“Give Me Love But Don’t Tell Me What To Do.”
Sermon for Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
One of the central questions of my life is in the issue of authority. “How can I love and serve Jesus when I don’t like being told what to do?” I grew up in a very loving home with both a mother and a father active in Christian ministry. Just like every child does, I tested the boundaries with my parents. If I was told not to wander far I would wander to the very edge of what was considered far, so as to be called back. Like my own children do now, I loved the art of being contrary. My grandfather would tell me that I could argue that the sun rose in west and set in the east. And just to test whether he really knew I pressed him on that point. I learned how to get under the skin of someone in charge so that they knew I was there, and so that as long as I did the bare minimum of what they asked, they’d not bother me anymore. I never thought that I’d be the on the receiving end of that behavior one day. But now it comes to my wife and I every Saturday as we press our children to spend hours doing their chores.
When it comes to following Jesus, many people who have no problem saying their prayers and reading their bibles have a BIG problem with this issue of submitting to another believer out of love for Jesus. They don’t mind the rules, they’re just very bothered by the other troublesome personalities who also know the rules and want to remind them of them. It’s said over and over again, “I love Jesus, it’s just other Christians I can’t stand.” We could probably go around the room and list the things about authority that have always bothered us, giving examples of employers who used and cheated us, preachers who spiritually manipulated us, politicians who lied and stole money. Each of us have different reasons to not trust authority. But I think at root what we really want to know is that the people in charge are completely trustworthy. We want leaders who don’t need to be questioned because they’re perfect.
In real life I started to suspect by about age three that my parents were not going to give me everything I expected in return for obedience. Things happened to me and to my parents that were outside of our control. Cars broke down, money got low, tempers flared, and in general life threw us things we didn’t like. I started to suspect that maybe mom and dad were not the superheroes I thought they were and maybe I was not really the center of their world anymore. Let me tell you what I did learn from them though. It’s very simple. Whenever we had a need I watched my parents pray to God for it and expect that He heard and cared. When I needed something they couldn’t afford they’d encourage me to pray for it. When I lost something in my room my mother taught me to stop and pray and ask God for help finding it. In this way they instilled in me a trust in God. A trust that God was personal and powerful. That no matter what happened to us in life, God was our source and determined our very existence itself.
I had no idea how silly that seemed to many people. I remember driving a couple of classmates home in high school one day. We got in the car and as I adjusted the mirrors and started the car I bowed my head and quietly prayed for a safe journey. The girl sitting next to me thought that was the funniest thing she could think of. “Don’t you know how to drive?” “Why would you need to pray?” And that sentiment is the prevailing one in this world today. Why would anyone with the skills to drive and a means going places need to ask God for anything? And with all that America provides for her citizens, why does anyone need a heavenly deity? It’s fine to practice your religion personally. Do whatever gets you by, let Jesus be your personal drug of choice. But don’t dare take that out into public. Don’t dare presume that anyone else should care. In this way privatized religion poses no threat to the wheels of progress. So long as God stays out of the way of making our money and doing with it what we want, religion in America can continue to be useful in blessing our way of life.
But what does the Bible say? Matt 28:18-20. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
When Jesus said, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” he was saying he is the ultimate authority. Not just over religious individuals but over all the known world. Over every high authority that can be named. And all authority in our lives comes through Jesus Christ. How did Jesus’ authority come to Him? His authority came through submission to death. Authority and leadership in the Scriptures always flow out of worship, love and gratitude. This gratitude demonstrates itself in hospitality. Real authority has learned self control and mutual submission. It is others focused; service oriented. Leaders begin with listening and rely on God for wisdom and discernment.
Common Views and Practices regarding Authority
In our world authority and power are words often used interchangeably. Authority is imposed by force of arms or force of argument. It usually involves some form of compulsion or persuasion. Real authority is in the power to influence someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Along these lines we could argue that the world’s greatest influence is in capital. The power to influence markets is what everyone follows. People are far less impressed with what you say you believe than by your power to spend money and influence other’s power to spend money. So when we talk about Jesus’ power and authority many people think they understand this. Every US President in history has acknowledged his membership or involvement in some particular Christian denomination, because this is what many of his voting constituents wanted to hear. Jesus can have all our prayers, but he’s left the power over the movement of money to others.
