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By whose authority?

The following sermon was preached by Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, former Dean of the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, May 10, 2006.


Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Grace to you and peace from God, Creator, Savior, and Comforter

By whose authority? The question comes in the Gospel lesson today. By whose authority?

It made me think about when I was a kid. I remember as a kid, when I would take it on myself to do something that my brothers and sister thought was beyond what I should be doing, they would say, "Who said you could do that?" Of course, not said very kindly and gently but with a note of scorn in their voices-----that indicated to me that what they were really saying was "Who do you think you are?" and "Who gave you permission to do that?" It didn't faze me if they said it----but when Mom or Dad or some other adult said it to me, I knew I was in trouble----because then it was the people in authority who were questioning me---and their questions had weight in my life and the life of the people around me. If they didn't think I should be doing what I was doing, it would take some fast talking to not get in trouble. It also made me think and not take myself and my authority too seriously.

Sometimes doing ministry feels like that----you'll find yourself caught up in something you feel called to do----you know it is right, sometimes it is the only thing to do. You enthusiastically set out to do it and, lo and behold, some church elder, the bishop, the neighboring pastor, the biggest giver in the church, the chairman of the board of your social service agency (or your seminary), your dean, your CPE or internship supervisor, your advisor-----says something to the effect of "Who said you could do that?" Oh, it may be in different words----or maybe no words at all----just a look and a body posture—but the intent is the same----who said you could do this----and we don't like it----who do you think you are?

It will happen (and sometimes it should.) It will happen-----I say that to you today as many of us who are students get ready to go out to CPE, to internship, to first calls, to job searches, to new academic adventures----and many of us who work here look forward to a new year and at the same time face challenges that come with seminary institutions at this time in our history. It will happen. There will be people who will say, "Who said you could do that?" By whose authority do you do that? And it won't happen just once—it may even happen frequently, depending on where your ministry site is.

That's why this text from Acts is so timely today. We are almost at the end of the year. Today we are sending those who won't be here next year. There's a whole community sending tomorrow----there's graduation on Sunday----but all this week, today included, we can't help but think about the places, the people, and the opportunities we are heading into. And it is at this place and this time, that we read in Acts about the healing by Peter and John of the man who was lame from birth. It is a dramatic story of healing ministry---we only have a part of it----the part before this is that Peter and John heal this man------this lame man who came expecting to get a bit of change from then---and instead got life changing, life giving healing of his body.
It was a miracle of ministry and because of it, the whole system had to change-----people who were used to tossing him a couple of pennies, now had to relate to him like he was one of them (which he was). Religious leaders who had thought Jesus was an interesting anomaly on the religious scene were faced with the reality that Jesus and the disciples were much more than just interesting---it was a powerful movement that had increasing influence among the people. The Spirit of God was moving!

And so, Peter and John are thrown into prison, and when brought before the religious court, are asked the question my brothers and sister used to ask me, "Who said you could do that?"

Well, okay----what they really said was "en poia dunamei ay en poio onomati epoiaysate touto umeis?" That is to say:
By what power---and by what name, do you do this?---some say the way it is phrased, they were really asking , "How do people like you" do this?

By what power---and by what name----in other words---by whose authority----who gave you the authority to do such a thing---to heal this man who had been lame since birth---to strengthen his weak ankles and feet and make him whole-----Who said you could do that?

I don't know about you but when I hear this story----my first thought is "Who cares ---by whose authority?" The guy can walk—who cares how it happened---or who did it? Why could it possibly matter?

If it is good vital ministry---why would it matter who did it---or by whose authority they did it?

But it did---to the high priest and the high priestly family----to the established ones---to those who maybe had something to lose by good ministry---it maybe mattered to those who were used to relating a certain way to the man who was lame----it mattered who did it and how they did it. It shouldn't have but it mattered.

This is a good story to hear as we head towards new situations---because Peter speaks with such conviction and power about who it is that does it and by whose authority.

You see Peter knew that the key to doing good ministry---the key to healing people who are lame, bringing hope where there is no hope, to celebrating with people and mourning with people, the key to fighting for justice, to feeding the hungry, and working for peace is to build your authority---your power---your "right to do this" on Jesus Christ---whom Peter calls the Cornerstone—the building block. That was what Peter said----"By what power and authority do I do this? By the power and authority of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone the building block, the one on whom I build my life----the one in whom I do everything---as we have heard this past week a few times----on Jesus Christ, the building block in whom I live and move and have my being. That being connected to the source is so very, very important.

Peter based his witness and his healing ministry on that. Now we know he got it wrong some times ----I would guess there were even times when he forgot whose power it was and took credit for it himself------but today------TODAY----there's no doubt----he is on to something----- He's got it right----a great work of ministry----and yet---his response is----"to God be the glory" ---it's not me---it is through Jesus Christ, my building block----my cornerstone.

We're heading into something different, brothers and sisters----even those of us who are staying here---its going to be different----we're headed into ministry opportunities---some as dramatic as the healing of the lame man----most not that dramatic----- Some of us go empowered by ordination, many of us empowered by the education we have received, some of us will have a position that gives us authority----but never forget-----ultimately the power belongs to God-----that it is for most of us, through Jesus Christ, the only Child of God---but for all of us all power and authority is given to us----but it is God's power---not some ego boosting, gotta have my own way----look what I can do kind of thing.

Each and every day will bring new opportunities, new challenges and new encounters with God and with the other. May you face each day----knowing that God in whom you live and move and have your being, God through Jesus Christ empowers and leads you-----it is by that authority that you do and will do what you are called to do.

Please join me in prayer, as I pray that lovely prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship,

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your had is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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