We Have a Higher Authority

This week, ABC News.com ran the following headline, “ Lifeguard Fired After Saving Life.” The article reported how a nineteen-year-old lifeguard in Florida was fired after saving a man’s life outside the area of his company’s jurisdiction. The story went on to report that the young man knew the minute he came out of the water that he was fired but said he would do it again because he could not in good conscious watch a man die and not do something about it. In the days following the incident, seven other lifeguards either quit their job or made statements indicating they would do the same and were fired as well. The management firm responsible for these lifeguards stated that there were liability concerns because they had no authority to watch the waters beyond their prescribed boundaries.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus runs into a similar situation when he speaks in the synagogue near his home village. St. Mark is not clear about what Jesus said or did to bring about the ire of Jesus’ towns people, but whatever he said did not go over well and left many in attendance wondering under what authority he was able to speak with such assuredness. Of course, as we read this passage, we already know that Jesus’ authority to teach and heal comes directly from God. But, for those from his hometown, it was hard for them to believe the son of Mary, the carpenter who repaired their furniture and helped build their homes had any right or authority to speak or teach in their synagogue.

As one writer asked, what would we think or say if one of our youth spoke from the pulpit and challenged us beyond what we felt was appropriate or conventional for this congregation? Most likely we would have a few things to say to his or her parents and the youth directors about reviewing a text prior to being allowed to speak. This is exactly how Jesus’ townspeople were feeling. In a time and place where authority was given through inheritance and not earned, Jesus, as the carpenter’s son, defies convention when he chooses to speak with authority in the local synagogue as well as heal and cast out the demons of those who came to him.

St. Paul, in today’s reading from second Corinthians, also deals with issues of authority as he speaks out against the “super apostle’s” who have laid claim to authority due to some ecstatic experience. To this, Paul tells us he too has had a similar experience, but this is not the foundation from which he claims his authority to spread the Gospel. Instead, his authority and strength is comes from the Gospel itself. For, as he relates at the end of today’s passage, it is in his weakness that his strength is found.

When it came to preaching the Kingdom of God, neither St. Paul nor Jesus were too concerned with gaining earthly authority for their authority was given to them through their faith and obedience to God. Both understood the authority granted to them by God was not theirs to hold onto but to share and give to others.

In the latter part of today’s gospel, Jesus confers his authority to teach about the Kingdom, to heal and cast out demons to twelve of his followers. All those who followed Jesus, or were students of his were called disciples, disciples actually means followers. The twelve, once sent out, became apostles. The term “apostle” literally means, “to be sent”. And the authority they received was predicated on their faith. This is why Jesus instructs them to carry nothing with them but a staff, no extra clothing beyond the clothes on their backs, and no food. This demonstrated to the world that they placed their whole trust/faith in God and in God alone.

The authority of the apostle’s and St. Paul is given to each of us on the day we vow to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. In essence it is through the waters of Baptism that we become the apostle’s of today. Think about it, at the end of each service we are sent in peace to love and serve the Lord. The work we are authorized to do is to heal the ills of the world by casting out the demons that block the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

It is an authority that allows us to act outside of convention. It is a responsibility that demands we live our faith for the entire world to see and offer our experiences of the living Christ to the world.

I believe the reason our young lifeguard and his colleagues received national attention was because it is so rare that one is willing to forego the limitations of conventional authority in order to serve a higher authority with integrity. When we are able to do that, the world will literally stop and listen.

At the commencement exercises at Emory University, Hugh Thompson was given an honorary doctorate by the University and invited to speak. As one attendee noted, it was only when this gentleman’s turn to speak began that the whole audience became quiet. It appears that his story is quite remarkable.

“On March 16, 1968, Mr. Thompson was flying a routine patrol in Vietnam when he happened to fly over the village of Mai Lai just as American troops, under command were slaughtering dozens of unarmed villagers. . . Old men, women and children. Without the permission of his superiors, Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining civilians. He ordered his tail-gunner to train the helicopter guns on the American soldiers, and he ordered the gunmen to stop killing the villagers. . . His actions saved the lives of dozens of people . . . he was almost court martialed. . It was thirty years before the army awarded him the Soldier’s Medal. As he stood at the microphone, . . . the rowdy audience grew still.” And then Thompson talked about his faith. He spoke with simple words. Speaking of what his parents taught him as a child, Thompson said, “they taught me, ‘do unto others as you would have them do onto you.’” The audience was amazed at these “words of Jesus, words from Sunday school, words from worship, words of Christian testimony . . .they lept to their feet and gave him a standing ovation .1

The divine authority of Jesus awed, confused, and even fascinated those he came in contact with. This same divine authority has been conferred on each of us and when we choose to exercise it with integrity, it still has the ability to catch the attention of the world today. Amen

1. Tom Long, Pulpit Resources 32 (January – March 2004): 39

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