In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: one God. [Glory to him.]
Power and pity, combined in the awe-inspiring authority of our Savior that you heard about in the gospel lesson. Our Savior stood amongst men and gazed into their hearts. He knew the faith-filled intentions of the paralytic and his friends, and he knew the evil thoughts that were passing through the minds of the Pharisees and the Jewish rulers who refused to accept his authority. He is the One before whom all things are opened and exposed, the One to whom we must give account, St. Paul says to the Hebrews. “Before his eyes, all things are naked.”
Jesus’ authority is what wowed people. His authority was so unique, it scandalized some and it led the jaws to drop of the faithful. His teaching authority was off-the-charts. It left the people feeling like they had never heard someone teach before. This was the effect of listening to Jesus’ instruction, and this was an effect not just on the faithful who gathered at his feet on the mount, but even of those soldiers who were sent to arrest him, who couldn’t do it and came back and reported to the authorities that they had never heard a man speak like this before. His teaching communicated his authority.
Matthew goes on and records Jesus’ authority over all sorts of illnesses: leprosy, paralysis, and fever in 8:1-17; Jesus’ authority demonstrated by his call to an undivided allegiance from his followers, in 8:18-22; his authority demonstrated over the natural forces of the winds and the waves in the sea in 8:23-27; his authority demonstrated over the supernatural powers, the unclean spirits, the demons, who to men appear to have such power in 8:28-24; and now, in chapter 9, what you just heard in the gospel text, Jesus’ authority is clear on the most important subject of all, more important than the control of the natural elements, more powerful and important to us than the destruction of the demons, and that is—his authority to forgive sins, to use all of his great power to communicate pity and mercy.
Jesus’ authority was so exceptional and it inspired such awe because it was unlike the authority of men. For us, authority comes because maybe you are well-connected and you’ve been put into a position of power. That leads to our sense, on the earth, of someone having authority, but our Savior had none of those things. He was a nobody from nowhere in the world’s eyes. He owned nothing. He possessed no wealth. He had no position in government or the Jewish system. He was not connected to the power-brokers of the earth, yet his authority had never been witnessed before on the earth. Planet earth had never seen anyone walk on its soil with this kind of authority.
Why? Because Jesus’ authority was not derived. It wasn’t an authority that was derivative. It was not hindered because he was poor or a peasant in the middle of the back woods, or because he had for friends impoverished, uneducated fishermen. His authority was unique since it was an authority inherent in himself as the God-man. It was a divine authority.
The word “authority,” the most common word that we use in the New Testament for “authority” is exousia. You’re familiar at least with the last half of that word: ousia, from the Nicene Creed: essence, “of one essence with the Father.” Jesus’ authority, the etymology of that word is so good to explain this because his authority was “out of” or “from” his essence, from what he was. It wasn’t something that he became, nothing that he got from someone else. He had an authority from his very being that he possessed and demonstrated.
So he stood in Capernaum, in his hometown, with this divine authority as the God-man, absolutely free to act, free of all constraint, and as, in that moment, in that body, he was the Source of all derived authorities on the earth. Every great man, every powerful woman, at that time derived his or her authority from this Man, standing in Capernaum. He was the fountain of all authority: the Potter over the clay. This is what people saw, and they feared, and they said to themselves they’ve never seen such authority given to men.
The amazing thing is that Jesus used his authority chiefly to declare that he had come to deal with and forgive our sins. This is how God uses power, and it is so different from how men often use power. It didn’t puff up his mind and lead him to tyranny, like authority so often does to human beings who are fallen. God uses his power for the benefit and the salvation of all. This area of forgiveness is the very heart of the authority that Jesus passed on to his apostles and bishops in the Church. It’s the authority to forgive, to bind and loose sins. When the Church exercises such authority over sin, when the priest reads the absolution for sins in confession to the penitent, or when he reads it at the funeral service, he’s expressing the highest authority of the Church, and Jesus himself is backing it.
We use this language colloquially. We say to each other, those that we’re dedicated to defending, we say, “I’ve got your back.” That’s how we talk. This may or may not mean much, depending on who the I is, who’s got our back, but when the priest, correctly exercising his priestly authority to forgive sins, exercises the sacred ministry of loosing sins, Jesus is saying to him, “I have your back.” This is the understanding the Church has of what he means when he says, “Whatever you bind or loose on the earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.” This is how our Savior has passed on his great power in order to communicate pity and mercy and forgiveness.
This outrageous authority that our Savior has brings us before very important choices in our life. Jesus is not someone who was taken or left in a casual way during his earthly ministry, and he’s not someone who’s taken or left in a casual way throughout Church history and even in this very moment, Jesus is the ultimate fork in an individual’s life. When you stand in front of He who has all authority in heaven and on earth and has come to exercise it for the salvation of man, you have a huge decision to make. You’re forced to choices.
This is why our Savior made so much emphasis on this, and he was taking, of course, he was deriving his teaching from what he had been inspiring in the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms for a very long time. Think of Moses who said to the people, “There are two ways set before you this day.” (This is Deuteronomy.) “There are two ways set before you this day: the path of life and the path of death. Choose life.” That’s Moses. Or think of Joshua, his pious successor, who said, “Whether you will choose to serve the gods of this land or not, I do not know, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Two paths: You and your house can serve the Lord; you and your house can serve the gods of the land. Or think of the psalmist in the Wisdom literature. Psalm 1, the opening of the entire psalter: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or sit in the seat of scoffers. His delight in the law of the Lord.” Two paths, two seats. The way of wickedness, the way of righteousness. Or the proverbs: the way of wisdom and the way of foolishness.
The prophets called the people the same way, to one of two paths, and our Savior took all of that kind of foundational teaching, and he drove it home much more intimately. The end of the sermon on the mount, he said:
Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are there that walk by it, but the gate is narrow and the path is close that leads to life, and few are there that find it.
Our Savior was calling the people, at the end of his most powerful sermon, to decision. His outrageous authority effects that between us, because we have to respond! Are we going to follow him onto the narrow way, the way of his commandments that leads to everlasting life, or—are we going to ignore his authority and end up on the way of death that’s so comfortable? A choice of entrances—the narrow or the wide gate—a choice of roads—the narrow or the broad road—a choice of companions—the crowd, the many, or the few, the conscientious few—and a choice of destinies—life and death, heaven and hell. This is the effect of the authority of our Savior.
I’ve read in the last two weeks two interesting polls, new studies. They’re polls of believers, of Christian believers in America, about a number of pressing subjects. One of the polls revealed that—it was a poll on the subject of abortion—it revealed that, in this country, just slightly more than 50% of Roman Catholics believe that abortion should be legal at all times of pregnancy. Just over 50%. 71 million Roman Catholics in America. Evangelicals are also in a crisis of obedience to Jesus’ authority as well, and their own church’s authority. We Orthodox escaped. I think we escaped because we were not on the radar of the poll-takers. [Laughter] That itself may be a witness against us. How many years and decades are we going to keep saying, “We’re the best-kept secret in America?” I can’t tell you how happy I would be for the demise of that comment. It’s horrible. Often I’ve thought it’s great, because we’re not ready not to be a secret, but I wonder, too, if we’ll account for remaining a secret when the Lord has given us a commission.
Cafeteria Christians are on the wrong road, brothers and sisters, picking and choosing what to accept or what not to accept from the Church. Think about what this presupposes, when we want to dabble with Jesus’ authority and the authority of the Church, which are one and the same. If we want to dabble and say, “I like that part, but that part over there, nah, it’s not for me. The Church says this, and I accept it on this subject, but when the Church says this on another subject that might be challenging or difficult or perhaps even demand some change to my personal life, I reject it,” the presupposition of that is that it’s not Jesus who’s in authority, it’s us. “I’ll listen to what Jesus says, but when it comes down to it, I’m the locus of all authority in heaven and on earth, and I will determine what is correct and what is not.” That is a claim to deity. We would never do it, thinking that, but that’s what it will appear like on the day of judgment for those who do it.
We can’t just follow Jesus in those areas where he just so happens to agree with us. If we say a lie, brothers and sisters, if we say a lie, of course that’s terrible, but that does not make us liars. Liars are those who just don’t tell a lie, but practice lying. It’s what they do. This distinction is very important, because in the Scriptures we know, especially from the last chapters of the Apocalypse, that liars will be cast out of the kingdom of God; they won’t be able to get in, and that’s not where we want to be. This is the truth about all vices. Occasional sins are one thing; character and disposition, through regular practice of actions, is another thing altogether. That’s how you go from saying a lie to becoming a lie-er. We have to be very careful, because we’re very tempted when we get lied to to say someone’s a liar; it’s not true. They may or may not be. [Laughter] But what they did to us was lie.
This is a very important distinction for us, but before you take too much comfort in that truth, I want to reverse it on you. The same thing is true about virtue and obedience to the authority of Christ. If we obey Jesus about some things, here and there, that does not make us obedient, faithful Christians. Occasional and selective obedience is one thing, but character and disposition, through regular practice of obedience, is another thing altogether. And it’s particularly in conforming ourselves to the teaching of the Lord and the Church that we ourselves find difficult and challenging. It’s especially there that we prove our Christian faith, that we prove that we’re under the authority of Jesus, especially in the hard places, where it might demand some change for us, or might be otherwise difficult.
I stand before you as someone preaching to myself and preaching to you with one goal, and that is to wrap the word of God around you and myself and to adhere us to the authority of Christ, to make our confession of substance when we say that Jesus is Lord. This is how St. Paul understood his entire ministry, in that beautiful epistle that you heard today from Romans 12, he begins that letter and he ends that letter with the exact same affirmation, saying that the goal of the Christian ministry and the goal of preaching is to secure the obedience of the people to Christ himself, to attach the faithful to the authority of Christ authentically. Listen to Paul; this is 1:5. This is how he opens his epistle, his longest of his epistles, the epistle to the Romans:
Through Christ we have received grace and apostleship—[Why?]—to bring about the obedience of the faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake.
Behind the whole mystery of God sending grace to men and making them apostles was that he wanted to use them to take us and to fasten us to the authority of Christ, to bring about the obedience of the faith. He closes this longest of his epistles with these words in a similar vein. This is 15:18, and then the last verses of chapter 16.
For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed.
Here’s St. Paul saying the only thing he considered to be of value, that he could actually boast about as an apostle, was the obedience that he secured from the people to Christ through his ministry. Then he ends with these words:
To him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to the obedience of faith, to the only-wise God, through Jesus Christ be the glory forever. Amen.
This is how he ends it: the authority of Christ, like never has been on the earth before. Brothers and sisters, please, please, make your confession of being a Christian solid. Don’t pick and choose your faith. Don’t be a cafeteria Orthodox, but prove that you’re under the authority of the God-man, of Christ himself, because if you are, every good thing will come to you, because all of that authority he uses, as you saw in the gospel text, for one thing: pity, mercy, salvation. Amen.