Sermon for Sunday, 28 September 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Pastor Carrie Smith
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Conclusion of the World Week for Peace
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning, at the conclusion of the World Council of Church’s Week of Prayer for Peace, we encounter Jesus being a disturber of the peace. At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus enters the temple to preach and teach, where he was immediately challenged by the chief priests and elders. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they demanded. In other words: “Who do you think you are?”
|A view of the temple mount area today|
Photo by Carrie Smith
This may seem a swift and harsh rebuff, but to be fair, this wasn’t the first thing Jesus had done to earn the attention of the temple authorities. The day before, Jesus had entered Jerusalem with a fanfare usually afforded only to kings, including a noisy crowd going before him and behind him, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”
Once inside the city, Jesus entered the temple and drove out the merchants, turned over the tables of the moneychangers, and generally disrupted what was considered business as usual. And there again, he was met with public admirers, this time children crying out to him (inside the temple, no less!): “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
Having caused enough trouble for one day, Jesus spent the night outside the city, in Bethany. But the next morning, upon returning to Jerusalem, he created more drama when he publicly cursed and withered a fig tree…for not providing him breakfast. In the presence of his astonished disciples he scolded the tree for its behavior: “You say you’re a fig tree—so show me! Give me some figs! If you aren’t going to grow figs, then don’t hang around promising you can feed people.” And just like that, the fig tree was no more.
I imagine the news of that little breakfast show spread through the Jerusalem streets faster than you could say “hummus and falafel.”
So by the time Jesus reached the temple to teach on his second day here in the city, he had drawn not only the attention but also the ire of the chief priests and elders. They didn’t quite know what to do with this visitor who seemed to claim authority even over fig trees, but they definitely wanted him gone. So they tried to trip him up with a question: “By whose authority are you doing these things?” In other words: We don’t want to deal with what you’re actually saying and doing, so please say something that shuts this whole thing down. Something like, you know, “I’m the Son of God!” Because then we can write you off as crazy and idolatrous, run you out of town, and move on.
The adoring crowds, the rebuke of the moneychangers, and the cursing of the fig tree all led up to this moment in the temple, in which Jesus and the chief priests faced off regarding who possesses the authority to preach, and teach, and act in God’s name. Many scholars believe this authority issue to be the tipping point, which guarantees Jesus’ journey will end at the cross.
We’re no strangers to authority issues ourselves, of course. Last Sunday, our church communications director posted a photo on Facebook, showing the Bishop and other church elders laying on hands to pray for me during my installation service. Almost immediately, a man from Germany posted a comment to the ELCJHLFacebook page:
“There’s only one word for this: heresy!”
I had to look at it a few times to realize what he meant, but it was pretty clear: He is opposed to the ordination of women.
He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but this seemed like a nasty little jab on an otherwise lovely day, so my dear spouse deleted the comment.
A few moments later, the guy was back again, writing:
“This is heresy, even if you don’t want to hear it!”
This time, our communications coordinator, Danae, deleted his comment.
But, again, for the third time in less than five minutes, the same man posted, “Apostasy from the una sancta!” (Translation: By installing a woman as pastor, Redeemer and the ELCJHL have strayed from the one holy catholic and apostolic church.)
This entire online interaction was hilarious, if you think about it. Accusing Lutherans of heresy and bucking church authority, 497 years after Luther’s posting of the 95 theses in Wittenberg, is a little like organizing a protest against the planned placement of the pyramids in Giza. It’s a little late for that. The cat’s already out of the bag. Yep, we’re heretics! We teach the priesthood of all believers, grace through faith apart from works, sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and yes, for many Lutherans, women’s ordination. Ecclesia semper reformanda est. Here I stand, I can do no other!
Our Facebook friend was concerned with the same authority issues that brought Jesus and the chief priests face to face in the temple: Who gives you the authority to do these things, especially in the name of God? By whose authority does this woman call herself a pastor? By whose authority does this gathering of people call itself a church? By whose authority do we preach grace, share bread, and pray for the sick? By whose authority do any of us speak against injustice or advocate for change?
These are questions we might well consider at the conclusion of this World Week of Prayerfor Peace in Palestine and Israel. Last Saturday, clergy and representatives of churches gathered under the shadow of the wall in Bethlehem. Because the focus this year was on political prisoners, we heard from parents of those currently imprisoned, from those recently freed, from church leaders, and from local children. We prayed for freedom, for justice, and for peace. And all the while, the wall loomed before us, an unavoidable symbol of years of conflict, years of separation, years of pain on both sides, silently posing the same question we heard in the Gospel lesson today: “By whose authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Who do we think we are, to pray for peace, to speak for justice, and to hope for a better future for Palestinians and Israelis together?
The answer should be a simple one: We are Christians, called to be the Body of Christ in the world. We pray and hope and work and advocate and keep the faith because we believe good has authority over evil, love has authority over hate, light has authority over darkness, and life has authority over death.
But it isn’t always that simple, is it? Wherever the Gospel of love is preached, powers and principalities will challenge it mightily. And whenever we’re questioned about the source of our authority to pray, to preach, or to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, it can be tempting to try and justify ourselves. We may want to drop names, pull out our resumes, or call upon external power structures to provide backing for our actions.
But notice that in the Gospel lesson for today, when challenged as to the source of his authority, Jesus did not call upon his knowledge of the prophets. He didn’t list the signs, wonders, and miracles he had performed over the last three years of his ministry. He didn’t point to the large crowds who welcomed him or the faithful disciples who followed him into town.
Instead, standing firm, he submitted to his opponents another challenge. Jesus’ question to the elders, and their response to it, revealed that in spite of their righteous indignation, their fear of public opinion held more authority over them than God. In typical Jesus fashion, he turned the tables on them: Who were they, to question him?
The truth is, we’re all a bit like those elders in the temple that day. We’re all more like the second son than the first in Jesus’ parable, confessing faith in God with our mouths but giving authority to other influences when it comes to actually living out that faith. At one time or another, we’ve all been like strict vegetarians…who also happen to eat cheeseburgers.
So our authority to pray, to speak, or to act in the name of Christ never comes from our own righteousness. We never seek validation from exit polls or election results; from perfect theology or a fat bank account; from great armies or hordes of admirers; for we will always be hypocrites, both saint and sinner, simul justus et peccatur. Our permission to act as the Body of Christ in the world can only ever come from our identity as children of God, baptized into Christ’s death and raised with him to new life.
Which, in fact, gets to God’s Good News for us today, which is this: The only authority issue that matters for us is Christ’s authority over sin and death. For we belong to Christ, 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.
The cross of Christ reveals once and for all that true authority comes from vulnerability and care for the other. The cross alone is what authorizes us to gather for prayer, work for peace, and hope for a better future. Jesus Christ’s great act of self-emptying love is the source of our strength and the wellspring of our hope. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(ELW page 76)