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Reconciling Authority and Humility: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 27, 2020:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The Jesus in today’s story is not conflict and awkwardness-avoidant. This is Jesus the day after overturning tables in the Temple. It’s a Jesus who is known by his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” is the question asked of Jesus by those holding, well, authority.

A quick survey of the Gospels shows us that authority is something that people seem to have noticed about Jesus.

    – Jesus acts and talks with the authority of one who can forgive human sin.
    – Demonstrates an authority over the powers of nature when he calms the sea.
    – Has the authority to reinterpret what “Sabbath” means.
    – Has authority over unclean spirits.
    – Has the authority to speak of an intimate and unique relationship with God.
    – Jesus’s authority ruffles feathers when at the beginning of his ministry when he reads and speaks in his hometown synagogue, and also at the end of his earthly ministry when he demonstrates inside the Jerusalem Temple. Today’s reading, I mentioned, picks up shortly after that. The authority that Jesus exhibits flows out of what we would call his ‘divinity;’ what the stories portray as his confident, assured, self-identification with the Father.

But then wait! How is Jesus described — how is Jesus’s unique relationship with the Father described — by the early Christian community? How is Jesus remembered in this beautiful hymn or poem or creed that quoted by Paul? By his humility. By his obedience.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who [and here the hymn begins], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

The people who encountered Jesus over three years early on in the first century recognized and experienced God through Jesus’s authority. But just a few years later, with Jesus having died, descended, been raised, and ascended, how does the gathered community — the Body of Christ — recognize and experience God in Jesus? Well, Paul says: by meditating on Jesus’s humility, and by adopting that as their starting point in their own lives, and in their shared life, as Church. And I think it can apply to us today. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

What does it mean to be “of the same mind?” (In a way healthier and more life-giving than what we see in apocalyptic cults, or the echo chambers of some corners of the internet.) We live in a world that is being crushed under the weight of competing authorities. And while some authorities are, I’m sure, far preferable to others, we are limited insofar as we human beings find that deep within us, “selfish ambition” often comes more naturally than “humble regard for others.” The theological word for that, I think, is “sin.”

But Jesus shows us an alternative. Jesus, who brings together divinity and humanity also holds together authority and humility. It’s his confidence in his unique relationship with God that allowed him to truly give of himself to others, and ultimately to give himself totally for others, on the Cross.

Think of those times in our lives when we’ve unhealthily asserted ourselves or our sense of authority over others. Or think of those leaders in the worlds of entertainment, business, and politics who berate others, are self-obsessed, and are addicted to social media. Is this not a symptom of a lack of acceptance of who we are, as children of God, assuredly loved, and each with a unique calling that goes deeper than our own limited notions, moods, and even actions.

Our purpose, our identity, and our authority that is incarnated among others as humility is grounded in our remembrance that we, as individuals, and we as gathered Body of Christ, are rooted in God. Which is to say that our reality, our lives, are deeper than we know. We are each part of a mystery — the Reign of God, or the Kingdom of God — of which we are just a part. And when we realize that, we can be free to live as truly human, as ‘truly humane,’ as Jesus did. And to give ourselves to and for others. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This is the way of the Cross, in which is the salvation of the world. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter