Sermon #321 St. Martin’s #77 (Big Church) 10/8/23
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Monks vs. Bishops
In the year 353 AD, a strange man entered the city of Aleppo. Now, this wasn’t too surprising, many people passed through this city due to its ideal placement next to a major road.
Traders and travelers alike made this city a pitstop on their journey as they made their way either north to Constantinople, west to Rome, south to Egypt, or to the ever-present deserts just to the east of the city.
But something was afoot, and one man in particular kept a close eye on all those who came and went from his spot near the city gate.
You see there was a movement that was growing in popularity with more and more of the regular townspeople throughout Syria. The one who had the most to lose from this new movement was the very man monitoring the strangers who entered his city.
Rumors had come from Egyptian traders a while back that something similar was happening in their part of the world too; people were flocking to the desert. But why? No one in their right mind voluntarily goes to such a barren place; what could possibly entice people out there?
Yet, something similar was beginning to happen in this man’s city too. People were going out to the Syrian desert for some reason, sometimes all day, many times going every day.
They would come back to the markets and tell the local vendors what they heard from these men who made the desert their home, and oddly enough, that strange man who entered the city a few moments ago began speaking loudly very similar words to those desert men.
The longer he listened, the man by the gate realized the stranger was some kind of traveling preacher, but so were the ones out in the desert. They were troublemakers in his eyes, riling up the crowd, teaching them things he was pretty sure they knew nothing about.
And he should know, he was an expert, and the city was under his care. If dissent was being sown by outsiders, then he’d need to put a stop to it quickly before it got out of hand. This was for the public good, after all.
But no, this man wasn’t the mayor of the city, nor was he the chief of police, he was in fact the bishop.
The fourth and fifth century was a major time of transition in the Church. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion and vaulted it to a pride of place within the empire that just a few years prior had openly killed Christians for their strange beliefs.
Quite suddenly, to be Christian meant something entirely different than it did, say, for the early church. What used to be an underground movement was now constructing basilicas in the center of town, all on the state’s dime.
But this radical change was not welcome news to everyone. Lay people, who felt like the soul of Christianity had been lost when it traded its long history of martyrdom and persecution for the comfort and wealth of the empire decided to “run for the hills,” you might say.
First, it was hermits who lived in solitude just a mile or two from the Egyptian Nile, and then groups of people, wearied by life and the burden of taxes, began living in an abandoned village not far from that river. Soon enough, people would flock to these holy hermits and religious communities to hear their critique of what was happening just a few miles away in the city and the mystical experiences they were having while in the desert.
They left the city for good reasons because they were no longer under the bishop’s jurisdiction. But the question remained, how would this lay movement take part in the Eucharist, a central part of the Christian life, without a priest or bishop to give them the Sacraments? This question bothered the bishops much more than the early monks.
Christian monasticism, both in Egypt and Syria, was an implied criticism of the church’s move to become mainstream, and it was a direct challenge to the authority of the bishop.
And so, it is no surprise that bishops were weary of this new movement. These monks had not gone through the official processes, they were not accountable to anyone, and their influence grew with the same people that were supposed to be under the bishop’s pastoral care. Bishops, after all, were the guardians of tradition, and what was happening in the desert was quite untraditional. A silent rebellion was happening right under their noses.
Chief Priests & Elders
Now, you didn’t come here to get a lesson on monasticism in late antiquity, but the similarities with our Gospel lesson today are uncanny. Matthew tells us that Jesus is in the Holy City, in the temple courts, teaching when a group of chief priests and elders quite rudely interrupts him.
These are the religious authorities, the priests and lay leaders of Jerusalem, who have come to ask this country bumpkin from Galilee: who does he think he is.
They are the Truth Squad—the spiritual auditors—who want to see his papers.
Jesus was not an ordained rabbi, and it's not clear if he had much schooling at all. Rabbis always spoke in the name of the rabbi they studied under. They would say, “Rabbi Hezekiah in Rabbi Jeremiah’s name said such and such about Leviticus 10.”
You were always connected to the larger tradition by the rabbi you studied under. It ensured a sense of order and protected people from following every wanna-be rabbi or messiah.
Somehow this reminds me of football.
As a Nashvillian, I am unfortunately a supporter of the Vanderbilt Commodores—by far the saddest attempt of a football team in the SEC. But a few years ago, we got a new coach who realized we didn’t have any chants like every other school on the planet, and so he came up with the chant: “Who ya with?” And people would yell back, “VU,” for Vanderbilt University.
