Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
January 28, 2018
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
There is a story that has been around a long time, with perhaps several adaptations told. The version I am about to share is from the journal Bits and Pieces and is about former Massachusetts governor Christian Herter, who served the state back in the early 1950’s. Herter was running for reelection, and one day in the busy schedule of an election campaign, he arrived at a church barbeque. It was late in the afternoon and Herter hadn’t eaten anything since a light breakfast. He was famished. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman who was serving the chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to serve the next guest. Herter said to her, “Excuse me. Do you think I could get a second piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” answered the woman. “I am supposed to give out one piece of chicken to each customer.” “But I am very hungry and the chicken looks really good,” the governor pleaded. “Sorry,” the woman repeated. “One piece to a customer.” Finally Herter played his big card, “Do you know who I am? I am the governor of this state!” The woman looked at him straight in the eye and answered, “Do you know who I am? I am the lady in charge of passing out the chicken. Move along!”
I remember a classmate at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, whose wardrobe consisted of t-shirts with various slogans written upon them. Some of us mockingly called him the “walking bumper sticker.” I can’t recall most of the slogans his t-shirts featured but I do remember one that he seemed to wear at least once a week. The t-shirt simply said, “Question Authority.” I guess that slogan was a popular one in the sixties, and my classmate carried it into the eighties. I sense that the climate of our current culture is one that tends to embrace authority more, perhaps we even perceive it as lacking in our institutions. Many bemoan the lack of respect for authority and see it as the cause to much of our division and conflict within our society.
The beginning of the gospel of Mark takes place in not in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem, but in Capernaum, perhaps in the place where Jesus lived. Following his baptism, after the temptation in the wilderness, immediately after the calling of the disciples, Jesus is teaching in his local synagogue. As we read this brief account from Mark, we have no idea what he was teaching. Mark refers to Jesus as a teacher more than any other gospel. He is called a teacher by the disciples, by the crowd, and by the Pharisees. The verb meaning “to teach” is used by the writer of Mark more than any other gospel writer. And yet we don’t really know what it was that Jesus said while he was teaching. In Matthew, the words of the Sermon on the Mount were written down. In Luke, the Sermon on the Plain and parables were recorded by scribes. But we don’t know what Jesus taught as he stood or sat in the synagogue in Capernaum. We only know that it was a rather impressive teaching. “The crowd who heard it were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus taught as one who had authority. What did that mean?
I remember the famous New York Knicks and NBC basketball announcer Marv Albert’s favorite phrase when a player came flying down the lane and hammered the basketball through the rim. The players underneath the basket would scatter at the power of the dunk and the crowd would go crazy at the incredible sight. Albert’s words were always, “With authority!” That seemed to always convey the wonder and awe of the moment. Perhaps that is what the crowd was experiencing when they saw and heard Jesus teach. He was a Michael Jordanesque slam dunk when compared to the outdated two-handed set shots of the scribes.
It is interesting and important to note what happens immediately after the comments of the crowd. A man walks in right in the middle of the service, perhaps in the middle of Jesus’ sermon. There is a wild voice that is disruptive and crazy. “What do you have to do with us, Jesus? I know who you are! You have come to destroy us.” Jesus came down from the pulpit, confronted the man or at least the voice of the man and said, “Be silent and come out of him!” With those words an unclean spirit came out of the man, crying in a loud voice. And again the writer of the gospel notes that everyone was amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught.
It is clear that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ words are not as important as his personality and his presence. His authority did not come in what he said but in who he was. The scribes and Pharisees acquired their authority through the possession and interpretation and judgment of the law. Right makes might and it was vitally important for them to be right! Instead, Jesus gained authority through valuing people and including people. He emphasized the power of moral authority over legal and political authority.
I can’t help but think that Jesus was especially aggravating to the establishment of his day. And I truly believe that if we take him seriously, he can be quite annoying and irritating even today. We like things to be clear and well-defined. Jesus presents options and struggles. We like easy answers and slogans, and solutions to problems that we can just look up in a book. Jesus’ authority did not come in simple rules but in responses that brought to life interruption, complication, and dialogue. While don’t like to go against the grain of what is normal and accepted in society, standing out from our family and neighbors and friends; Jesus confronted the forces of society that hold false authority through rules and standards. He wasn’t afraid to challenge the actions of even the most respectable people and places of his time; if those people and places were holding others in darkness. His authority came because he proclaimed the love and truth of God everywhere he went and to everyone he met.
It seems to me that this story from Mark is very appropriate as we consider the identity of the church and the gospel message in our time. In many ways, the church today is portrayed as a stale and oppressive institution with its structure and program designed for maintenance and survival. Many of the voices of the church speak with judgment and righteous certainty. Popular preachers often suggest that God is a power that destroys people who don’t conform to the rules and standards and behaviors established by their own interpretation of Scripture. Sometimes the church and organized faith appears to be part of the power of oppression rather than liberation.
Yet here in the first pages of Mark, Jesus is talking about God’s need to set people free. Jesus was liberating people from things which kept them from hopeful living. Jesus’ authority was one that did not rule over people and keep them in line. His authority was one that released them from bondage to be the persons that God created them to be.
Scott Hoezee tells the story of the late Pope John XXIII. One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children. The pope said to the mother, “Would you please tell me the names of all of your children. I understand that anyone in the group could tell me their names or that they could tell me themselves, but there is something special that happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.” Hoezee writes that perhaps this is what is was like when the people witnessed Jesus that day long ago. Maybe this is what they meant when they said that he taught with authority, a power that others lacked. The others drew off their training, their knowledge of the law, their office or power within the synagogue. Although they were good at what they did, there always seemed to be a gap between the scribe and the God that the scribe was talking about. But this wasn’t the case with Jesus. There was something personal in his knowledge of God. He spoke as if he knew God intimately. At times, he was speaking as if he were God. When Jesus talked about God, it was as if a mother was reciting the names of her own children. There was love and personal involvement. It was coming from his heart as well as his head.