Everybody wants power. Including church folks. That is why authority is such a hot-button issue in our parishes, in our denominations, and in the intersection of faith and public life.
Who makes the rules and sets the agenda in our faith communities and denominations? Who is considered worthy of preaching the Word, of administering the rites and sacraments, of exercising moral and practical leadership in our churches? How much authority should people of faith be able to exercise in creating and promoting public policy for all citizens? These questions, and the inevitable conflicts they raise, roil in the Church, on both a local and a large-scale level.
To me, the lessons many of us heard this morning all address the issue of power in the Reign of God. The issue is addressed most explicitly in the Gospel lesson, when Jesus visits the Temple and is confronted by the chief priests and elders -- perhaps understandably perturbed by this upstart yokel rabbi whose preaching and associations and actions run counter to their understanding of righteousness and ritual holiness. "By whose authority are you saying and doing these things?" they demand; in other words, "Who do you think you are?"
Jesus does something interesting here. He engages the religious bigshots on their own turf, in their own terms, using a rhetorical device called pilpul; he answers a question with another question. Jewish scholars would engage in rounds of these rhetorical challenges, in a process that, ideally, was supposed to result in insight and mutual understanding. One wonders if the religious authorities are momentarily taken aback when the rube from Nazareth meets their challenge and leaves them unsure, equivocating, trying to figure out the answer that will get them in the least amount of trouble with the people, whom one presumes from the text have gathered around this group to hear the exchange.
Now that he has their attention, Jesus returns to a favorite teaching device, the parable. To quote the theme song from Cops, his story is about "bad boys" -- two young men who don't do right by their father, a vineyard owner. When Dad tells the first son to get to work in the vineyard, the son says, "No way" (who knew that ancient Palestinian kids backsassed the old man?) -- but, after awhile, the kid thinks the better of it and goes to work. The second son, told by his father to get to work, says, "Right on it, Dad!" -- but he isn't. This, says Jesus, is what's going on here. God has given all God's people work to do in the world -- to mend the broken places and bring it back into a right relationship with God. The studiously holy folks, the ones who think they know the score when it comes to doing God's will, say, "Right on it" -- but they're not. They're good at thinking about it, talking about it, arguing about it; doing it, not so much. Meanwhile, notes Jesus, the presumed delinquents of society, in the eyes of the holy folks -- the hard cases, the clueless, as well as the average Moishes and Sadies who simply couldn't keep up with the ever-more-complex corpus of ritual law -- they are responding to Jesus' message of God's in-breaking Reign in ways that matter.
What Jesus seems to be saying here is that the authority, the power, to speak and act on God's behalf comes with the doing of God's will. Not in the sense of following the T-crossing, I-jotting minutiae of second-hand ritual laws and religious convention, but in the actual living out of God's redeeming, reconciling work in the world; the living out of the "new heart and new spirit" the prophet Ezekiel refers to; the turning toward life and wholeness. And Jesus also seems to say that this living-out can and will be done by the very people the holy folks believe least capable of doing so -- because, as Jesus implies and as the letter to the Philippians underscores, it's God who confers the power to do just that.
So the nature of power is different in the Reign of God than it is in the world; it's a power made manifest in saving, in transforming, in reconciling, in renewing. And it's a power not grasped by force, but given by God. But what does the exercise of power, of authority, look like in the Reign of God? Is it about coercion? Is it about "carrying a big stick" in a personal, congregational, denominational or political context, in order to make things turn out right? No. In the Reign of God, power is exercised by giving it away; about giving oneself away for others, as Jesus did. The Kenosis Hymn of Philippians spells it out. And it's important to realize that this isn't a paen to a kind of masochistic, "kick me" mentality; as Christ pours himself out voluntarily, from a position of power, so do we, empowered people of God, siblings of Christ and members of the household of God, voluntarily give ourselves away. Think of Jesus' example of turning the other cheek; not an expression of weakness and passivity, but rather a deliberate, mindful giving up of the power to slap back; a moral and indeed cosmic martial art as we live in an antagonistic, death-dealing world.
How good at I at wielding this sort of divinely sanctioned power in the world? I'm terrible at it. I want to slap back. I want to be the one making the rules and exercising payback. I'm the kid who, when presented with the real work of God's Reign, is inclined to say, "Right on it," and then I don't do it. Or I'm the kid who, when presented with God's work, simply says, "Don't want to." One of my old college friends was an audiology grad student whose first solo audiology test was of a recalcitrant five-year-old who responded to each of her testing requests with "Don't want to"; he intoned this mantra, in various cadences and degrees of crankiness, for a good half-hour. Well, that tends to be me, on any given day, with The CEO asking me, "Can you hear me now?" and my answering "Don't want to."
The good news? Sometimes, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I do "hear him now." The turning is going on; in fits and starts, to be sure, but I feel it. And I believe that is true of all of us who claim the Christ -- and some of us who don't. God is slowly, patiently, helping us divest ourselves of our own claims to power and authority, so God can instead fill us with God's own -- so that we in turn can give it away, like a perpetually overflowing, perpetually renewing fountain to quench the thirst of a world that's never tasted this kind of power before.
Pelican Feeding Young, Tiffany stained glass window