Authority Issues

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And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has 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).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

In 1981, Jeffrey Stout, a professor of religion and philosophy at Princeton University, published a book called The Flight from Authority. In it, he described a social and philosophical trend in western society. Collectively, he argued, we have been on a “flight from authority” for several centuries. In the Reformation, we fled the authority of the church. Under rationalism, we ran from the authority of Scripture. With Kant, we turned our backs on the authority of reason and then morality. The flight continues in our own times as we resist conformity to governments, social norms, and institutions in general. Obedience is out. Autonomy is in. Simply put, we like to be in charge. We have authority issues.

This is nothing new, of course. Shortly after this week’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, the first humans exerted their autonomy against the will of their Father and Creator to their own detriment (and ours). Among other things, the continuing result is we all have authority issues. Just watch the news; you see it play out every day. Someone tells someone else what they should do. Someone else tells someone to go jump in a lake. Someone pushes back with even harsher orders. Someone else ignores the orders and just does what they want to do.

It’s so easy to notice when other people have authority issues; isn’t it? Look at them! They’re not social distancing! Look over there! There’s no respect for private property or the rule of law. Look! Those guys are infringing on my rights!  

But you and I don’t have to look out there in the world to see someone with authority issues. All we need to do is to look in the mirror. None of us are immune. From the cute little two year-old-girl, who, upon being told what she is supposed to do, puts her hand on her hip, scrunches up her face, points a finger at you and animatedly tells you what you’re going to do. Or the stubborn little man who melts like a skeletonless puddle when it’s time to go and he doesn’t want to. Or their Papa who seeks to find ways in which he can appear to at least minimally comply with executive orders and suggested protocols, even as he is rebelling inside. We all have authority issues.   

We like to be in control. I think that’s probably one of the things that makes pandemics and stay-at-home orders and social distancing so distressing. We like to be in control. We want to know exactly what’s coming next. And times like this show us that is impossible. Our desire for control is a pipe dream.

Just look what has happened in the last few months. The stock market took a dive. People are out of work in record numbers. There’s a worldwide pandemic of infectious disease the likes of which we have never seen during our lifetimes. Millions have contracted the virus. Many have grown gravely ill, and hundreds of thousands have died. Governments all over the world have responded by restricting our travel and limiting human contact to slow the contagion. Some would say they are doing too much, others not enough. Rumors swirl. Media fan the flames of public fear to near-panic proportions, while some dismiss it as fake news. Seemingly overnight, the world as we knew it is turned upside down.

Some of you are thought to be especially vulnerable. Your grown children may have enforced their own private quarantine. Perhaps they’ve distanced themselves to avoid inadvertently infecting you if they are asymptomatic carriers of the virus. You haven’t been able to see your grandkids. Some of you haven’t even been able to see your own spouse for months.

Things have been changing rapidly, almost daily. Businesses, governmental agencies, and churches have embraced new technology and implemented digital connections, but not everyone is comfortable learning new technology; the learning curve can be quite high and frustrating, and pixels on a screen can never replace in-person, flesh-and-blood interaction. Perhaps worst of all, no one can tell us when it’s going to end. No one really expects “normal” to return anytime soon, if ever.

We despair because there doesn’t seem to be anybody in charge who can help us. And we rage at the ones who get too heavy-handed to suit our tastes. Depending on who’s in charge in our jurisdiction and based upon our own individual experiences and political leanings, we don’t trust the government or legal system. We hear so many conflicting opinions we don’t know who to believe. Yes, even we men, women, and children who have studied the Catechism and understand that the 4th Commandment means “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents or other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them,” even we, have authority issues.

What’s even worse is that at the heart of all our authority issues is, actually, rebellion against God, for He is the one who puts in place all earthly authorities. St. Paul exhorts and warns: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1–2).

These authority issues came to my mind as I pondered Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18, “All authority,” He says, “has been given to Me.” This is a striking claim. “All authority in heaven and on earth,” after all, leaves out nothing. Who can fathom this brief utterance of Jesus? The kingly authority of Jesus embraces heaven, all that lives and has its being there, angels and archangels, powers, principalities, might, dominion, thrones, and the saints in glory. This authority is exercised also over the evil spirit world, whose prince is conquered and despoiled, and whose hosts lie in abject submission beneath Jesus’ feet. All the powers of heaven are in Jesus’ hands to do His bidding without question or pause. This, the disciples are to realize as He sends them forth. Never did a human army have such resources behind it. All the earth is also subject to Him, its inhabitants, both friend and foe, and all the powers that are in the earth.

During the period of His self-humbling, in ways that we cannot really understand, Christ set aside authorities and powers intrinsic to His divine nature. He did not lose them; He set them aside, emptying Himself. Included in this category of emptying Himself is the very fact that He was a mortal man, subject to weakness and death. Now, however, since His resurrection to immortality, because of which He cannot die again, something new has happened in the history of the world and in God’s plan of salvation—death has been conquered.

And now that this climactic action has taken place, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has 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).

It is to the risen Son that all authority that is in heaven and on earth has been given. It is in the name of the Father and of the risen Son and of the Holy Spirit that the disciples are to be baptized, even as they are taught to guard all the teaching of Jesus, which has now been validated because He is risen from the dead.

Crucified and risen, Jesus puts all His power and His authority behind the commission to evangelize the world. What would otherwise be absolutely impossible now becomes gloriously possible, yes, an assured reality. Now, the authority that has been delegated to Jesus by the Father, He, in turn, delegates to His disciples. He gives them the authority and responsibility to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the triune God and by teaching them to obey everything He has commanded.

With His command, Jesus adds a promise. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” There is grace in this promise. Jesus promises to be with His disciples to forgive and renew them, and to lead them to delight in His will and walk in His ways. Jesus promises to be with His Church as it continues His ministry here on earth—baptizing and teaching. Jesus promises to be with you to forgive and renew you, and to lead you to delight in His will and walk in His ways!

But there is also accountability in this promise. The Lord, who is with us, retains authority over us. His promise calls for trust and obedience, to remember Who is really in charge. Jesus has all authority. Despite appearances to the contrary and our thirst for autonomy, the risen Christ is Lord over all. Try as we might, we cannot escape His rule. If we had our heads on straight, we would never want to, for He exercises authority with wisdom, mercy, and grace.

We have authority issues, and for these we must repent. We must confess our sins and trust in God’s grace! For the unfaithful ways in which we have fled the authority of God and sought to live our own way, we need to repent. For the unfruitful ways in which we have operated autonomously, we need to repent and follow the commands of Jesus. For the fearful ways in which we have fretted over our loss of control, we need to hear the promise of the One who makes Himself graciously present with His forgiveness, life, and salvation.

What we could not do, what we would not do, Christ has done on our behalf. For your authority issues, for mine, Jesus humbled Himself and placed Himself under the authority of sinful men. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way, and the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth (Isaiah 53:6-7).

Christ did not demand authority, He submitted to the will of His heavenly Father. “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

May Christ’s holy, bitter suffering and death not be lost on us, but at all times may it be our comfort, and may we boast in it; and as we ponder it, may all evil desire in us be snuffed out and subdued, and all virtue implanted and increased, so that we, having died to sin, may live in righteousness, following the example Christ has left us, walking in His footsteps, enduring evil with patience, and suffering injustice with a good conscience.

For Jesus’ sake, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we submit to will of our heavenly Father and the authority of His holy Word. May we honor and obey the earthly authorities that God has so graciously provided and receive and recognize them as His earthly representatives. May we daily pray for all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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