Christ’s authority isn’t imposed or enforced: it is in his very being as God-with-us, the God who astonishingly and foolishly and improbably loves us beyond death.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, year B
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. What authority!”
These good folks in Capernaum hear an authority in Jesus’ teaching they’ve never heard before. He spoke in their synagogue and they were astounded.
But then, when the unclean spirit possessing this man recognized the same authority, and obeyed Jesus, these people were amazed beyond description. They “kept on asking one another, ‘What is this?’” You can imagine the buzz, neighbor turning to neighbor, trying to comprehend this new authority they’re witnessing.
But notice they say, “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” “Even” they obey. That implies others recognize Jesus’ authority, too, and are also obeying.
That doesn’t seem to be very common among Christians these days. Obedience isn’t a word we often use.
Do you remember the last time you obeyed someone?
Did something because someone told you to? We certainly tell children to obey lots of authorities, parents, teachers. Did we resent obeying so much when we were young that we don’t want to talk about it as adults? Even the law is disregarded by more and more. So many believe obedience is required only when there’s a risk of being caught in disobedience.
But it also seems rare to hear people in the church decide a course of action by saying simply, “this is what God commands, and we need to obey.” It certainly happens. Maybe many of us here have that as part of our decision-making. But to listen to the way Christians often deliberate, one might think obedience was the least of our concerns.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t permit anyone, not even God, to have ultimate authority over us. Because these people of Capernaum knew what they saw: it was Jesus’ authority, whatever that was, that the unclean spirits obeyed.
But do we like “authority” any better than “obedience”?
Does anyone have authority over your life? Anyone who’s word you must obey? Obviously if you work, your supervisor. But in your daily life?
Law and the government are institutions of authority we are privileged to create and change by election and citizen involvement. But they largely work as authority only because they can back their commands with threats of punishment. Even when we stand up to their authority on moral grounds, when the institutions act unjustly, or do evil, there is a good chance we’ll face punishment.
The Church used to be an authority, with temporal and eternal punishment as the threat. But in the last century many Christians have set aside the Church, whatever they mean by that, as ultimate authority over their actions. Centuries of abuse of that authority certainly contributed to this. But there’s also this modern idea that we each are our own authority, the buck stops with each of us and no one else, and no one can ultimately tell us what to do. That’s effectively ended the Church’s ability to act as authority in people’s lives.
And there’s still the question of God’s authority over us. Must God also step aside in the face of our self-interest, our desire to do what we want, our need to be who we are without change? Must God also be included among those whom we say cannot tell us what to do?
Of course, our answer should be no. As believers, we acknowledge the Triune God has authority over us.
But do we live that way?
It’s hard to separate the authority of God from the authority of the Church. For centuries we’ve been taught they were one and the same. Those in the Church who make pronouncements over people’s lives usually cloak them with God’s authority. So when people start rejecting the Church’s right to tell them what to do, God’s authority also gets left behind.
But Martin Luther taught us that each of us is given God’s Word in its written form, the Scriptures, that we might hear it ourselves, and follow God’s living Word, Christ Jesus our Savior.
The people of Capernaum heard, and were astounded, and agreed Jesus had authority. His authority over unclean spirits was recognized by those spirits and they obeyed him. This story suggests that the others at least were considering their own obedience to this new authority. Maybe we can start there, too.
Now, Mark significantly doesn’t describe Jesus’ authority by explaining his methods of teaching or his style.
That suggests Jesus’ authority came from inside him, not from his rhetoric or technique. Something he carried within himself that was evident when he spoke, when he read Scripture, when he declared God’s will for the people.
We know the rest of the story, so we know what was within him. Jesus was and is God-with-us, the Son of the Triune God in human flesh, who set aside all divine power and glory to become one of us, become family with us. The God who faced death on the cross, rose from the dead, and has begun a new life in the Spirit in all who believe and follow.
Jesus’ authority didn’t come from threats of violence and punishment, either. It also didn’t come from a legal status or a government position. It wasn’t imposed on others. Jesus’ authority was simply who he was. God-with-us, who loved humanity enough to come and be with us, even to the point of dying for love of us.
So Jesus’ authority is the authority of a forgiveness that rejection cannot stop. It is the authority of light that darkness cannot overcome. It is the authority of love that hatred cannot extinguish. It is the authority of life that death cannot destroy.
This is the authority who says, “Follow me.” Obey me.
Because that’s what “follow me” asks. In Christ we see the astonishing, improbable, foolish love of the Triune God for the whole creation, for each of us. That is Christ’s authority. And that authority now says, “Follow me.”
We know what we are asked to do, what obedience is desired. We know the commands. Love. Forgive. Trust God, not wealth or power. Set aside anger. Seek reconciliation. Care for those in need, don’t walk by on the other side. We’ve known what following means for a long time. What’s left for us today is the question of whether we’ll obey.
Maybe, like those unclean spirits, we needed the proper authority to inspire our obedience.
We’ve grown weary of institutions and people seeking to control us, make us do things, weary of such so-called authority.
But now that we see true authority in our midst, Christ’s authority, it’s a different question. Because if the Light that darkness cannot overcome is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find ourselves walking in light, not in darkness. If the Love no hatred can extinguish is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find ourselves bathed in love, shaped in love, not hate. If the Life no death can destroy is calling us to follow, when we obey, we’ll find life in a world that looks like death is winning.
You see, once you recognize the true authority of divine, undying love standing before you, you realize obedience is the path to joy and abundance of life, not a path of drudgery or fear.
This is truly a new teaching, what Jesus offers, with authority. Even unclean spirits obey. What will we do?
In the name of Jesus. Amen