You may walk down the street and see someone in black and gold and say, “Who ya with?”
But really, that’s what the chief priests and elders were asking Jesus. “Who ya with, Jesus? Cause you sure didn’t come through our schools. Where’s your seminary degree? How about your ordination certificate? And why do you not speak in the name of an older rabbi connected to our tradition. Instead, you have the audacity to say, ‘You have heard it said but I say to you,’ as if you have a new interpretation? Who ya with, Jesus? Who's giving you this kind of authority?”
The same would be true if someone started preaching on Sundays in the courtyard over here after services. Our sweet security guards would ask, “So who are you? Did Russ say you could do this?”
“Who ya with?” really gets to the heart of Jesus’ entire ministry. Slowly but surely he has been telling people that his authority is otherworldly; demons flee from him, even the wind and waves listen to him, and not only does he call God his Father, but he goes as far as to say that he and his Father are one!
All of this would have been unsettling to the religious status quo in Jerusalem where prayers and sacrifices are timed out perfectly, that is, until Jesus starts turning over tables.
The writer Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis not only has an awesome name, but he also gets to the heart of the religious elites’ anxiety about Jesus by saying: “How could this young upstart from Nazareth presume to flaunt the liberty of doing as he pleases with sacred Jewish traditions, savagely attacking the ancient order of worship in the Temple, to say nothing of violating the Sabbath? How can he presume to command illness to depart from wretched bodies as if he had power over physical creation? (Never mind that the blind and the lame were, in fact, healed in the sight of all. Only the principle of the thing mattered!) And how could he, the plebeian son of a remote carpenter, allow himself to be acclaimed Messiah by the multitude, thus tacitly accepting his right to rule universally over all mankind?”
What gives him the right?
Well, Jesus’ response to them sums it up. John the Baptist was undoubtedly sent from God. The regular, everyday people realized that and flocked to him and his baptism. Even tax collectors and prostitutes recognized what he was up to and took the leap of faith, while the priests and elders said all the right religious things but never believed John and definitely didn’t plunge into the Jordan.
And so, before us are two forms of authority to consider. One that desperately wants to hold onto what it has, no matter what God may be up to; no matter if it is God in the flesh telling them the new thing that is happening.
This kind of authority is based on fear of the unknown, and anxiety to keep things as is for its own sake. It doesn’t ask questions or seek different perspectives…it just clings to what it has for dear life.
The funny thing about Jesus’ authority is that it is always with him; it is his alone, and yet he can’t help but give it away. It is so absolutely his that he has no fear of losing it, even when sharing it with people like us.
For those with a keen ear of the Sunday lectionary, we have heard Jesus say twice over the past few months that he has given his disciples the authority to bind and loose on earth, and whatever “binding and loosely” they do, it shall be in heaven as well.
Why in the world would he give us such authority?
And the icing on the cake is at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that all authority has been given to him, and then he looks at them—this motley crew of followers—and says: Now take that authority and use it to baptize, to teach, preach– to bring others into my flock—and I will be with you always to the end of the age.
Just like his love, which is graciously bestowed on us and then we are called to give away to others; the same holds true for his authority. How recklessly beautiful is the way of God! It’s no surprise the serious religious folks of his day had a hard time with that…and even for many today.
I wonder if this morning you need to be reminded that you have been given authority, or I should say, entrusted with authority by the grace of your baptism? Your life is infused with a heavenly call to shine the light of Christ the best way you know how among the people and communities that surround you day in and day out.
Claim it! Claim it in this moment of worship, and then take it from this place and recklessly give it away to those who desperately need to hear that there is indeed Good News in this world.
It’s not too late. It’s better to be like the first son in Jesus’ parable who said one thing, but then finally went to work in the vineyard. It is so much better to act on Jesus’ words a little late than never it all.
And it is good to know the One who calls you to this vineyard work has given you the authority to share in this grand mission with him. What a gift that is.
Now, I gotta ask…who ya with?
Proper 21. Matthew 21:23-32. Bruner’s Matthew Vol. 2. Leiva-Merikakis’ Fire of Mercy, Vol. 3, pg. 436. Fictional story loosely inspired by Simeon the Stylite who was in Aleppo around that time. Photo by Ahmad Ajmi on Unsplash.