By What Authority?

September 28, 2014   Psalm 78: 1-8  Matthew 21: 23-27

Rev. Catherine Purves


     If you come back this afternoon at 4:00 for Charissa’s ordination, you will be caught up in a wonderful worshipful jamboree.  There will be people from at least three churches, Pittsburgh Seminary faculty and students, family, friends, and possibly some people who just wander in off the street when they hear the music and the celebrating.  Ordinations are huge, important events in the life of the whole church.  With so many different people, churches and institutions having a stake in the event this afternoon, you may well wonder who will be doing the ordaining.  By what authority will Charissa be ordained? 

      At the end of the day, we will all affirm that Charissa is now a Minister of Word and Sacrament, but the question of who has the power to ordain and where that authority lies is an important one.  We’d like to ordain her, and I’m sure her new church and her home church would like that authority.  Friends and colleagues and family members who have recognized her gifts for ministry would like to ordain her.  But only the Presbytery has the authority to ordain ministers.  We’ll provide the Sanctuary and we’ll handle the reception, but the Presbytery will conduct the worship service.  This is the way it works in the Presbyterian Church, where issues of authority matter.

     I spent all day on Thursday at a Presbytery meeting up at Camp Crestfield in Slippery Rock; Charissa was with me.  She had to present a statement of faith and answer questions about it.  This was the final step in the long process that leads to ordination.  If the Presbytery had failed to approve Charissa’s statement and her defense of it on Thursday, then we would not be having a service of ordination this afternoon.  That’s how much authority the Presbytery has.  At that meeting we also approved the merger of two churches, we allowed several churches to call new ministers, we approved the Presbytery’s budget for next year, we voted to allow a few ministers to retire, and we did a whole lot of other things that would immediately affect congregations and their ministries.  You may wonder, “By what authority could the Presbytery do all of that?”  This is just what the leaders of the temple wanted to know about Jesus.

     When Jesus was teaching and preaching in the temple, the chief priests and elders came up to him and, in a rather belligerent way, asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  Knowing who Jesus was, we might be highly offended by such an impertinent question.  How dare they question the authority of Jesus?  Who do they think they are?  Well, they were fulfilling a role similar to that of our Presbytery.  Let’s say that Charissa decided to start her own church, rent a hall, and put a sign outside that said, “First Presbyterian Church of the Northside – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”  Well, our Presbytery would have a problem of that.  And they would no doubt ask her, “By what authority are you doing these things?” – the same question that the rulers of the temple asked Jesus.

     You know it’s always easy to find fault with chief priests and elders and with Pharisees and scribes.  They are such natural scapegoats.  To tell you the truth, the Presbytery gets the same kind of treatment as people assume that they are power-hungry meddlers who like to throw their weight around.  But how should we handle these questions of authority in the church and in our lives?  We may not think much about authority ourselves.  But we each have a hierarchy or a pyramid of authority in our minds that we may not even acknowledge, but that exerts a whole lot of influence on us.  By what authority do you think what you think, or do what you do, or value what you value, or believe what you believe?  Questions of authority matter, and they have always been with us. 

     You could probably argue that one of the abiding themes of the Bible is the whole issue of authority – who has it, how is it used, what does it mean for the people of God?  From Moses to the Apostle Paul, from the 10 Commandments to the Way of Christ, from judges to kings to prophets to the Messiah, from the temple to the Scriptures to the church – these are all part of our struggling with issues of authority as the people of God.  In our Psalm reading for today we get a sense of the historical breadth of this question of authority.  It is clear in the Psalm that it is our responsibility teach our children about the authority of God, so that they can teach their children, and children yet unborn will teach their children, “so that they should set their hope in God.”  Knowing God, acknowledging the authority of God, should shape our understanding of all other authorities.

     So, let’s get down to it, then, and ask what in your life is most authoritative.  Before you answer with one of the automatic, pat responses that our children might give to my questions in the Children’s Sermon – that is, God, the Bible, or Jesus – let me warn you that your actual hierarchy of authority may function a little differently than you think. 

     Here’s an example of how that could work.  Charissa will be duly ordained by our Presbytery this afternoon.  She will answer all of the Constitutional Questions (which are largely the same questions that Deacons and Elders must answer when they are ordained).  One of those questions reads:  “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline?”  After her ordination, Charissa will begin her ministry at Liberty Presbyterian Church in McKeesport.  I’m sure that she won’t, but she could then go off and do whatever she wants in her church.  She could ignore the Presbytery.  She could allow that church to function as a de facto congregational church with no real connection to other Presbyterian churches, to the Presbytery, to our Book of Order or our Book of Confessions.  Yet, the church would probably still call itself Presbyterian.  If that happened – though we know it won’t – what must we say about those all-important questions of authority that we are asking?           

     Well, unfortunately, trying to discern what functions as you true authority is very difficult, because often what you say is your top authority is not always the authority that shapes and dictates your behavior.  How we actually live in response to our claimed authorities shows that this question is an on-going struggle for most people.  That is probably why issues of authority are so dominant in the Bible.  We may say and even believe that the 10 Commandments are an important part of our hierarchy of authority, but do we actually live by them…really?  We may say – I hope we would all say – that Jesus himself is at the pinnacle of our pyramid of authorities, but is that evident, is that clearly visible in the way that we live our lives?  Or are there other sneaky authorities invading our minds and hearts and shaping what we think and believe and do? 

     What might these other authorities be?  How about your own independent mind – perhaps only things that make sense to you exert a real authority in your life.  Or consider the authority which some people grant to science over against the authority of God.  What about the American Constitution and Bill of Rights – how do you reconcile the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow him?  Or consider the unique array of prejudices you may have inherited from your parents or the culture you grew up in or from current friends and acquaintances – you may deny the validity of racial or ethnic prejudices, but how much real authority do they still exert over you, in spite of the fact that Jesus taught that we are all one in him?  Issues of authority are very complicated, and a lot goes on under the radar, so that we have to be intentional and honest as we examine ourselves and ask ourselves, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

     I’ll warn you, this is not a fun process, and you will uncover sins that you didn’t know you had.  Like the chief priests and the elders who first asked the question, when the tables are turned, we too may find ourselves in a terrible conundrum in which there seems to be no right answer.  This is because the secret authorities that rule our lives are so powerful.  The chief priests and elders revealed that their real authority was public opinion – not truth, not Scripture, and certainly not Jesus.  “We do not know,” is what they finally said. 

     Let us, at least, not make their mistake.  We do know the true nature of Jesus’ authority.  He is the Messiah, the Son of God, our Savior.  When we acknowledge that, then we are beginning a lifelong struggle to live faithfully under his supreme authority.  All other authorities, even that of our Presbytery (!), are way down in the hierarchy of authorities.   This is how we must live, and this is what we must teach our children and our children’s children, so that even those yet unborn will acknowledge the authority of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.