Wondering About Authority…

The 4th Sunday after Epiphany
I find myself wondering at what they saw in Jesus in the synagogue that day… what it was that had them leaning in closer to listen.  I wonder if they were puzzled at first but found that puzzlement turning to surprise and from feeling surprised to being utterly astounded.  I wonder how it was he showed the kind of authority that had them taking such notice.
If you’ve been in the conversation with me for a while you know that I often find myself laying the text alongside my life and finding parallels. I find myself doing this in an especially tender way this week for even as I write my family is marking the 15th anniversary of my dad’s death.  And so it is I’ve been thinking about ‘authority’ even while my mind travels back to a hospital room and hard decisions — a time so very marked by struggle and loss and comfort and hope….
Today I remember especially the bright lights of a hospital consultation room and the uncomfortable chairs that were ours to sit on.  I remember the doctor sitting at the end of the table and that I had a good view of him and of my sisters who sat opposite me.  Our mother sat to my left between me and the doctor.  I remember we had asked for this meeting for in the manner of large teaching hospitals we had seldom had conversation with the physician overseeing my dad’s care.  We had kept that vigil three weeks by then and there were signs that his condition was continuing to deteriorate.  And we were wondering if it was now time to stop. We were wondering if it was time to simply let him go.
I remember the doctor — the one carrying all the symbols of ‘authority’ — the degrees, the white coat, the experience.  I remember him hearing our concerns and listening to our questions but that even he stood in that mystery between life and death. Finally, he said that our wondering if it might be time to stop the fight made sense.  Still, it was our decision.  He passed the ‘authority’ over this precious life in this life back to us.
I remember that as we waited for family to gather I leaned on the counter in the Intensive Care Unit outside his room and asked the nurse in charge how this would go now, once life support was removed.  She didn’t meet my eye.  She kept filling in her charts as she quietly said to me, “If you’re fortunate, it will go quickly.”  She spoke with the ‘authority’ of one who had walked this path before with hundreds of families, probably.  Perhaps she spoke with the ‘authority’ of one who had lived this even closer to home.
I remember gathering around his bedside and I remember the quavering prayer of a young hospital chaplain… probably a CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) student who was on call after midnight that night.  I knew that in that hour I couldn’t have and certainly didn’t want the ‘authority’ to pastor my own family.  I needed to hear those words of comfort and promise spoken with a different voice.  And I found myself ever so grateful to have another take on the ‘authority’ to speak those words in that hour.   
I remember that then the nurse on duty moved around his bed and quietly pressed buttons.  I remember the whirring of the machines becoming silent and I remember that apparently my sisters and I were all doing the same thing: we were watching the monitors to see his pressure dropping.   And I remember my mother — her voice choked with tears, speaking with the kind of ‘authority’ that is rooted in love saying to us, “Don’t look at the machines.  Look at your dad.”
And I remember the ‘authority’ of another pastor — one serving a congregation neighboring mine — who got the call very early that next morning.  He was already scheduled to preach in my stead, but in the next hours he rewrote his sermon to include words about how to minister to a pastor who was grieving.  He spoke with ‘authority’ that day: the kind born of hard earned experience in ministry and in life. 
And I have to say that more than anything I remember recognizing the ‘authority’ of Jesus all over and through that time in the love and care of God’s people… and in the mysterious, really impossible to explain in words, ways in which I sensed the very presence of God holding me, holding us then, promising us that not even this would defeat us.  Assuring us that this was not the end: not in any ultimate sense.
All of these things I remember and they give me some sense of what ‘authority’ is.  Authority, it seems to me, is marked by experience and authenticity and love. 
And yet I find I wonder, still, about what the people saw and heard in Jesus that day. 

One might be tempted to say that it was the miracle they witnessed next that caused them to be so impressed.  But they’re already speaking of Jesus’ ‘astounding’ authority even before Jesus casts out the evil that confronts him.

Perhaps they had history with him, but we don’t know that for sure.

Surely his life so far had honed in him unusual gifts for this teaching…. And perhaps that was easily recognized as he stood before them in the synagogue.

However it was they came to know it, they knew it even then to be sure: that yes, Jesus did have ‘authority’ … only not the kind that comes with degrees, or uniforms or titles… except, of course, the only ‘title’ that mattered where he is declared God’s Own Beloved Son at his baptism as we were reminded again a few weeks back. 

And this was an authority born of love, to be sure…. only his listeners in the synagogue could not have yet fully known the significance of that love and what it would be, what it would mean.

You and I do know though. We carry the whole story in our minds and on our hearts as we stand alongside those gathered in the synagogue now.   More than that, we are those who are still watching the meaning of Jesus’ authority unfold in our own lives and in the lives of the people we are called to serve.  We know that the strength of Jesus’ authority lies in his experience and authenticity and love. 

The sort of experience that lived the same life you and I do as one of us.

The kind of authenticity that has one recognizing that there is no deception, but only truth experienced in every encounter.

The sort of love that did so much more than simply teach and heal, more than feed thousands and cast aside evil.  The kind of love that gives it all away — even life itself — for the sake of this world God so loves…

Some things I’m wondering still…

  •  What do you think had the people sitting up and taking notice in the synagogue that day?  What must that experience have been like for them?

  • When you think of ‘authority’ figures in your life and experience, what gave them that authority?  How does their authority compare to that of Jesus’?
  • How do you believe one gains ‘authority?’  Is it given?  Is it earned?  Is it a combination of both?
  • How does Jesus have ‘authority’ over your life, your family, your place of employment, your ministry?  When have you experienced this to be especially true?  How would others recognize this is so?
  • Do you experience this story as a gift or a challenge or both? Why or why not?

4 comments

  1. I am just returning to the pulpit after nearly a month – lost my grandmother and my father since Christmas. Both passed away in a hospital so when I returned to this Gospel lesson I had many of the same thoughts about authority. Thanks for your thoughts – so glad I found your website today!

  2. Janet Hunt says:

    Kathy, I hold you in my prayers as you return to the pulpit. What a tender time this is for you. I’m glad you found this website, too. I hope you’ll drop in often. Much peace to you…

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