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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 2/1/2015

When you have occasion to visit other churches you may have come across some where the pastor always has a title for the sermon. Maybe you like that, I don’t know, but I don’t do it and I’m probably not going to not because I have anything against it but for me it would just seem like one more thing to do: “Now I have to come up with a catchy title” or maybe you come up with title first and work from there, I don’t know. Having said all that though, let me now contradict it and say that a good title for today might be “Questions of Authority.”

The word “authority” appears twice in today’s gospel, first with the statement that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” and then, “A new teaching—with authority!” In this case Jesus’ authority wasn’t being questioned, it was being affirmed, but one of the things that Jesus and Paul have in common is that the authority of each of them was questioned. Questioning authority is not uncommon, in fact one could argue that it’s out of control these days, but that’s another topic for another time. It’s not uncommon however, for anyone who speaks or acts with apparent authority to be regarded with cynicism and even disrespect: “Who does he think he is? Who does she think she is?”

Again, it happened to both Jesus and Paul. What’s interesting though is in the gospel accounts when this happens to Jesus, he never gets defensive; in most cases he would tell another story or pose another question thus deflecting the accusation, pretty much refusing to get into it with his accusers. Paul on the other hand could get very defensive as any of us probably would, citing his credentials and what he’d been through, sometimes going on the attack questioning those who dared to challenge him.

In today’s gospel though, Jesus went to the synagogue and taught. Now remember, this is at the beginning of his ministry at a time when he would have been pretty much unknown. It was also a time though, when there wasn’t a clear process for the ordination of rabbis. Synagogue services were lay led so it wouldn’t have been unusual for someone like Jesus to assume the role of leader. It sounds to me a little bit like a Quaker meeting where there is no clergy person who offers a sermon, but instead if someone is so moved they speak. In any case, on this particular Sabbath, Jesus taught as one having authority, not as the scribes.

Now when I hear the term “scribes” I immediately think of those who opposed Jesus and that is in fact how the gospel writers often use the term with the scribes and the Pharisees often being lumped together; but who were the scribes? First of all, they weren’t bad guys; they were educated, experts in Judaism and Jewish life, people seen as having authority. But they were also part of the government, bureaucrats you might say, so in answering questions and interpreting things, they would most likely toe the party line, defending the Law and the judgments of their predecessors. In other words, they were not likely to offer anything new or innovative, nothing that would challenge the establishment.

Keep in mind though, that that’s not necessarily bad; they knew the tradition handed down to them and they honored and defended it; that was their role. But then along comes Jesus. Apparently it was quite clear from the beginning that Jesus was not just a party line guy. He also knew the tradition and honored it, but he pushed the edges. You don’t get it quite so much in Mark, but in Matthew there is a series of “You have heard it saids” where Jesus restates the tradition like the scribes would do, but then he continues with “But I say to you” where he reinterprets the tradition. Evidently the difference was quite noticeable and while it doesn’t happen in today’s text, that difference would lead to questions concerning Jesus’ authority.

With Paul the questions of authority were different, but let’s start with today’s text. It would seem at first glance that today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has nothing to do with us. Eating meat sacrificed to idols isn’t a big problem in this or any other church, at least I don’t think it is. From Leviticus and other not so interesting parts of the Old Testament I think many of you know that making various grain and animal sacrifices was common in the worship of YHWH, the god of the Hebrew people as well as in other Ancient Near East religions.

With meat offerings like a lamb or a calf, burnt offerings as they were called, apparently after the animal was roasted a portion was set aside for whichever god was being honored, and the rest was available to be consumed by those gathered. It would be kind of like having a barbecue after church. The question put to Paul had to do with whether or not members of the church in Corinth should participate as guests at the barbecue when the sacrifice had been to a god considered to be an idol. “If our friends invite us, should we go?” was the question.

Sometimes when presented with these issues Paul could go off and get into what sounds like legalism with his lists of do’s and don’ts that seem to add more “Thou shalt nots” to the ones we already have in the Ten Commandments. It’s those lists that can make Paul seem like a self-righteous, moralistic curmudgeon, but he doesn’t do that here. The main issue has to do with Christian freedom and how that freedom should be exercised in a world not unlike the one we live in where there are multiple religions and practices along with an assortment of idols. Today Paul might be asked if it’s OK to go to the party tonight and eat Super Bowl snacks offered to the gods of football.

In today’s text Paul approaches the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols and the related issue of Christian freedom from a variety of angles, but his main point is in verse 9: “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” He doesn’t offer any lists of approved or disapproved behaviors, but with this statement as the guiding principle, “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak,” he pretty much says, “You figure it out.” It’s really much more like the approach Jesus took all the time.

Paul’s authority wasn’t being questioned here. In fact the Corinthians wrote to him because they respected his authority in addressing issues that came up. However, while he wasn’t being challenged, in his response in today’s lesson Paul does something that helps to solidify his authority as an interpreter of faith in Jesus Christ. It’s kind of subtle, I’d never taken any note of it before but I’m on this Paul thing so I’ve been reading a lot and what Paul does in the middle of this passage is to restate what’s called the “shema” the Jewish confession of faith.

Jews don’t have creeds per se, but the “shema,” Deuteronomy 6:4 is as close as they come: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” To pray the “shema” (which means “hear,” by the way, the first word of the statement) was not just to make a faith statement but to totally commit oneself to God’s purposes on earth as in heaven.

What Paul does though is to restate this “shema” with Jesus at the center: verse 6, “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist,” so far nothing new; that’s just Deuteronomy in slightly different words. But then, “and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” For us we read right past it, but for a person in the first century, this would have been very challenging; it would have gotten their attention. With this statement though, the source of Paul’s authority is established. It’s not about him and his credentials as an apostle, although at other times he does make it about him, but here, at his best, his authority rests in Jesus as one with the Father.

If, with Paul, we proclaim this revised “shema” (and we do in more expanded form in the words of our own creeds) then we too commit ourselves to God’s purposes on earth as in heaven. With that, we accept the authority of Jesus; we also accept the authority of a teacher like Paul who, like Jesus could push the edges of the tradition handed down in order for the tradition to more fully make known the will of the one God revealed in and through Jesus. As we accept that authority we accept the challenge of statements like the one today on freedom in which freedom has more to do with responsibility for others than it does with our own rights and privileges.

Question it if you want, but I’ll use my authority to present you with the challenge of figuring out what Christian freedom means for you! That means you can decide if it’s OK to eat those Super Bowl snacks!

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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