By what authority, dear Church?
Today’s Gospel lesson is an ongoing question about authority. The Pharisees want to know where Jesus gets his authority—by what right he teaches and heals and so on… who permits him to be a religious leader?
Jesus in turn asks about John’s authority, knowing that this will turn the tables on the Pharisees,
keeping that question of authority in mind,
but meditating on the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2
and what it might have to say to the Church in 21st century America,
with all its anxiety and uncertainties
With this hymn to Christ’s self-empting and humility in mind,
I would like to ask, “By what authority, dear Church?”
By what authority, dear church?
Throughout history there have been many wrong places that the Church has found its authority.
After the era of the persecution of the Church, the Emperor Constantine put his authority behind the faith and made it a official religion of the Roman Empire. Our authority became derived from the whim of the State.
Which was fine… until the sacking of Rome, which made many question everything, including the authority of the Church and the promises of God.
If the Church’s authority and trustworthiness is defined by the state and the culture of Rome, they figured, and Rome went bust—then clearly the Church had no legitimate influence, or positive value.
Likewise, during the era of the colonization of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia, the Authority of Christianity, was often mixed-in with the authority of the conquistadores and colonists—Christianity was sometimes presented as, “Now that this territory is ours, this religion is yours.”
“Why is the Church pertinent to your life?”
Was often answered “because it’ll make getting along with your occupiers easier.”
Or think of “The Good Old Days” (and please understand I’m not knocking it)
—When everyone went to Church, because there really wasn’t a whole lot else to do on a Sunday—there were Blue Laws—so no stores were open, no soccer games played.
All your friends were in Church—going to Church was a downright social thing to do, the place to see and be seen at, the place to catch-up and share.
America was in a Cold War with Godless Communism, so when you went to Church you weren’t just being a good Christian, you were also being a good American.
So the Church’s Authority and significance was amplified in the good old days—we allowed it deeply into our lives, because there was no competition from other entities, it filled an agreeable social role, as well as a national one.
And, as you’ll read in the Newsletter, I recently talked with ELCA high-ups and not so high-ups, who are worried about the end of Christendom—the time when Christians got special treatment… the end of the Good Old Days.
Now days, blue laws have been blown away…
to think about this concretely, Baltimore is a very Catholic city, and the Church held some Authority there… so up until the Baltimore Colts left the City, they were not allowed to start a game before 2pm, because not all the Church folk would be done with services before then (and you couldn’t buy alcohol in the city before then either)… but by the time Baltimore got a new team—the Ravens, there was no way an NFL team would even dream of waiting on folk to get out of Church.
Now days, there are a myriad of ways to socialize that don’t involve Church
—from Social Media to Social Clubs, the Senior Center to the Buddhist Center.
Now days America is in a war against Religious Extremists,
so any form of faith that isn’t clearly tame is suspect, instead of a mark of citizenship.
So we have these high-up Church folk worried about all this—about our loss of authority—that we no longer have special treatment, and therefore ministry is going to change.
And one of the potential directions to go down is to go to the Mega-Church Corporate model. Figuring perhaps the Church’s authority can come from the Marketplace—
Figure out what people want,
And give it to them
And be justified in your role within society.
This model assumes the Church can out-compete our secular equivalents.
That congregations should be Mini-malls with a veneer of spirituality
· Starbucks-like Baristas serving coffee—or even renting space to an actual Starbucks in the back of the congregation,
· A joint gym membership with Church membership,
· Bike ramps for the kids if they get bored during the sermon,
· A church sponsored Fight Club
—I’m not kidding, a Christian Fight Club
—bashing one another’s brains in, in the name of Jesus.
AND WE CAN’T DERIVE AUTHORITY FROM THIS KIND OF THING!
If we’re playing against a secular market, we’ll always be trying a little too hard to be something we’re not.
Our secular competition is always going to win, because we’re playing their game.
Tony Robins does the inspirational speaker thing, better than your Pastor.
Menlo-Park Mall does the mall thing, better than the Church.
Starbucks does Coffee, better than our Kitchen-folk.
CJBMX does bike tracks, better than the Church.
Planet Fitness does exercise, better than the Church.
The South Plainfield Fight Club does fightin’, better than the Church.
And so I ask again, “By what authority, dear Church?”
Not that of the Marketplace, or Laws-Blue or otherwise, or Nationalism, or Conquest, or Imperial Sanction.
The only authority we have, dear Church—dear Sisters and Brothers—
The only authority we’ve ever had,
is that of our humility exposed.
Our natural selfishness, ambition, and conceit, combated in the name of Christ.
Our regard for others, bolstered by the Spirit.
The widows and mourners gathered together in mutual support at Good Grief Group—that’s our authority.
The individual confessions, and sincere struggles with our human passions—that’s our authority.
Our Prayers of Intercession—naming aloud in the company of the Saints, that raggedy long, yet incomplete, list—that’s our authority.
The sincerity with which we are community together—rough edges and all—that’s our authority.
We beggars pointing another beggar to where they can get some bread—that’s our authority.
Sinners pointing to the one:
“Who though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death
Even death on a cross.”
That’s our authority.