Many people want nothing to do with organized religion because they’ve been manipulated and conned against their wills in the past. In the 1970s the issue of brainwashing and authoritarian religious cults was everywhere in the news. We were warned that there are certain predisposed personalities who can easily be brainwashed. We’re told such people need to be taught to think for themselves. As a culture we’re repelled by the lure of cults but are far less afraid of how controlled we are by other message systems like advertisers and infotainment sources.
Today people don’t want to feel like they’re being told what to do, but they respond well to the idea that a website is most visited and most popular. They come to believe that something must be right for them if it’s right for most people. If a video or type of software has over a million page views it is a sensation and many other news outlets will beat a path to their door. One morning a young teenage girl may have “Good Morning America” call her on the phone about a Youtube video of her playing in front of the mirror when she was three because it’s what everyone wants to see.
Now, through the power of social media, every individual has the power and freedom to choose to do what every other informed person has done. For many people this has become true autonomy and unquestionable authority. But, truthfully, something’s utility to most people may not make it worth everyone’s time. Just because one million people age 14 to 44 were online watching a teacher sprawled on the floor punching his student over and over does not mean that everyone else needs to. Just because “cutting,” that sick form of self mutilation, has become popular to share with others online, doesn’t mean it is something everyone needs to do to feel noticed.
Fruit of World’s Values related to Authority
What the world wants from its authorities is in constant flux. Persuasion, influence, money, and the desire to know what is popular and change quickly are what’s most important. In the name of national duty leaders use their authority selfishly. One day’s servant revolutionary is the next day’s cruel tyrant. We watch the news and see one country’s people use social media and protest in the streets to topple a dictator. The next day we see the people in a different country attempt the same thing only to have their dictator turn anti-aircraft missiles on his own people. This world is in decay and is passing away, the Scriptures warn us: “15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2: 15-17) Do not spend your love on this world. Do not fall prey to wanting what this world wants. If you do the Father’s love is not in you.
God’s Vision of Authority
We are all frail creatures made in the image and likeness of God. For this reason all humans are worthy of our love and respect. We are not meant to be alone. We are social creatures. If there is anything we can see from all government institutions it is that their authority is important and it is never enough. No government can remove hate from the heart of its people. Every ruler comes into office to inspire hope that he or she can restore confidence and hope. But God’s vision of what authority is and does has something else in mind entirely. 1 Kings chapter three recounts he way Solomon received authority from the Lord:
“5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”6 Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.7 “Now, LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (NIV)
Solomon’s authority came through confession and humility. “I am only a little child. . . I don’t know how.” He asked for a discerning heart to govern and distinguish right and wrong. Finally he asked “who is able?” This is a very different posture for authority. It lacks assumption, and instead challenges human action, asking, “Who can?” It knows that God is all powerful and wise and knows human hearts better than any leader. God’s reply is to give him more than he asked for, everything he didn’t ask for. Wealth, honor, supreme power, and long life if he walks in obedience like his father David.
Now what happened to Solomon? He did get wisdom and authority. The Holy Spirit used him and his words and is still using them today in the Bible. But as an authority he fell short. He serves as a witness to the Son of David yet to come, who we believe is Jesus Christ. Solomon began in humility and deference but his heart turned from the Lord and he left a wicked legacy for his own son and a broken kingdom. He married many foreign wives who spread his influence, but took his spiritual devotion as payment. And his story serves as a warning for us today. There is no authority so God-given to men and so great that it cannot become corrupted and taken away. This story has been repeated for thousands of years in the lives of countless individuals.
