So when I finished my first year of seminary one of the requirements was a summer chaplaincy training program. I did mine at Kingston General, KGH. The mornings were generally classroom time and then in the afternoons we would be assigned a ward to work on. The only real clinical training that we got before setting foot on the wards were these super intimidating interviews where we would meet with community volunteers one on one in a tiny room for a pastoral visit. One or more of our colleagues would be watching from behind a two way mirror and our supervisor would be watching over a recorded tv monitor in another room entirely. Thankfully I had wonderful supervisors and some pretty great colleagues too. But we went through that for about two weeks and then got tossed onto the wards.
In my first or second week on the floors I was on call one evening and I got paged because someone had just died and the family wanted a minister to come in. So I got my things together and I went in to the hospital and I walked in to the room and I saw this look of relief come over the face of the family members, and one of them came up to me and said ‘oh I’m so glad you’re here. Can you do your priest thing?’ And I froze.
Here I was, a 25 year old with a whole entire year of seminary training behind me, and two weeks in the hospital and we had definitely not covered death and bereavement and grief and last rites, whatever those were, so I went out into the hall for a moment and I started frantically flipping through my prayer book to find something to say. I think I managed to get a couple prayers out and I talked with the family for a little bit and then I left.
That was perhaps one of the most formative moments in my seminary training because it forced me to look at myself not just as the person that I knew from the mirror, but also as somebody who inhabits a role onto whom other people can project their hopes and fears and questions and angst. In that moment when I thought ‘who the heck am I to be doing this with these people?’ I had to think really hard about the nature of my authority in that place and where it came from. It clearly wasn’t something that I’d built up over time, especially with this particular family; I’d never met them before. But it was real and it was there nonetheless.
SOURCES OF AUTHORITY
That’s the thing with the sources of our authority. They can come in all sorts of different ways.
In one situation authority can be claimed. Someone can take authority for themselves through physical power or wealth or whatever else. It’s the classic King of the Castle game where one person decides that they’re in charge and they have all the advantages they need to back it up. In this case authority is gained through power and it’s exercised by holding on to that power.
In another situation authority can be inherited. It’s not through anything that we ourselves do but it’s by virtue of being born into a situation of privilege that we’re given the mantle of authority by the person who already wields it. Maybe that’s the one that most closely matched my situation in the hospital. Obviously I wasn’t born into the priesthood, but by walking in those shoes, even just in the eyes of that family for that moment, I inherited everything that had been built up over time by those who had gone before me.
Authority can also be given from below. Ideally that’s how a democracy works. We elect to give certain people special privileges and a more powerful voice because we trust them to lead our community to the best of their ability.
When Jesus was wandering about in the Galilee people were amazed at what he was doing because he taught them the scriptures with authority and he acted out his mission with authority. This was something revolutionary it seems. Nobody was expecting it. I think that would be true even today. It’s a powerful thing when somebody speaks with conviction. You can understand how someone who came along and really, truly believed all the things he was teaching could inspire crowds of thousands. And not just that, this Jesus character wasn’t just some blow hard who actually believed the wild, fantastical stories he was telling, he could back it up even commanding unclean spirits.
But the thing is, that wasn’t the source of Jesus’ authority. His authority didn’t come from how powerful he was, rather his power came from his authority. It’s kind of the opposite of what we might expect, but clearly he had that authority before he ever started preaching to them. It wasn’t something that he worked up over years of getting to know his listeners. And it wasn’t something that he inherited from those who had come before him, clearly if anything he was breaking with tradition. And it also wasn’t something that he took by force. At the end of the gospel in the garden of Gethsemane before his death Jesus says to Peter I could have called down a legion of angels to protect me but I didn’t. When he was tempted by Satan in the desert he could have had the world grovelling at his feet, but he didn’t. He had the power to exercise authority but he chose not to wield it.
The special thing about Jesus’ authority is that it didn’t come from him and it didn’t come from the crowds, it came directly from God. We heard it just a few weeks ago, when Jesus was baptized a voice spoke from the heavens like thunder and said “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The source of Jesus’ authority was found in his relationship with God. It came from the fact that he knew exactly where he stood with God, and everything else could fall into place after that.
Imagine if you could claim that same authority. Imagine if you were so close to God, if, when God says ‘You are my child, the beloved’, you could trust those words so fully that everything else faded into the background. All of those social pressures to achieve great things, to be the smartest, or the most beautiful, or the most accomplished, or the most respected person; imagine if all of that stopped meaning so much because you already knew you are loved by God. Imagine how confidently, how powerfully you could speak, or act, if you truly believed that the God of all Creation knew you and loved you and no matter what you did that wasn’t going to change.
AUTHORITY FOR OTHERS
It’s important to be able to imagine what we might do in that case because the other important piece about Jesus’ authority is that he didn’t wield it for himself. He wielded it for the sake of the world. He taught those who needed to be inspired and nourished, he healed those who needed to be released, he brought them back into the community and he set them free.
Just the same our authority to proclaim the freedom and the joy and the justice and the peace of the kingdom of God exists not so that we can feel good about ourselves but so that we can point others to the same grace, the same knowledge that God loves this creation and all the people in it, and God wants us to experience the freedom of knowing that truth and trusting it.