’s an example: thirty-two years ago today, NASA programmers and engineers felt powerless as they watched the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up in the air on a cold January day. Dreadful powerlessness. Another example: some children who long for strength they do not possess become enamored with superheroes that have powers far beyond their own. They imagine being powerful. Others love fantasy stories like those found in the Harry Potter series and try to claim the power in each individual wand. Youth may seek power through sports, role-playing games, or acting. Still, sometimes people can feel utterly powerless.
Anorexia nervosa and depression can be power-draining diseases. My friend Dr. Dan Hale, a psychologist, has spoken painfully about how powerless he was to save his daughter from depression. She died in its darkness and its grip. No one in singer Karen Carpenter’s family could save her from the body image she perceived through her eating disorder that took her life. And Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling Secrets, says depression took his father’s life. He sat in his own car in a closed garage and secretly started his car. As young Fred grew up, he learned how to give power to another person, and not to try to control them. Only when he finally gave power and control back to others who were struggling did they begin to work toward their own rescue. That power struggle, skimmed from the milk of enlightenment, led Beuchner to write these words: “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business whether they use the word ‘God’ or not.” [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 92.]
Can the transcended word of Jesus whisper any word of hope to you, or someone you know, who is (in a way) possessed a disease, an obsession, or a weakness? I believe it can. A healing took place in Capernaum one day, and Jesus performed it. And the same power that healed that day can turn around the lives of others who are broken, over-medicated, co-dependent, or addicted. Here are three directions we can follow.
First, Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father, asking for healing for those who were ill. Many were healed. People in our day, like Dr. Larry Dossey, have shown our modern minds how those both prayed for and medically treated heal faster than those who receive medicine without prayer. Trust that God loves you and your loved ones and can see life’s picture—including the future—better than we can. Even with his authority, Jesus did not pull rank and save himself from the cross. By remaining faithful to the last, he now sits at the right hand of power.
Next, Jesus had authority over wind and waves when he was on the Sea of Galilee. Back in 2016, did the people of Daytona Beach pray hard enough that Hurricane Matthew jutted east just enough that the dangerous winds largely missed us? Go back and look at the storm’s track. Just off our coast, it seemed to move east; then it moved back on track. Here’s another story: A Methodist minister shared a graveside service with me some years ago. As we approached the cemetery, the rain that had come down hard every since the funeral procession had departed from the funeral home came down steadily. I got out of the car deciding to bring my umbrella. “Do you think we’re going to get wet out here?” I said to the other minister. His wife answered me. “It won’t rain during my husbands’ graveside services!” As I was about to ask her how she was so sure, he was the one who replied. “No, it won’t rain. Back when I had my one of my first graveside services, it looked like we might all get wet. So I bowed my head and said to Jesus, ‘Dear Lord, you did so many mighty things, including calming the storm. I don’t think it’s too much to ask if you will hold the rain while I offer your blessing to a grieving family.. Thanks for your help. Amen.’ And in more than 50 years of that man’s ministry, it had not rained during his graveside service! Sometimes could it be that we have not because we ask not?
Finally, as the serenity prayer puts it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Even Jesus could not change other people’s willfulness. Nor can we. But we can be a witness, with our actions and words. We can pray in faith for the things Jesus wants to do through us. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. We can connect with it if we are bold enough to ask for that power. Let us pray:
Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus: sometimes we want to do what the disciples did: they called on Jesus to do everything! Through the years people in trouble have said, “Call a priest, call a minister, or call an elder.” But to those who ask for Jesus to work through them, power is offered. Send us forth empowered to pray, to teach, and to invite others to know Jesus. Give us the courage to both ask and to act, so that through Jesus, we can change our world. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 28, 2018