By what authority? When I was a psychiatric chaplain, still in seminary, we had another chaplain intern named Harry. One time Harry was on the ward when one of the patients asked who he was. He explained that he was the chaplain. The man said ‘I don’t believe you’. So Harry reached in his wallet and pulled out his Seminary identification card. The man looked back at him and said ‘takes more than a photo to be a real preacher’ and he walked off.
Harry stood there crestfallen. Now it is true, that it is hard to tell who is who at many psychiatric hospitals and this one was no exception. The staff wore jeans to work and when they took the annual photo of the psychiatrists, you would swear they were patients. A visitor once looked in incredulity and asked the head nurse on our ward how you tell the patients from the staff? She responded ‘We have the keys’ and walked on.
Harry reported this sad incident to our supervisor who was slack jawed with amazement. He said ‘Harry, if this man had questioned your masculinity, would you have dropped your drawers?’
The supervisor said ‘Harry, authority is conferred upon you by other people, especially spiritual authority. Apparently, you have some things to do before this man is ready to confer it upon you.’
Jesus had that charisma that moved people to invest him with authority almost immediately upon meeting him. There was something about him… enigmatic perhaps… but he had a spiritual and moral charisma that people recognized. It is very likely that quite a few people thought he might be the Messiah. Even the Jewish historian of the first century, Josephus, writes about him as Jesus whom they call the Messiah.
Other people said he was the Messiah or a prophet perhaps. Some of the Greeks said he was a ‘Son of God’. Jesus himself, doesn’t say anything at first, to the question of what authority he exercises. When asked again, he only gives a cryptic, enigmatic response.
Ray Brown says that the reason Jesus doesn’t say much is most likely because he realized that nothing that he said in this forum would be properly understood, neither would it make any difference.
It is a very frustrating situation. Some of us know what it is like to be in a frustrating situation where speech doesn’t matter much. In the spate of mergers and acquisitions that are going on throughout the economy, particularly in the financial sector, the new configuration after the merger frequently has 8 people and only 5 desks.
Just as frequently the decisions on who gets a seat and who gets the door has little or nothing to do with job performance. Often it doesn’t matter that you are at the top of your game and that you have been responsible for earning the firm solid money in the past few years. Sometimes being excellent just means you are expensive and expensive is a liability. It doesn’t matter that you have sacrificed a lot of personally, been loyal. It certainly doesn’t matter that you have two kids in college and a mother-in-law in a nursing home depending on you. It doesn’t matter that you are a great guy. You could get down on your knees and beg. You could stand and scream about the arbitrariness of it all. But they aren’t giving you your job back.
Some of us know about illnesses that won’t be cured. I got a note from a friend my age with a terminal disease who said, with incredulity, ‘this wasn’t ever an option.’ Your kids are in elementary school. This is not happening to me. And you can curse the doctor for not being clairvoyant when you first came with symptoms months ago, and you can curse yourself for your diet and lifestyle, and you can curse your ancestors for their lousy genes and our society for its polluting toxins. You can curse God for the injustice of this world but there still is not a cure for that disease.
Some of us know about spouses that have made up their mind, present us with the stunning news that they are going their way, and that is that. And you can plead about the quality of what you have had together, you can promise to change, you can beg for them to go to counseling. You can get your lawyer to make their life miserable. You can exact as much settlement as you can get but they are not coming back. And that hole in your heart is not going away.
In general, we tend to let the circumstances of our lives become all controlling for us. That is doubly true in times of crisis. We let the world around us set the agenda. Fredric Beuchner says ‘In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running the strongest. When good things happen, we rise to the heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or the other the world blesses us, our spirits soar’… We are in constant danger of not being actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors.'[i]
How different it is with Jesus. Jesus is in a life threatening situation. Presumably there were a number of things that he could have done. He could have just fled to begin with, head down to the coral reef in the Red Sea, and hidden out. He didn’t do that. Presumably, he could have corralled his followers and incited a huge riot, calling down the angels from heaven, so to speak. He didn’t do that. He could have delivered a searing oration about the injustice of the Roman empire and the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. He didn’t do that either.
Instead what he appears to have done is allow the Spirit of God to fill him. This is the way that the gospel writers depict the whole life of Jesus. Jesus appears to have been on a life pilgrimage to be a conduit for the Spirit of God to flow through him in whatever situation he happened to find himself involved.
From the time he was baptized, to the time he retreated to the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer to clarify his mission and purpose; to the many acts of compassion and healing in the people that he encountered; to the times that he retreated to refocus himself, he appears on being intent on transforming the world around him through releasing the loving, gracious Spirit of God. He is not floating downstream with the current that he finds himself, he is transforming that reality with the love of God.
That concentration of focus seems to get more intense as he heads towards arrest, trial, torture, and death. He appears to be more focused on being filled with the Spirit of God rather than on the agenda of the world. He neither confirms nor denies any claims to be the Messiah. He doesn’t allow other people’s questions about him to define who he is. He doesn’t allow himself to be limited by the near sightedness of their vision of who he is and what he is about. He is quiet, and yet it appears to be a quiet that is not so much the silence of a victim as the peace that comes from integrity. It is a quiet of someone who remains in control of himself. He is the only one quietly human in the clamor of an inhuman injustice. It is a deafening silence of contrast.
Don’t you wish you had that peace in the midst of tribulation? Don’t you wish you knew who you were so well and what you were to be about? Don’t you wish you were an actors and not, like Joe said last week, ‘loitering in the vicinity of your own lives?’
We want to fit in so much and be like everyone else that our temptation is to lose ourselves in the process. That is why so many of us wake up at 45 and say ‘I’ve been playing someone else’s game for so long, I’m not even sure who I am anymore?’ President Calvin Coolidge once invited some friends from his hometown to dine at the White House. But they were all worried that they wouldn’t use the right table manners, they wouldn’t fit in, so they decided just to do everything that Coolidge did. Made sense. It went well until coffee was served. The president poured his coffee into the saucer. The guests did the same. Coolidge added sugar and cream. His guests did, too. Then Coolidge bent over and put his saucer on the floor for the cat.
Sound familiar? We’re so good at fitting in to the slots the world has given us that sometimes we have trouble actually knowing who we are. Rabbi Zusya once said ‘In the world to come I shall not be asked, ‘why weren’t you Moses?’ I should be asked ‘why were you not Zusya?’ Jesus didn’t let other people define him. He wasn’t a fixture in their agenda. He was authentically himself.
‘The peace that Jesus offers’, says Fredrick Beuchner again, ‘has nothing to do with the things that are going on at the moment he offers it, which are for the most part tragic and terrible things. It is a peace beyond the reach of the tragic and terrible. It is a profound and inward peace that sees with unflinching clarity the tragic and terrible things that are happening and yet is not shattered by them. He loves his friends enough to be more concerned for their frightened and troubled hearts than he is for his own, and yet his love for his friends is no more where his peace comes from than his impending torture and death are where his peace will be destroyed. His peace comes not from the world but from something whole and holy within himself which sees the world also as whole and holy because deep beneath all the broken and unholy things that are happening in it even as he speaks, Jesus sees what he calls the Kingdom of God.'[ii]
Jesus fills this silent confrontation with the peace of God. He points us towards the transcendent possibility that we might keep our authentic integrity, our compassionate humanity when we are threatened to our very core.
Perhaps it is precisely here that his real authority resides for us. He not only taught us with his words, he taught us with his life and death what it looks like to become authentically human in an inhuman world. He points us towards resident spiritual capacities we weren’t using to our fullest potential and in so doing points our way toward home.
In some ways, it is particularly hard for us to focus on this peace and quietude. We would prefer something more of an action figure like Oddeysus. When the Greeks were being overwhelmed by the Trojans at the climax of the long battle, they had to quickly decide whether to cut and run for their ships or to fight to the death. The leaders huddled quickly and decided to fight to the death and they led the charge into the middle of the Trojans and drove them back. Forget fear and just fight til we overcome, come what may…
We like that much more and it is understandable because it fits our life a little better right now. It is a courageous grit that befits the Masters of the Universe. The vast majority of us feel, just now, like we are pretty much in control of our lives, in control of our destiny. We are prosperous, so we don’t mind steering our yacht downstream. The stream is good. We have an aspiring generation of children who have known nothing but increasing opportunity and prosperity. Our kids think a limitation is when they have to shop at the Gap instead of Nordstrom’s. And we parents think we are exercising restraint because we send our kids to public school.
And may the prosperity continue. But, it is incredible that some of us will be able to raise our kids through high school with one opportunity after another, positive affirmation followed by positive affirmation, passports full of stamps, kids full of vision that anything is possible for them, and the only real crises and limitations they have known are the ones of their own creation. It is an amazing era in this regard.
But we are haunted at the same time, are we not? We know, in the back of our minds that Pleasantville may not be a spiritually healthy enviornment. Why? Because spiritual health and maturity means that we have to deal with loss, we have to deal with frustration, we have to deal with handling ourselves in situations we can’t control. Eleanor Roosevelt once said ‘You gain strength and confidence by every experience where you have to really stop and look these fears in the face… You must do the thing you cannot do.’
In the back of our minds we know that is true. We know that we would be more rounded if things weren’t so prosperous. And that, of course, is why Christians for centuries have practiced the discipline of the season of Lent. We know that we need to learn to deal with limitation because the reality is that our world is filled with a great deal of tragedy, illness. And all of us must one day walk through the portals of death… alone. That won’t change.
By what authority? Jesus doesn’t answer that question. Maybe it’s the wrong question altogether. Jesus simply and profoundly embodies spiritual purpose. He shows us that we can have authentic integrity even when the whole world is falling apart around us. He shows us that we can stay in control of our compassionate humanity in the midst of injustice, hypocrisy, and plain old evil. He shows us that the spiritual meaning of our lives is to release the Spirit of loving grace come what may. And the most amazing transformation will take place in ourselves and in others. He reminds us that there will be critical junctures in our lives when this may be all we have. And in a frightening, authentic way, this story suggests it may be all we need. ‘Do not fear’, says God, ‘for lo I will be with you, even unto the close of this age.’ Amen.
[i] Fredrick Beuchner, The Longing for Home (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 109.
[ii] Ibid. pps, 110,111.