23. January 2011
Power struggles. We have them in every aspect of our life. Whether between co-workers or employers, husband and wife, parents and children, citizens and government, or even pastor and congregations, conflict often arises and one warring party attacks the other. Their weapons might be an angry barb, a hateful word, or even subtle manipulation of the system. Sometimes, either in offense or defense, a party resorts to violence.
In any case, the one to win is the one with power. Their power might be in wit and charm, or fierce and decisive rhetoric. Maybe they have strength of the arm, commanding acquiescence through their physical hulk. Perhaps their power lies in the enlisting of a fellowship of like-minded people, to rise up against “the man.” Or perhaps they know how to “work the system” to gain the advantage.
3. Conflict in the church arises over authority.
We witness these struggles first hand in the Christian congregation. Who has the power? Who decides how the budget is spent? Who has the power to enact changes to the practices of the local parish? Who has the power to choose the color of the wall? Who has the power to do this or that?
The resultant power struggle divides the congregation into dispute. Congregation is pitted against itself or against her pastor in the vain attempt to wrestle control of the situation. In the end, no one wins except Satan. Only the evil one benefits when Christians war with themselves. The faith once delivered to the saints is undermined and destroyed. Once faithful Christians are left either despondent, scandalized, or apostate. The devil and his demons rejoice over even one sinner who rejects the faith.
All this arises out of what I would argue is the wrong question. Whoever has the power is not necessarily the one who ought to exercise it. Each of us has many abilities or powers. Yet, these powers do not indicate authority. In Greek and thus in the New Testament, δυναμις is not the same as εχουσια. Power is not a synonym for authority. This is a helpful distinction. Some have powers but are not given the authority to exercise this power. Others have authority and seem to have no real power for the job.
This is true in the Christian congregation. Pastors are given authority to preach and teach the Word publicly. Undoubtedly, there are some in the congregation more adept at public speaking, teaching, the Scriptures, or all of the above. Despite their ability (or power), the authority to do so is not given to them by our Lord in his institution.
The opposite is also true. There are many noble vocations within the life the church, including elders, council, altar guild, trustee, mission societies, and the like. The church in her wisdom has entrusted these offices with particular authority. Yet, sometimes pastors will take charge in these realms, despite having no authority to do so. He may be a better communicator than the elder, a better administrator than the members of the council, or a better handyman than our trustee. Yet, his office is the public ministry of the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. This is his authority. Ability does not constitute authority. Authority comes first.
What the example of the church highlights is that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens the Christian church into order. He gives some to be pastor and teacher, others to do the work of the missionary, and yet others to care for the material and administrative needs of the congregation. He gives particular authority to various vocations for order.
The Christian congregation is not a democracy of majority rules. She is governed by the Word of God as her sole rule for both faith and practice. This Word was made flesh, dwells among us, and was joined to us. All are subject to Christ, the bridegroom, as we are all his bride, joined in the marriage of his blood. Within this one flesh union, each member is considered a part of the holy body of Jesus. Each member has its given place in the order of the body. Each member was conceived with intention and bestowed with particular authority.
Power struggles arise when authority is questioned. Make no mistake, churches that neglect to honor the authority given to their respective members, whether by willful disobedience or through ignorance, are in desperate need of the Law of God which calls them to repentance. So, it is in all the institutions of our Lord, including the Christian family. Where authority is questioned, power struggles result and the institution is filled with strife and sin.
2. The leper and the centurion know Jesus’ authority.
Not everyone is ignorant of the ordering of the world by our heavenly Father. Some are very aware that with authority comes power. Today’s Gospel gives us two examples. Both the leper and the centurion know that Jesus has the authority of God the Father. Both confess this truth wonderfully, knowing that Jesus’ authority is exactly the sort of authority that need.
And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” This leper came not saying “can you make me clean.” No, he confessed our Lord had power to heal his disease. He asks, “Lord, if you will,” thereby confessing truthfully that the Lord has such power. Still, his faith is not perfect. While he knows Jesus is Lord and has power to heal his disease, still his faith does not know if Jesus has the authority to do so. It is as if the leper were saying, “I know you are Lord and can heal all manner of infirmities. But does your lordship include the authority to heal even my own weak flesh?”
This kneels in worshipful posture and in complete humility awaiting our Lord’s response. He brings nothing to the table but his own sickness. He makes no claim of his own merit. He does not say, “I have been a good boy and don’t deserve this disease.” He confesses through his humility that only the Lord can heal his condition. Only the Lord has authority to remove the curse of his flesh. He waits patiently and penitentially.
Its short and sweet. And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Our Lord Jesus does not heal the man with a demonstration of his great power. He does not make a great show of his healing ministry. He simply stretches out his hand and heals the leper. He exercises his lordship over this man’s fallen flesh. The creator of the universe once again creates new flesh where there once was leprosy. Majesty is veiled in the humility of our Lord’s very human hand. Authority of the Father given to the only begotten Son.
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” As before, our Lord hears the good confession, this time from a Gentile soldier. Just as with the leper, this centurion, commander of a legion of one hundred, knows that our Lord can heal his paralyzed servant. His statement carries with it the plea, “heal my servant.” Our Lord already knows this man’s faith is great. Without question he agrees to heal him.
But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
This bold centurion knows that our Lord has far more authority than we could even imagine. He is not some rogue magician or itinerant medicine man. The centurion knows and trusts that Jesus is Lord of the universe. He can command earth and sky, wind and sea. He can give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, tongues to the mute. He can purge skin of leprosy and make the paralyzed walk again.
All this has been given to Jesus because he is none other than the very Word of God in the flesh. He is the Father’s love walking among us. He does nothing of his own but only does what has been given to him. This is the definition of authority. Jesus is not some loose cannon, firing off shots of divinity like some capricious Roman god from Olympus. He is the God of order. Within the mystery of the Holy Trinity lies the economy of the persons. Each are ordered in a majestic relation for our salvation. The Father begets the Son and the Father and Son together send the Spirit, to testify to both. The centurion knows this man Jesus is sent from God, bearing in his flesh the authority only God can wield. In his confession of authority, the centurion suggests that Jesus is not bound by space and time. He confesses that Jesus can heal with a mere Word from a distance. His voice is the utterance of the Almighty One that has authority to make all things new.
1. These examples of trust are really faith.
What we see in both leper and the centurion is not merely acceptance of who Jesus is. They don’t act in superstition or in a vain hope. Both trust that our Lord has authority. But more than that. Both trust despite Jesus’ humble appearance. He seems but a man and yet, both leper and centurion trust he is the Lord almighty, creator of heaven and earth. They do not doubt but believe that all authority on heaven and earth is given to him.
Neither the leper nor the centurion really had much to go on. At best, they had the reports that spread through the whole country. Despite this, their trust is faithful. They believe in Christ, despite his seemingly lack of power. His voice was not the booming Pulpit-Tone™ of the TV preacher. His garments were not the flowing purple robe of royalty or the gleaming white garment of divinity. His hands were scared and stained from years working in his father’s carpentry trade. Maybe there was a sparkle of greatness in his eye but not much else to write home about. Faith is trust where evidence is lacking.
The leper believed that this Jesus was the Lord, who could give what the earthly priest could not. The tribe of Levi would declare the man pure after than leper presented himself to them. Yet, they had no authority to make the man clean. The authority to heal is God’s alone. Now all the fullness of this glory dwelled in Jesus. Shrouded glory, to be sure, but glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, all the same. The leper believed. He trusted in the promise, knowing Jesus as the Lord incarnate.
So also, the centurion believed. St. Matthew does not record any dialogue or question in the mind of this noble Roman. He asserts boldly that Jesus is Lord. Jesus has authority to heal, here and there, then and now. The centurion’s faith knows the difference between power and authority. So great is this man’s faith, that even Jesus is surprised. When Jesus heard the great confession of the centurion, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.
The faith of the leper and the centurion are the foundation of the Christian church. The Holy Spirit has gathered us together into this fellowship of believers, the holy Christian church, from the east and the west. He has granted us faith like the leper and centurion. Under the tutelage of the Word, we have been brought to believe that Jesus is Lord, the Son of the Father. Even greater, this same authority of Jesus and his spirit has been bestowed upon the ministry of the church. In the final words of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Christ our Lord said, “All authority on heaven and earth have been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
With authority comes the power to make it happen. Jesus is Lord of the church. He is the head of this Christian household, just as he is of yours. This is not a lordship exercised with temperamental and whimsical power struggles. Our Lord governs his church and I might add, our families, with truth and love. He bestows on her all she needs, especially forgiveness and life, because all authority has been given to him. Until he comes again, he transfers to us the institutional authority of the Christian church, calling some to be ministers and some to be hearers and workers. This authority is only temporary, governing and granting his gifts to his people until he returns in judgment. Then, he will usher in the new heavens and new earth, where the church is not needed, for all will live in perfect love and communion with Holy Trinity. In the meantime, let us remember the examples of the leper and the centurion. In the meantime, let us hold fast to our Lord, allowing him to heal us of our infirmities, defend us from all strife and schism, and govern our doctrine and life. For,
FAITH TRUSTS IN THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church