Under Authority

Notes for a sermon on Luke 7:1-10, preached on May 29, 2016 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (early service)
and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (English service).

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About 15 years ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning in July, I walked with the rest of the Diocese of Edmonton’s General Synod delegation from the Waterloo University residences to the university arena. There we joined with other Anglicans and Lutherans from every part of Canada, and many people from the area around. We joined in a grand and joyful celebration, during the course of which Archbishop Michael Peers and National Bishop Telmor Sartisan signed what is now known as the Waterloo Declaration. Since that time, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have been in Full Communion. [Pastor Jason’s] [My] presence here today is one of the fruits of that relationship. Trinity Lutheran and Holy Trinity Anglican have been working at building a relationship based on Waterloo.

The years leading up to that day were a time of dialogue between our churches, beginning with discussion among theologians, moving out into the dioceses and synods, and eventually into congregations. In my first charge, I was delighted to share a celebration of shared communion with the neighbouring Lutheran congregation. A few years later, in a different community, after the release of the proposed Waterloo Declaration, I participated with parishioners in a study of the proposed text, along with counterparts from the Lutheran congregation from just down the street.

We had very good discussions over four weeks, but things came to a head when a man from the Lutheran congregation said that this was all very interesting, but what difference would it make to their church? I told him that if their Pastor received another call, and they were in the call process, they would be free to call me if they so desired. “But… but… you are not Lutheran!” was his spluttered response. Aha!

So… what is this all about?

One several levels, it’s about authority, which is one of the underlying themes of today’s Gospel reading. It appears to be a simple story: Jesus is interrupted (something that happens all the time in his ministry) and asked to go to heal the slave of a centurion. Without actually meeting the slave or his master, Jesus effects the healing from a distance. A miracle!

We could leave it there, rejoicing in Jesus’ mastery over the forces of evil and disease. But let’s take a closer look at the story, and especially at the centurion, the second most important character, even though he never appears.

He’s quite a surprising character. The fact that he paid for the synagogue in Capernaum sets him apart immediately as a friend to the people whose land his army is occupying. He is a soldier with a heart, who cares deeply for his sick slave. He recognizes Jesus as a holy man who can help him. He knows enough about Jewish customs and beliefs not to risk defiling Jesus with his physical presence, or asking him into his house. What he has done has already pushed the boundaries of ordinary expectations.

Jesus’ response also pushes those boundaries. His ability to heal the sick is not constrained by space, ethnicity, or social status. Rather, he reaches out to someone beyond his community who recognizes Jesus’ authority, when the centurion declares:

For I also am a man set under authority…

Although he is set under authority, and wields it over others, the centurion’s power is limited. He can’t heal his slave without appealing to Jesus’ authority. Jesus likewise is “set under authority,” doing the will of his Father in heaven in bringing healing to this world.

“Authority” has a particular meaning in the New Testament. It is associated with power—the ability to do things—but it is more than that. Having authority implies the legal or moral right to exercise power, which means that the power and the right come from elsewhere. The centurion has authority under the rules of the Roman Empire and its army. Jesus’ authority comes from God alone.

After the Resurrection, Jesus committed his authority to proclaim and to build the Reign of God to his disciples. We read in John 20:21

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

We are the inheritors of Jesus’ authority, and so we are called to exercise that authority in the knowledge of its source. It comes ultimately from God, through Jesus, through the apostles, down the ages in the Church with all its historical twists and turns, to us today, in this building in this city in this year.

Authority brings responsibility. Power can never be left idle. Having the ability to do good demands of us that we actually do good. Power must also be exercised rightly. The moral or legal right to do things does not mean that whatever we do is the right thing.

It is no accident that the Church has devoted a huge amount of energy over the centuries to the matter of authority. It goes back right into the New Testament, beginning in Acts, when the eleven remaining apostles added Matthias to their number, only after making certain that he had the right history. Later the Church in Jerusalem needed to check Paul’s credentials before agreeing that his mission could continue. First Timothy contains a detailed list of qualifications for a bishop.

In today’s Church, as both Lutherans and Anglicans have received it, we give great attention to authorizing people to the ministry of word and sacrament. For both communions, these are crucial matters. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession says this:

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

You can find almost the same words in Article XIX of the (Anglican) Articles of Religion.

We spend a huge amount of our institutional energy in trying to ensure that the people who lead our congregations—both lay and ordained—are properly authorized. Some people may view that at as a waste of time, but I would submit that it is of utmost importance. Jesus was “under authority.” He left his church under the same authority. We are under God’s authority, called to help build God’s kingdom in this world.

May all our doings, corporate and individual, display our commitment to doing our Lord’s will.

Amen.

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About robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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