Who has authority in your life? Who influences you at your deepest level, influences the way you live? Who has power to transform you, to free your soul, to lead you into more and better life than you ever dreamed of (John 10:10 MSG)? Some authorities have the power or the right to give you orders, prescribe what your decisions will be, and enforce obedience, but they don’t have the kind of power Jesus had when he taught with authority (Mark 1:21-28), the power of transformation, the power of new life. What kind of authority did he have?
There are many kinds of authority in our lives. There’s authority rooted in long-standing beliefs or traditions; there’s authority based on laws and the rights we give some to enforce those laws; charismatic authority rises from the force of someone’s extraordinary personality. Authority also comes from social status, certain competencies or skills, possession of information, ownership, and so forth. Then there’s Jesus of Nazareth, who taught with authority unlike any other. What made his authority different?
Most authority grows out of or comes with some power. But St. Paul described another kind of authority, real authority, one that grows from a power unlike any earthly power. You’ll recognize his words; I’ve simply changed the word “love” to “authority.” Compare this description of authority with examples of authority in your life or ones you read about in the news, then compare it with what you know about the authority of Jesus.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have [authority], I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have [authority], I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have [authority], I gain nothing. [Authority] is patient; [authority] is kind; [authority] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:1-7).
Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrased Mark’s description of Jesus’ teaching. It was “so forthright, so confident – not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars” (Mark 1:22 MSG) – or, we might say, like the politicians. In other words, Jesus spoke from the heart, from the place at the heart of his being where the heart of creation lived, from the place in his heart that resonated with the same place in the hearts of his listeners.
That’s authority – genuine, authentic, honest-to-God authority. He didn’t come with a lesson plan or a seminary degree or any official recognition and approval. He didn’t teach about orthodoxy or right tradition. He didn’t add the burden of more or different rules to people’s lives. Instead, he went to the very heart of his being, and from there he spoke to the hearts of those around him.
I hope the authorities in your life – and I hope you have some of these – are people who, in exploring the deep places in their hearts, invite you to explore the deep places in your own heart. I hope they’re people who are learning to live with openness, curiosity, sincerity, and integrity the ordinary sacred lives they’ve been given, and I hope they’re an example for you as you try to do the same. I hope they respect you enough not to teach you about God but to encourage you to discover for yourself the God whose living word is written on your heart and who lives in you and is at work in you.
When I was ordained, the bishop said to me, among other things, “Take thou authority.” It has taken most of my career in ministry – most of my life, in fact – to learn what he meant, to learn what real authority is. I hope all of you, bound together with one another on the journey of faith, you will take the authority God gives you, not to be gatekeepers of the kingdom, but to be pioneering examples for others of a life lived in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation.