The Authority of Jesus

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

Galatians 1:1-12

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Whitney and I spent a week or so in Southern California after my graduation a couples weekends ago, and while we were there, in addition to just getting some time away, we met up with some old friends and also met some new people – and for me, it was very interesting. The conversations that you tend to have with people in LA about being a pastor and studying theology in general are a little bit different from the ones I typically have in Charleston. For one thing, most of them were with people who are not Christians.

And what you do for work just tends to inevitably come up, and so for many, when they hear what I do, they’re surprised and confused or curious or something. This probably happened about half a dozen times! And I kept getting  questions, like…

“What made you want to do that? You don’t seem like the type.” Which, I don’t know how to take that, really. It could be good or bad I guess. But here’s what I’ve noticed is sometimes going on in these conversations: these people don’t necessarily have anything against what I do — sometimes they do. But mostly they just don’t understand why I would want to take my faith so seriously. It doesn’t connect with them: church, religion, the Bible — all this stuff. It just seems to many people to be like something they think society has just grown out of, or lost its need for . . .

And honestly, this can be hard to hear sometimes. It make you doubt yourself, and it’s almost like a spiritual battle and internal struggle — because these people are genuine. They’re searching for truth and meaning just like I am, but they see the world so differently. This can unsettle you — make you insecure in your faith.

And I know there’s intellectual explanations for this change in our culture and society in recent years — in communication and transportation and trade. It brings more different kinds of people together across cultures, which sometimes leads to the erosion of traditions. This is what the Israelites feared in Exile in Babylon — that they would become so assimilated to the Babylonian culture, that they would no longer be able to pass on their faith to the next generation.

When you have greater diversity of worldviews concentrated in a smaller geographical area, it just tends to relativize some of people’s core convictions.  

And there are both positive and negative aspects to this new reality. One of the biggest challenges we see, and I think this is the subject of the two readings for this morning, in some ways, is this issue of authority, and where we find it. Where now is our authority?

Authority is something we all experience and interact with on a daily basis in different areas of our lives. From government, to traffic laws, in business, sports, school — or even just in the family, where parents have authority over the children, or at least they try to for a while! And authority gets contested, when people are unhappy about something, but it does seem to be especially contested these days.

Just think about our own recent history as a nation, though. Things like the Iraq War, the Wall Street crash, the bailout of the big banks, congressional gridlock — all of this produced in an emerging generation of young people, a fairly unprecedented distrust the major institutions that hold our society together. And it doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative — both sides have this attitude (which might be one of the reason why “outside” candidates are having more success these days in politics).

It all points to this sentiment today that those at the center of society, those who are part of the establishment, who control money and power are not to be trusted. On both the left and the right. Where is the authority?

And the authority of church and Christianity has hardly fared much better. There have been sex sandals, financial mishandlings, the abuse of power, and on and on. My own alma mater! Baylor University suffered a major blow this week, as a result similar problems. I’m sure many of you heard. And it’s like of course the media loves to point out the failures of Christian institutions, and they’ve been doing a very good job of that this week — and not without some justification. You know, you try to be great at football, academics by the world’s standards while also being Christian — sometimes you pick one more than the other.

And I don’t want to exaggerate or over-dramatize this, but I think it’s fair to say we’re living in an environment, in which not only Christian authority but authority in general is in a kind of crisis.

And yet. here’s what’s so fascinating: Somehow, for some reason, the person of Jesus, what he taught, and how lived, still carries with it, some significant authority, even in our society today. Overall, people remain reverent and respectful of Jesus. They’re intrigued by him, and admire him, even if they don’t worship him or claim to follow him. [IMAGE]

There was a book written a while ago now, but this pastor in Santa Cruz, CA, named Dan Kimball, and this is what the title was:

“They like Jesus, but not the Church.” – Dan Kimball

Or, we could maybe add to this:

“They like Jesus, but not the Bible.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not so sure about Christians in general.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not sure about the Christian idea of God.”

So Jesus’s authority or appeal to some extent is recognized even by those outside the faith. This is exactly what we find in the gospel text for this morning.

So Jesus is commending a Roman Centurion and says, this man has more faith even than anyone that I’ve seen in all of Israel! Ok, this guy is a Gentile. He’s not a Jew. And, he’s a representative of Rome, who’s really an enemy of Israel. And yet Jesus not only compliments him, but heals his servant.

Now, just because Jesus compliments the faith of the Centurion does not mean that he was blessing or approving of the Roman Empire or Empires in general — then or now. But Jesus sees the man’s faith as true. And the Centurion, an outsider to Judaism, is able to recognize Jesus’s Authority. That is what is so striking and important.

In the first reading we heard from the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, the issue of the authority and the authority of the gospel is also in question. Paul says, in verses 11-12:

…. 1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Alright this, is kind of crazy! You know those people who say something that you maybe don’t believe, but then they back it up with God told me so? Paul is that person right now. That’s basically what he’s doing. And I know we’re in church, so we can’t be totally honest about this — we believe that God can speak to us — yes we do. But we are still a little suspicious of these things. Admit it.

So this is no easy claim to make, is it… that we have a message from God, it’s not of our own making!

Paul knows this though, so he’s determined to be persuasive Here’s what he says in v. 10:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

First of all, typically, the truth — true authority — will upset certain people… On the one hand, if what you’re saying appeals to the whole crowd and the masses of a population, there might be cause for suspicion (which is why, at the end of the day, even though Jesus initially did draw crowds, they don’t stick around very long, at least not until they have a chance to condemn him… then they gather back).

At the same time, on the other hand, if only a special, elite group benefits from what is being said, that’s suspect as well!

So Paul’s trying to say, the authority of the gospel that does not originate in the minds of human beings for either of these purposes. It comes from God. He’s not trying to be a crowd pleaser or get in with some wealthy, powerful group. He’s just trying to tell people what he believes is authoritative — what he believes is truth! Now, that doesn’t mean he’s right, but he’s trying to explain his motives & sources.

Because many people would have probably been pretty surprised by Paul’s message here, as someone who used to persecute Christians before he received this revelation from God. And yet, sometimes that’s exactly when and how truth is able to make itself known. Take a look at this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that [strange] twist about it that real things have.” – C.S. Lewis

Obviously, this doesn’t prove anything, and Lewis knows this, but I’m fairly persuaded that he’s on to something here.

And it might be why many of the Jews were so scandalized by Jesus’s message – because it was surprising and strange, and not quite what they would have guessed — and it was the same things for the Greeks — the Romans, the Gentiles — they too thought it was foolish. But Jesus wasn’t trying to impress them. He was telling them something he thought was true for everyone, but to please everyone.

And so Paul is criticizing what he calls a “different gospel” – as in not a true one, that people  were giving in to. And we’re no less at risk! It’s so easy to have the gospel right in our minds, while our hearts are tangled up in something else.

So what is this false gospel Paul is attacking? Well, it pretty much boils down to the same thing that gets played out in our lives just as it was for the Galatians.

I like the way Tim Keller says it, actually, in the book that some of us have been reading, Every Good Endeavor. At one point he says this:

“Without an understanding of the gospel, we will be either naively utopian or cynically disillusioned. We will be demonizing something that isn’t bad enough to explain the mess we are in; or we will be idolizing something that isn’t powerful enough to get us out of it.” Tim Keller

So the false gospel is simply what happens when we blame our problems on something other than sin. Usually it’s another person or Group or a situation in which we’ve suffered an injustice or been victimized — sometimes in terrible ways. So it’s not that there’s never any justification for anger in the face wrongdoing. God is a God of justice as well as mercy.

But the false gospel comes in when we put our trust in something other than God’s grace to fix or right a wrong. And usually this trust gets put in ourselves, or in other people — our own right thinking, or our own good actions.  Ok, this is what the Galatians were doing: with their Jewish-ethnic identity, their food laws, the practice of circumcision – imposing it on Gentiles for their inclusion.

And because we’re all involved sin, we cannot simply separate the world into good and evil. That’s the kind of thinking that is used to justify war, condemnation, self-righteousness. But we’re are part of the evil in the world. That’s the bad news of the good news. And there aren’t any exceptions. Now we may not be as responsible for some things, as others are, but we’re still responsible.

So the big question that I raised this morning, is where is the authority? And why, even when people look so unfavorably on Christians, does Jesus manage to still have some authority?

Well, one thing that Jesus seems to always do, is deal honestly with sin — by naming it, exposing it, cutting right through the ways we try to cover it up. But then, treating it, not with blame or punishment, but with the only cure there is: the grace & mercy of God. Honesty about sin, compassion toward sinners and rescue for the victims, for the weak, for the vulnerable — the outsiders. Ok. Jesus takes sin totally seriously & grace totally seriously. That’s not going out of style!

That’s why he always has the authority. It’s the authority of the truth heals and redeems, and is always trying to transforms us. We’re still working on our transformation, but it’s happening.

Judge a tree by its fruit, Jesus says elsewhere. The Centurion sees that fruit in Jesus, and it makes him fruitful. It gives him faith. He’s generous, he’s humble, and he’s pagan! There’s no boundaries on this stuff. That’s why it always has authority.