Why is it that I can stand in a pulpit in front of a crowd of people and tell them anything I want about the Bible? It doesn’t matter if what I preach is right or wrong. I’ve been given authority to do this. By whom? By the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
There are many churches around me that have preachers standing in pulpits telling those who will listen anything and everything they believe about the Bible. The ELCA hasn’t given them the authority. Rome hasn’t given them the authority. Many don’t even have an organized institutional body that trains them and grants them the authority to do what they do. So where do they get the authority to proclaim their versions of the truth?
One answer is the people in the pews give them the authority. Why show up if you don’t think the person who steps to the front to lead you is a suitable spokesperson for the Lord? Part of that authority people give you comes from whether or not you live a life that models what you preach. If you preach a God of law, you certainly better be following it. If you preach a God of love, you need to be the example of that as well.
Part of the authority you give others is based on whether or not what they say agrees with your personal understanding of God. If I’ve been told one thing about God in my youth, and all of a sudden, someone from another tradition throws me a curve with another version of God, it’s going to take me a while before I give authority to that person. I need to hear more about why they think the way they think before I consent to listen further. I have to use my adult brain to determine whether or not to let go of what my elders taught me in childhood when I was incapable of abstract thought.
Where did Jesus get his authority? I think he got it from inside. I think he believed Jeremiah when he said God was giving a new covenant, saying, “I will write my law on your heart.” The Hebrew word for “law” (Torah) meant “instruction” more than it meant “do it or go to hell.” I think Jesus took God’s instruction to heart when he repeated Isaiah to his disciples, saying, “They will all be taught by God.” Isaiah didn’t say “by Moses,” nor did Jesus.
Jesus accepted the authority given him by his heavenly Father, the authority to follow his heart. You see, Jesus had a different concept of God than his Jewish brothers and sisters. He didn’t believe God was responsible for killing people when they were bad. Jesus disagreed with Moses on numerous occasions. You have to say he disagreed with
Scripture by doing so.
Jesus didn’t agree with Moses or Pat Robertson or Michelle Bachman when they say God sends disasters to punish us or to tell us we need to repent of ungodly ways. The authority by which they speak is the Hebrew Scriptures. They are clearly promoting the image of God written in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus said he didn’t agree with this concept of God. He told his disciples that God wasn’t punishing the seventeen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell. That’s not what God is like.
Jesus told the Pharisees they didn’t know God. They knew the Scriptures backward and forward. Five times Jesus told them they didn’t know God. How could they not know God? They had God’s written word to tell them what God was like. But Jesus knew God by a greater authority.
In his heart, Jesus knew and loved a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He confessed a God who wasn’t as interested in controlling us with laws as in giving us abundance in life. Jesus lived and proclaimed the goodness of God by the truest authority any of us can go by…by the God who lives and breathes within us and has written his instructions on our hearts.
Jesus gave a concise set of those instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. He gave them from the authority of his own heart. He summarized it in these words, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” This was the word of the Lord written on his heart: Love the One who created this beautiful world. Love your neighbor. Do it because they are one and the same.
Fortunately, the authority by which I speak these words from my heart is backed up by another rather influential figure in my religious tradition: Martin Luther. The abbreviated version is this: “How can we know what is God’s Word, and what is right or wrong?… God must speak to your heart: This is God’s Word.” The expanded version is below.
Do you want greater authority to preach, teach, or proclaim the good news? Then search your heart. What kind of God lives within you? (Your words and actions always reveal the character of the God who lives within you. People will then decide if they want to give you greater authority.) Follow your heart and go tell others the good news about your God. You’ll be doing it on good authority.
EXPANDED VERSION of Martin Luther’s sermon:
Matthew 7:15-23, Eighth Sunday after Trinity; Volume IV:234-290 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983). p.238+9
Sermon #1 on this text: (with my underlinings)
1. As the Lord in the three previous chapters, the 5th, 6th, and 7th, explains the commandments of God, he finally concludes with these words, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should to you, do ye even so to them,” v. 12. This is a Christian doctrine, and the sum and total of Christianity. Immediately follows this Gospel lesson, in which the Lord exercises the office of a good shepherd and teacher, and warns us to beware of false prophets. As though he would say, Now you have heard the truth, from henceforth therefore beware of other doctrines. For it is certain that false teachers and false prophets will arise wherever this Word is preached.
3. We should well consider this passage, for Christ our Lord here commands and
gives all Christians the power to be judges of all doctrine, and he gives them power to judge what is right and what is not right. It is now well on a thousand years that this passage has been perverted by false Christians, so that we have had no power to
judge, but had to accept what the Pope and the councils determined, without any
judgment of our own.
8. Then they began to say: Yes, but how can we know what is God’s Word, and what is right or wrong? This we must learn from the Pope and the councils. Very well then, let them conclude and say what they please, yet I will reply, you cannot put your confidence in that nor thus satisfy your conscience, for you must determine this matter yourself, for your very life depends upon it. Therefore God must speak to your heart: This is God’s Word; otherwise you are undecided.