The Authority of Jesus
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday
Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus has been doing the will of his Father. As you well know, along the way, he has made friends and he has made enemies—not least of all are those who show up today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It seems that Jesus has crossed the line. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus enters the temple and creates quite a ruckus. He drives out everyone who is selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of those selling doves. Then he heals the blind and the lame so that the children cry out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
It is no wonder the religious authorities—the chief priests and the elders—show up to question Jesus. And what is the nature of their questioning? Authority! Now that’s a topic the religious leaders know something about. After all, for generations, they have been the ones in power—the ones with the keys to the kingdom—interpreting Yahweh’s words to the people. These rulers—they aren’t just anyone—they have roots.
I have friends who are into genealogy—spending hours among historical documents, pouring over registers, marriage and death certificates at the county courthouse, etc. No doubt, it is something to be able to say with confidence, “My great, great, great whoever did this or said that or came over on the Mayflower.” Even though I am not personally drawn to searching out my earthly heritage—there’s nothing I like better than to do so regarding my heavenly one. In my research, here is what I have found: “My great, great, great, whoever includes Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. What an incredible religious heritage that is freely ours to claim!
Of course, Jesus’ accusers, who are of the people of Israel, have long been into genealogy, which turns out to be a good thing. Otherwise, we might be missing the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah in Matthew chapter 1. But in this particular text, the temple authorities have not approached Jesus because they are interested in his genealogy and wish to convert. Far from it! No, they show up because they are angry. Who is this young whippersnapper—coming into THEIR temple—turning over tables? Who does he think he is?
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask. Instead of answering, Jesus responds with a question of his own. At first glance, it sounds like a riddle that makes us proud of Jesus for outsmarting those foxes again—avoiding their question altogether. But on closer examination, we realize Jesus has not avoided their question. He has simply answered them indirectly. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.) First, let’s look at what the chief priest and elders do. They go into a huddle. Seriously! They put their heads together to decide what to do to get out of this mess they have gotten themselves into. “If we say John’s authority came from God, then he will say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him.’ If we say from himself, then the people will rise up against us for they thought John was a prophet.” So Jesus’ accusers creep back over toward Jesus, with chests held high and they plead the 5th.
“We cannot say,” to which Jesus responds, “Neither can I.”
Jesus’ question to the religious authorities relates to John the Baptist. And if we look back at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the lives of Jesus and John have been intertwined from the beginning. Remember how Mary, the soon to be mother of Jesus, comes to visit Elizabeth, the soon to be mother of John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s arrival, an unusual thing occurs. The unborn baby, John, leaps in his mother’s womb. Before birth, John recognizes this One for whom he will pave the way. Thus, when Jesus questions the religious leaders about the authority given to John the Baptist, he is hinting at the truth: To recognize John’s authority is to recognize his own.
Remember, though, the religious leaders have not come to be converted. They appear with one thing on their minds—trapping Jesus. This time, though, they will go away empty handed—but not before Jesus delivers up 3 parables to put them in their place—the first of which is the parable of the two sons. In the story, the father of the two sons asks each one to go work in the vineyard. The first refuses but later does; while the second says he will, but does not. When Jesus asks the leaders which of the two did the will of his father, they answer, “The first.”
As parables go, this one is straightforward and clear. But by the end of it, one thing is crystal clear—If these leaders were not angry before, they are now because Jesus says out loud, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Wow! Just a moment ago, these fellows were leading the parade into heaven and now look what has happened!
Ultimately both of our Scripture readings for this morning are about authority. In Exodus, the people of Israel are out in the wilderness complaining (as they were last week when we left them) and they approach Moses, practically ready to stone him. In response to their complaint about lack of water, again Yahweh provides—with water from a rock. The people test God saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” In other words, “Is God really in charge here? Is God really our authority?”
Who is our authority? It is a question that plagues the Israelites for 40 years out in the wilderness.
It will plague them down through the ages as judges and prophets and kings come and go, often with one, two-part message: You must serve God and God alone and you must look out for one another. The question of authority continues to create a buzz during the days of Jesus—especially when Jesus keeps turning everything upside down—including the tables of the temple. Jesus comes to proclaim salvation hope with the authority given to him by the very one Moses met out in that burning bush—the One with the name: I AM WHO I AM.
Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Today, we are given a precious gift—an invitation to take stock of our lives. Who or what rules as our authority? Are we governed by money? By possessions? By success as defined by the world? Moreover, which brother am I? Am I the brother who has always been the black sheep of the family but now I am sorry and I want to turn my life around and follow the will of my Father. Am I the sister who has always thought of myself as “in”? And, quite frankly, “I do not have to do anything to maintain the status quo. After all, I am a Christian because my great, great, great whoever was a Christian.”
At the end of the day, how will we respond to a personal encounter with Jesus? Will we come away grateful for our religious heritage, as children of the Living God? Moreover, will we welcome others to the Table of our Lord?
It was in the spirit of welcome that World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr first conceived of the notion during his year as moderator of the General Assembly. Later, with the support of the church stewardship committee, World Communion Sunday started as an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity. The hope was that everyone might receive inspiration and be reminded how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is connected to one another. The story of our faith does not belong to Presbyterians. Nor does it belong to the Methodists or the Episcopals or the Baptists down the street.
The idea of sharing communion with those of other traditions began slowly at first. People did not think much about it until WWII. The idea really took hold then because the world seemed to be falling apart. Maybe a spirit of togetherness would help. World Communion Sunday was soon adopted as a denominational practice. In a few short years, churches in other denominations followed suit. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world on the first Sunday of October.
There is One Authority that governs us all. One Triune God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Oh, we may interpret God’s will for us differently. But surely, our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Thanks be to God!