sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018
Authority. Where does it come from? To whom do we give it? Who has authority over you, and why? How do we recognize trustworthy authority when we see it?
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once [Jesus’] fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
If this “new teaching” of Jesus was remarkable because it had authority, then what of the old teaching? What of the Law of Moses and the Prophets? It’s not like the people thought there was no authority there. Why did some people begin to ascribe more authority to Jesus than to the sources of authority they had had all their lives? Why would we?
Our readings today contain all sorts of images that you probably have to go to church to encounter: unclean spirits, [the raising up of a prophet], sacrifices to idols, sin and redemption. We hear loaded phrases and concepts that you won’t hear elsewhere: “the fear of the Lord,” “the assembly of the upright.” Whether we grew up in the church or are just exploring it for the first time, I assume that we don’t all understand or agree on what these things mean. So we look to someone with authority to help us unpack it all.
But to whom do you give such authority? To me? To Marsha, Chuck, or Jonathan? Why? Because we went to school? OK, maybe. Seminary is a great place to learn about all things Christian, and I would have a hard time trusting a clergy person who had never actually studied for the work. But is that enough? Most clergy have degrees, but some turn out not to be trustworthy at all. Some of us have been known to go off the rails into very questionable theology, not to mention problematic or even abusive behavior. There are people of all education levels who struggle to establish a moral compass, and we know that power tends to corrupt.
Martin Luther wanted to make sure that as many people as possible could have access to the Bible in their own language, so that they could interpret it themselves without having to trust clergy. OK then, let’s test the spirit of the Reformation. Anyone with a basic education can read the Bible. Does the Bible have greater authority than clergy? Most of us would probably say yes, because it transcends denominational squabbles, and because Christian tradition has ascribed an immense amount of authority to this unique library of writings.
But we also know that selective reading of the Bible, with an agenda, is a problem. The Bible has been used to support the slave trade, to deny women leadership, and to victimize and persecute many, many different kinds of people. It has been used to support brutal wars and to justify child abuse. If you know even a little bit about the Bible, you’ll have to ask yourself, “What is the nature of the Bible’s authority?” There are a zillion interpretations of that question. And so the misuse of the Bible has caused many catastrophes—enough to make a lot of people in our day decide it’s time to chuck it.
Many of those people would say, “Look, we’ve found the most reliable source of authority there is: science.” A few days ago I was talking with a skeptical student who grew up in church, explored other churches in high school, and encountered enough hypocrisy to say, “Well, forget it. Science is the only god for me!” He was great to talk with, because his passion for justice was so raw, as was his indignation at any organization that oppresses people. He has come to believe that religion does more harm than good, and who was I to tell him his assessment is wrong? My job was to listen and to honor his feelings. And he commended me for not jumping down his throat. Hopefully I helped take a little of the edge off his anger.
See, this student was absolutely right about something: if you want to know what the facts are, look to science. Look stark reality in the face, and do not fear, because you’re better off working with what’s real than what only might be real. But what happens when you understand your own perspective to be limited?
Take this gospel reading, for example. We have a story about demon possession. Some read it and say, “Well! That means there really are demons, and I need to be afraid of them.” Others say, “Since there aren’t actually demons, this story is false, and by extension, the whole Bible is untrustworthy.” Some say, “Wow! What a gripping story. I wonder how I would have interpreted that event had I been there?” And still others say, “I have had experiences that I can only describe as demonic. This story tells me that Jesus has power to banish such forces from our lives.”
We can all read the same thing and not agree on what to do about it. And no amount of scientific knowledge or biblical scholarship will solve this puzzle for us. We can’t always have all the facts we need. We can only do our best to proceed based on what we know and what we value, and this process will always be subjective.
Paul is wrestling with this problem in the First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Jews conclude that there can only ever be one God—that it would be nonsensical for the divine creative nature to be divided against itself. All well and good, I agree. But there are also those, Paul says, without this knowledge, and some of them have become Christians. They know that idolatry is forbidden, but their understanding of what idolatry is could use some work. Allow me to be a seminary-trained clergy person for a minute and give you some back story.
