Authority Issues

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November 25, 2018. How do you respond to authority? Pastor Stephanie preaches on John 18 and the interaction between Pilate and Jesus, two people who each have authority vested in them.


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I have a question for you: How do you respond to authority? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question, since I can’t go row by row getting your responses right now. Even if I could, there would be many of you who would probably say, “Well, it’s complicated.” It’s a difficult thing to answer, and I completely understand that. After working with a very authoritarian pastor in my first seminary fieldwork experience until I could take it no longer, I learned that I have authority issues. Never had to think too much about that before that year. And thankfully I had professionals around me who could help me to process the interior work that I needed to do around that issue. It did help to soften it some, to know that other seminary students had had issues with that same pastor. And so after my experience, the seminary little longer sent any students over to that pastor to work with him.


But still, since I was bound to encounter others who exerted authority in the same manner in which this guy did, in ministry and in life in general, I had to learn and grow from that experience. Even with the self-reflection I took on after that, that is not to say that all of my authority issues have been resolved. I’m still a work in progress on that, and in so many other ways. We may like to think that not many people do have authority over us, because we like to emphasize our freedom and our autonomy, don’t we?


I’m reminded of the time when our oldest son expressed so emphatically one day when he got home from school, “I am the boss of me.” If you’re a parent, you’ll know how glad we were to hear that. It took a little debriefing for Phil and me to understand where that had come from. But as we talked with Andrew more, we began to understand that his class had been listening to the school counselor that day, and she was helping them to understand boundaries of how to operate and respond with strangers. That all made perfect sense, and I was grateful for that reinforcement of what we were also teaching him. But it didn’t mean that his father and I were less authority figures than we had been before that day.


Because it is complicated to figure out how we relate to those in authority over us, the interaction between Pilate and Jesus in John 18 is intriguing, if we stop to analyze it. These are two people who each have authority vested in them. They are each called by various names by those around them and many of the titles imply elevated leadership, even though the power dynamics in this instance seem very unequal. Pilate seems to loom larger, since from a purely human point of view it would appear that he holds Jesus’ future in his hands. But let’s look at this as objectively as we can. Pilate has subjects who follow based on coercion, and structures set up for him to be obeyed or else. We don’t even want to know what that might mean. But Jesus has followers who come by way of invitation and response. Pilate has soldiers all around his palace that would do his bidding on command, in an instant. Jesus is standing all alone before him with no apparent support system, much less foot soldiers nearby. Pilate is in control of this interview, yet he is the one who is threatened by Jesus. He must inquire as to whether Jesus does claim to be a king, as his followers have designated him, whether or not Jesus is guilty of committing any crimes. The one thing Pilate wants to know most of all: is this guy a threat to me and my authority? We’ve all known people like that, haven’t we?


Jesus, by contrast, is not threatened by Pilate in the least. He is calm, he is confident, and he speaks with authority that allows him to turn the question of whether he is the king of the Jews back to the questioner. “Do you ask this on your own, or have others suggested this to you?” Jesus is amazing in that he is clearly not anxious in this situation. I think we can perceive from his demeanor that he is communicating, “You, Pilate, are in authority within your own little kingdom, but you cannot stir me up because you are not in authority over me. And as a matter of fact, I have a question for you to ponder. What is it about you that worries you so much about me? Your own insecurity, or your desire to please others so you can retain your power?” If we are at all honest with ourselves, questions like that, when addressed to us, can be unnerving as well. We really don’t want to probe that deeply to find out why we act or react as we do in our most anxious moments at times. At this point Pilate is not interested in probing his own motives. No, this is way too scary for him, or perhaps unlikely. He was too pompous to think that it might even be relevant. You can almost hear the fear in his voice when he nearly spits out, “I’m not a Jew, am I?” He refuses to let this be anything about him. So he throws it back on Jesus, reminding him that he must have done a terrible thing to have his people handing him over to Pilate.


Well, one of the most common human responses to fear is to run and hide or, as in the case of Pilate, to double down on the power that we can grab to protect ourselves. Pilate has power. He likes power. He wants to keep it that way, and he’s willing to use force, if necessary, to secure his lock on his position. He has been taught a way of being an authority for so long that he doesn’t question whether there is a better way. His way of wielding the kind of power uses weapons and soldiers, invasions and persecutions to protect what Rome already has, and seeks to expand. And let’s be clear, he was very interested in securing his own place in that hierarchy as well. The trappings of power might reassure Pilate, but he’s clearly unsettled by a different kind of power that he senses in this stranger from the hinterlands who stands before him. He wonders, “Who is this guy who is not cowering before me and pleading for his very life?”


So, Jesus decides to let Pilate in on the basis of his confidence. It’s as if he’s saying, “You see Pilate, your frame of reference about your kingdom causes you to think and to respond in a certain way. For me to be a king threatens your kingdom. But I am the king of a kingdom of which you are not familiar. You were talking apples. I am talking oranges.” In Jesus recorded words, we have this: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” This has to be mind-blowing to Pilate. Who has ever heard of such a thing? How does one keep a kingdom intact without force, without fighting back rivals? And if his kingdom isn’t from this world, then from where does it come?


Well, the Gospel of John has been building, building, building toward a climax of demonstrating the truth of this very kingdom to which Jesus refers. The opening chapter in the gospel shares with us that the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory of grace and truth. So, Jesus responds to Pilate saying, “You see that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world. To testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” There you have it: Jesus’ authority rests on the fact that he is the truth. He doesn’t need a campaign or soldiers to stand guard in his kingdom. All that is good and kind and right is part of his kingdom, because his kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His royal mission began in heaven and he came to earth with a divine mandate. He was sent to unveil the truth. When Jesus talks about truth, he’s not just talking about honesty or truthfulness — although he is talking about that. He’s not saying merely that he’s going to say true things. He says he embodies, and he is the truth.


The irony in this story is that truth is the only authority and power that Jesus wields. He stands as the naked truth that upholds the universe before the lies of religion and power politics, and any other kind of lies you can think of. As we know, lies undermine. Lies erode trust. Without trust there can be no genuine relationships. Marriages, friendships, partnerships all rely on trust born out of thankfulness and truthfulness. If anything makes us suspicious it’s when lies, untruths, and deceptions become accepted as, “Oh well, the way it is.” Nothing good can be built on a foundation of lies. Only truth will bear the weight of building something with integrity and strength, and foster good and decent relationships. So Jesus spoke the truth to Pilate, just as he had spoken truth to the religious leaders. But neither the religious leaders would listen to the truth nor Pilate. Together they would conspire to destroy Jesus.


But here’s the good news, folks: the truth cannot be overcome. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that Jesus, in all of his truth, overcomes all kinds of lies and deception. His is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. They could take Jesus’ life, for a time. But as God raised him to life, truth won the day. And truth will ultimately always win. So what can we say about Jesus’ kingdom versus other lesser, rival kingdoms? First of all, Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of truth. It’s not a kingdom that lies and manipulates others by striking fear into people’s hearts. His is the kingdom of mercy. It’s not a kingdom of coercion, where the strong dominate the weak. His is the kingdom that frees the enslaved. The truth shall set you free. It’s not a kingdom that enslaves to keep control. His is a kingdom that has a wide circle of inclusion where all belong. It is not a kingdom where the king asserts his superiority and all the subjects live in fear as to whether they are in or out. His is the kingdom where love and service for the good of all creation is the mode of operation. His is the kingdom that can never be toppled by rival kingdoms, because it is the one true kingdom that goes on and on, forever and ever


I know Brent referred to this as well, but this is the end of the liturgical year. I could wish you a Happy New Year. We think it’s December 31 to January 1 where we observe a new year, and that’s true on our calendars that we observe in this society. But for us this Sunday is the end of the year, and it is most appropriate that these readings come to us to remind us that Jesus is from the beginning to the end, and on and on into eternity. We can close the liturgical year affirming and rejoicing that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father. All things are under his guidance, and he will come again to wipe out warfare and sorrow and sickness. As we prepare to celebrate Advent, that is exactly what we’ll be doing. We’ll be celebrating the fact that our king is coming, has come, and will come again. With such a king we need not have authority issues, because he is no bully. His authority over us yields love, forgiveness, and wide acceptance. That is compelling and deserves our worship and praise. Our hymn of the day seems to take on some of the language of kingdoms that do battle and strive to conquer others, but please listen carefully to the language of this hymn as you sing it. It transforms concepts like battle and conquest, and points out that the king whom we serve brings an entirely different kind of kingdom than the one the world has to offer.


Let’s honor Christ for this as we sing hymn number 805 using some of these words:


For not with swords’ loud clashing
Or roll of stirring drums
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes


Lead on, O King eternal
We follow, not with fears,
For gladness breaks like morning
Where’er your face appears


We pray with the church worldwide. Come, Lord Jesus.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot