I Corinthians 8:1-13
Years ago, I was a mediator in New York State. Oftentimes, a complainant would say to me, “I just want to go before the judge and let the judge tell this person that he or she is wrong!” They wanted an authoritative voice to settle things. (I would have to point out that there was no guarantee that the judge would see things as the complainant did!) But there is something in us, as human beings, that wants the authoritative voice that will agree with us, that will settle things.
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of trying to navigate the red tape of bureaucracy. It seems that no one has the authority to give an answer or to make a decision. There was a story, some years back, about a father who took his young son to a baseball game. He got a lemonade for this son – not realizing that it was hard lemonade. He just didn’t know. He wasn’t a drinker and it was, for him, an unfamiliar concept. He was arrested and charged with child abuse. He was forced to move out of his house. He was given no access to his children. Everyone acknowledged that this was, had been, a terrible mistake and that he was not a child abuser. But they also said, “It’s out of our control.” Even the judge apologized, saying, “I know you didn’t purposefully do this. But I have no choice.” No one seemed to have authority.
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” “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.’”
Authority. That aura of authority set Jesus apart from the scribes who taught the people. They were careful, in their teaching, to cite sources – to footnote everything! Teaching was derivative. It looked back to interpretations through the years. Now, it is not that Jesus ignored the past. On the contrary, he knew the scriptures. He cited the scriptures. He had been shaped and informed by them. Perhaps the difference was that he spoke from the depths of his being rather than presenting a careful, scholarly interpretation.
Jesus’ authority was evident not only in his teaching, but also in what he did. He cast a demon out of a man. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” This part of the story is difficult for 21st century followers of Christ. Mike Graves says it doesn’t help that such stories are loved by Hollywood! But, all “exorcism” stories in the New Testament are about the whole story – not the exorcism.
So, what is the point of the story? The exorcism is another way for Jesus to announce his authority. The demon named him. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of Israel.”
“Have you come to destroy us?” Graves says this story sets up one of the conflicts that will be a part of Jesus’ entire ministry. His ministry is in an occupied land. And, all those with “authority,” with power, will fear him – just as the demon does. He has come to destroy the powers that enslave. His ministry is one of freeing those who are captive – both individuals, communities, and even nations.
If we begin to hear this story as a harbinger of his future ministry, we might remember that the world thought it had silenced him with his death. It appeared that he could not or did not destroy the evil powers. Yet, in the resurrection, the authority that Jesus had was given to the Body of Christ. And the Christian Church has toppled empires. It has confronted the powers that enslave. What was impossible for one person, even the Holy One of Israel, has been done through the work of the faithful.
The story is a reminder that entrenched powers still react with fear. It is no easy thing to speak out against that which demeans, that which enslaves, that which displaces God’s good intent. The story reminds us, as well, that those powers are not merely outside the community faith. They are within. We, ourselves, struggle with that which enslaves us, that which separates us from the love and the ways of God.
So, where are the voices of authority today? Whose words can we, should we trust? There are many who are willing to speak for and about God. How do we find what is true? How do we find what is authoritative?
Paul wrote to a congregation that was struggling with authority. There were competing voices claiming to be in possession of the truth. Some were sure that idols had no power. Therefore, the food offered those idols was merely food, and, therefore, could be consumed without guilt. Others were concerned that consuming food offered to idols was, somehow, honoring those idols, an unacceptable act for the faithful.
Paul, generally, agreed with those who saw no problem with eating the food offered to idols. He agreed with their “knowledge” that idols didn’t exist. However, knowledge was not the same as wisdom. Wisdom required something more than the knowledge. Paul asked the Corinthians to move beyond an intellectual discussion about idols and food. He asked them to look for the “healing” way that would bring the different sides together. “When you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their failing, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fail.”
Authority is not having superior knowledge. When we seek those who claim to or might have all the answers, we indulge our own idolatry. Even Jesus’ authority was not in being the one who spouted answers. His authority was deeper – rooted in following and demonstrating the ways and the love of God. Perhaps that’s why this early appearance in the synagogue includes authority expressed in word and in deed. And that authority leads to the release of captives, to the healing of those who are sick or oppressed.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that Presbyterian ministers don’t have a lot of authority. Leadership and power in our system are intentionally shared. In one way, that provides a check, a balance. It also recognizes that authority in the church is a communal gift –one given to the Body of Christ rather than to particular individuals. So, authority resides in our shared theology, (a broad theology), and in our system of governance. At its best, that means that we look collectively for the ways in which we nurture community and work for the healing and wholeness of God’s world.
Ronald J. Allen noted that this goal is not always achievable in a world that still knows division. He wrote, “..a congregation may find itself in a position in which the mission of the church is immobilized by one group’s limiting its freedom for the sake of another. I think of issues such as attitudes toward biblical authority, supporting war, termination of pregnancy, and same-gender relationships…Groups sometimes believe that their integrity is at stake and that silence is complicity with evil.”
That is a human reality. I remember a church cartoon that showed a big church surrounded by smaller and smaller ones. The big church was “First Church.” The smallest said “Sixteenth Church.” I’m guessing the cartoon was poking fun at the church fights that, too often, are trivial. But it is also true that larger issues divide. Presbyterians split, long ago, over the issue of slavery. Nowadays, churches leave over other issues. Allen wrote, “[They] may need to separate in distinct communities and trust that the God through whom all things exist can ultimately bring about the eschatological resolution. Even so, all participants should treat one another with respect in both public and private settings.”
I found that helpful. He reminded me that human beings always fall short. It was also a reminder that, sometimes, forced community works against the ways of God when a segment of the community finds it to be dismissive or injurious.
Jesus’ ministry was not always easy. It set him against the powers and the idolatries of the world in which he lived. It challenged those who would hear him and those who were comfortable in the systems that he confronted. Godly authority was not always welcome. Nor is it. It challenges those of us who still seek to hear it. And it challenges the very systems that often enslave us, even without our knowing it. We often seek the easy answers, the knowledge that puffs up, without looking for the deeper transforming presence that sees, speaks to, and offers healing for our and the world’s ills. God’s authority is revealed in our midst and in the world’s midst as we seek the ways that bring wholeness, and healing, and peace, especially for those who know only the world’s brokenness.