The Greeks and Romans would offer meat in sacrifice to their gods, and then they would sell this meat in the marketplaces. To consume the meat was to participate in the worship of these gods. There was no way to tell whether the meat you were buying had at some point been sacrificed to an idol. Those whom Paul calls “strong” Christians trusted that God, the creator of the universe, would understand this situation and would not hold it against Christians for eating such meat. But for Paul’s “weak” Christians, the thought of participating in idol worship, even by accident, opened them up to all sorts of spiritual danger, so they thought it best to become vegetarians and avoid the whole mess completely.
It got tricky when these two groups of Christians met. Those who were more philosophically astute knew that no idol actually exists. Even if there are other spiritual forces, they are subordinate to and subject to the God who created all things. There is only one supernatural creator, and there is no competition for God’s job. The other group felt they had to be very careful of supernatural forces that might lead them astray. Should they be written off as superstitious fools just for playing it safe?
The “weak” Christians are not in essence weak people, even if they have much to learn from the “strong” Christians. But what’s important to Paul is that the “strong” Christians also have something to learn from the “weak” ones. Idolatry is a problem not because there are multiple supernatural gods, but because we create false gods all on our own: money, comfort, purity, tribalism, militarism. To build our lives around these, instead of around the one God, is sinful. Now, this can’t happen through inadvertent participation in someone else’s rituals, any more than running through a lawn sprinkler can accidentally baptize you. But the so-called “weak” Christians do have a point.
So Paul writes, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” Is Paul anti-intellectual? Absolutely not: it’s the educated people he labels as “strong.” But Paul knows that intellectualism without humility is dangerous, and that some simple people understand the nature of God’s love better than the rest of us. Paul counsels the “strong” Christians to give up some of their own freedoms for the sake of these people—those whose lack of education leads their conscience astray and makes them “weak.” Paul says what I love to say frequently, if only because I myself need to hear it over and over again: “It’s more important to be loving than to be right.”
So where are we in our quest for one foolproof source of authority? So far we have shot down clergy, the Bible, education, science, and conscience. It’s not that we cannot find authority in these things. They all have something important to offer, but it must be offered in context.
In the Anglican tradition, we have relied since the 17th century on Richard Hooker’s helpful model of authority: the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason. We might disagree on whether one of these legs should be longer than the other two, but we generally agree that all three are important. If the Bible is our only authority, it is easily misused. If church tradition is our only authority, we make ourselves witless sheep. And if we ourselves are our only authority, we will miss all our own blind spots.
But here’s the thing: I don’t believe for a second that I’ve just given you the ultimate model: “oh, the three-legged stool. Amen.” Because at this point, I notice something: all these potential sources of authority we have suggested imply that the seeking of authority is an individual pursuit! It’s as if we can check off a box that says, “I personally listened to the correct authority, so I personally will now be OK.” Individualism: it’s so much a part of our culture that we can get most of the way through a sermon before realizing it’s there.
Yet look at Paul: He asks individuals with power—those with more education—to surrender some of that power willingly in order to take into account those with less. In another place, he asks those with more money and leisure time to wait for the working-class folks to arrive before eating all the food. The question of authority must always take others into account, and it must mean giving away power, giving away privilege, giving away money, to someone who needs them more. God’s Holy Spirit can be seen to be at work in places where these things happen.
The “new teaching” of Jesus was baldly authoritative because it reminded the Jews of what had been in the old teaching all along. The purpose of the Law and the Prophets had always been to build up love, not certainty, and then to let that love shine worldwide. This is how we love and grow: we alter our lives for others. We listen to others, and we reserve judgment. And in this church, we follow the One who cast out the demons: demons of confusion, hatred, and self-righteousness. We stand together with all our questions, and we look to the one who is Love to teach us how to love. When we dedicate our lives to love, we are on our way to discovering the one true authority who redeems us from all evil and binds us all together. Amen.