Authority can be a slippery thing within a community of faith. We can make many mistakes around it. We may give it to those who can’t live up to it. We may reject authority altogether and lose its voice. We may pick and choose where authority can speak to our lives. These texts invite us to think about spiritual authority in our personal life and in our corporate life. Who are we giving it to? and why? Where are we rejecting it? and why? Where are we longing for it? What are the signs of spiritual authority that we recognize? What are the signs that others will accept? How do we temper being right with love, and when?
Prophecy among God’s people is a gift from God to the people of God. The prophet lives among them, raised up to speak with divine authority so people can hear God’s voice for themselves. Sounds like a plan, right? Actually it’s more than a plan. It’s a life and death kind of thing. In fact, when someone accepts the name prophet and speak to those who believe they are God’s prophet, they better be sure that they speak the truth because if they don’t, they die. There’s not much margin for error in the Hebrew prophetic tradition. And if listeners decide not to heed authentic prophecy, they also are accountable to God.
I Corinthians 8:1-13
In seminary I took a course on this epistle. My professor invited us to observe in it “the tyranny of the weak.” He was talking about people who attribute spiritual power to things that others may not. In this case, if you believe in only one God, food offered to other gods that you don’t believe exist cannot be food that carries spiritual power for better or worse. But to those without that critical thinking conclusion in place, refusing food offered to other gods becomes an act of spiritual devotion others may have no right to disdain. Knowledge, puffs up, but love builds up. (v.1) What kind of tyranny is this? Here we explore the limits of how truth is used and the long process of calling spiritual authority back to its home in the God of all creation whose love and justice is more patient and trusting that any right argument. When do we reach our limit? When does grace become tyranny? And those questions set us up nicely for the gospel reading.
Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, and says, be silent, come out. What happens next isn’t pretty. It’s an upsetting picture. In fact, it looks like something bad is happening—not something good. Convulsions! Yelling! Today, emergency responders likely would be called. How do we, in our time, in our life together, hear Jesus saying to our unclean spirits, come out? What is it going to look like, feel like? How do we participate in his ministry that says to others, come out? How do we prepare to accept that something good sometimes looks pretty awful? Why was the patience discussed in the Corinthian passage not the strategy here? What is at stake that makes the difference for Jesus? Is that ever at stake for us?
These passages read a little like case studies in a leadership resource. If we want to speak to the manager and then don’t respect the message or messenger, don’t expect a good outcome. When we speak to the manager there is also something called “managerial discretion” that can frustrate being “right.” And let’s not confuse the critical reality reset of the Owner for managerial strategy. Authority is real. Ours is a gift from God. God’s is original.
Diane Strickland, ordained for 33 years, is a Community & Workplace Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist–Therapist and Critical Incident Responder. She is retired in The United Church of Canada, serving special emergent needs–like supporting ministers and ministries during a pandemic.
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