In 1981, Jeffery Stout, a professor of religion and philosophy at Princeton University, published a book called The Flight from Authority. In it, he described a social and philosophical trend in western society. Collectively, he argued, we have been on a, “flight from authority,” for several centuries. In the Reformation, we fled the authority of the church. Under rationalism, we ran from the authority of the Scriptures. With Kant, we turned our backs on the authority of reason, and then morality. The flight continues in our own times as we resist conformity to governments, social norms, and institutions in general. Obedience is out. Autonomy is in. Simply put, we like to be charge.
This is nothing new, of course. Shortly after this week’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, the first leg of the flight began. The first humans exerted their autonomy against the will of their Father and Creator to their own detriment (and ours). Among other things, the continuing result is we have all learned to sing with Sinatra the autonomist’s creed, “I’ll do it my way.”
This human flight from authority came to mind as I pondered Jesus’ first words in Matthew 28:18. “All authority,” He says, “has been given to me.” This is a striking claim. “All authority,” after all, leaves out nothing. And nothing less than the resurrection was needed to back it up. All authority had been given to Jesus by the Father. It was given to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, by whom He was conceived, with whom He was anointed in the Jordan, and through whom He spoke powerful words and performed powerful works (if you are looking for a Trinitarian connection for Trinity Sunday, I would suggest you get there through a consideration of the other two members of the Godhead as the source and continuation of Jesus’ authority. That would probably be more directly helpful for your hearers than an exploration of the immanent nature of an incomprehensibly Trinitarian God).
Here is the point: Jesus has all authority. He is in charge. Despite appearances to the contrary and our thirst for autonomy, the risen Christ is Lord over all. Try as we might, we cannot escape His rule. If we had our heads on straight, we would not want to, for He exercises authority with wisdom, mercy, and grace.
Despite appearances to the contrary and our thirst for autonomy, the risen Christ is Lord over all.
Jesus’ announcement of authority in the text is followed by a command and a promise. He commands His disciples to make more disciples by baptizing and teaching all nations. That is the work of the Church. That is how we live under His authority. In a sermon, you could turn this into the passive. Be baptized and be taught! After the command, Jesus continued with the promise. “I will be with you,” He says, until the very end. There is grace in this promise. Jesus promises to be with His disciples to forgive and renew them, and to lead them to delight in His will and walk in His ways. Your proclamation of that promise gives life to those who hear this sermon. But there is also accountability in this promise. The Lord, who is with us, retains authority over us. His promise calls for trust and obedience.
The authority of Jesus became clear to me when I served as a parish pastor. We did not have a secretary, so it was my job to answer the phone. I remember one particular caller who asked to speak with the person in charge. Because I spend time pondering such things, I hesitated to answer. I could have given Him the name of our congregational president. I could have listed the members of the church council. I could have told him about the voters or the board of elders. But he was not looking for a lesson in church polity. He simply wanted to talk about our insurance policy. After a brief pause, I refrained from complicating his day and simply answered, “I am he.”
But deep down I knew better. I was not in charge of the congregation. Much less was I in charge of my family, or my schedule, or my health, or my life. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it should be teaching us there is only One who has all authority... and He has all authority.
Your hearers need to hear this. Their flight from His authority—like yours and mine—continues. For the unfaithful ways in which they have fled the authority of God, they need to repent. For the unfruitful ways in which they have operated autonomously, they need to follow the commands of Jesus. For the fearful ways in which they have despaired over their loss of control in these challenging times, they need to hear the promise of the One who makes Himself graciously present with His forgiveness, life, and salvation.
It is your job to speak the words. You have been delegated by Him who has all authority to proclaim His commands and promises. But do not forget: You are not the one in charge. That is good news for you and your hearers.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 28:16-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 28:16-20.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 28:16-20.