Jesus Christ is the true Messiah in David’s line, the true King. And with his appearing we await a new heavens and a new earth full of righteousness and justice. He has conquered hell and death and is Lord of all creation. The apostle Paul leads us through how this happened:
“5Let this same attitude and purpose and [humble] mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus: [Let Him be your example in humility:] 6Who, although being essentially one with God and in the form of God [possessing the fullness of the attributes which make God God], did not think this equality with God was a thing to be eagerly grasped or retained, 7But stripped Himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity], so as to assume the guise of a servant (slave), in that He became like men and was born a human being. 8And after He had appeared in human form, He abased and humbled Himself [still further] and carried His obedience to the extreme of death, even the death of the cross! 9Therefore [because He stooped so low] God has highly exalted Him and has freely bestowed on Him the name that is above every name,10That in (at) the name of Jesus every knee should (must) bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11And every tongue [frankly and openly] confess and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-13, Amplified)
As followers of Jesus no less is expected of us than can be seen in the example of Jesus. By God’s Holy Spirit we are being made into the image of Christ. We are drawn into the love of the trinity. And that love began with total sacrifice. We can never know the same kind of sacrifice God has made for us because we’re not God. But by His Spirit we are being made willing to empty ourselves. Now emptying ourselves involves total trust. We trust, as Jesus did, that God is in control. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But with his final words he breathed, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” We may feel as though God’s love is not present with us. Fear and ego at times cause us to panic. But we must remember that Jesus took all that on the cross for us so that we never have to fear God’s abandonment. The same Jesus who said “All power is give unto me” says “I am with you always.”
With authority turned upside down, coming to us through trust, service, and suffering, we give up the right to personal unquestionable authority. We learn not to be offended when our reasoning is questioned, when our decisions are questioned, and when we face resistance and hostility. We learn through mutual submission that time and space are gifts not to be taken for granted. Gradually, we learn that obedience is a part of love. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21, NIV) So we know we have to be careful when we go on about how much we love Jesus. It is better to let people see our love for Jesus by our obedience to him. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)
By this measure instead of telling you I am a Christian, it would be wiser to say, “Ask my wife or my children. Ask my church.” The credibility of my witness can be seen in the people I am called to serve. Regardless of what I say, can you see by my actions that I obey Jesus and am filled with His Spirit? The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a matter of polite talk, but of power to save. Can those who know you say of you that the power of Christ in you is alive? Do you speak and act with an authority not of yourself but of Jesus Christ who is your determining ground of being?
In this book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigen wrote, “The idea that the gospel is addressed only to the individual and that it is only indirectly addressed to societies, nations, and cultures is simply an illusion of our individualistic post-Enlightenment Western culture.” The strength of this illusion can be seen in how Christians speak of Jesus as though he were the path to self-actualization. “Jesus wants you to be the best and have the best of everything. There’s no reason you can’t have your best life right now.” Personal bibles, personal quiet times, personal devotions, and now with the internet, personal teachings delivered to your phone, allow us to feel like we’ve got God at our fingertips. Some preachers make it sound like God will move heaven and earth to give you more money than you need just to prove He is God. God doesn’t only care about you. And He is not an extension of your wants.
We can never become a people willing to obey Jesus and serve each other so long as we see God as our personal “bless-me machine.” The closer you get to Jesus the more He will reveal to you what He knows of the pain this world. He will give you His love for all those broken and suffering. Your mind will be renewed and you’ll begin to be marked by suffering, humility, and dependence on the living God. Let’s return to Philippians 2. Paul makes his appeal for obedience in light of Christ’s self-emptying. It is clear that Paul has no personal right to demand such obedience of this church. His appeal is in light of God’s work in their lives.
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12-13, NIV)
Authority in Christ’s body, the Church, of which all believers are a part, is not imposed by manipulation. It is not created with threats and accusations. God’s Holy Spirit is working in us to will and act to do His will.
That power to act together in mutual submission, serving and obeying in divine love is a wonder to behold. To an outsider it seems too good to be true. But the Christian life is not an ideal, it is a life given by God’s Spirit. In Christ’s authority the Church is making disciples of all peoples. A disciple is not simply a religious convert. A warm body to fill a pew in a church. A disciple uses her freedom to serve. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Gal. 5:13-15, NIV) That word “servant” makes some cringe. It brings to mind harsh treatment, slavery, shackles, being bought and sold like an animal. That’s certainly not what the family of God is like. “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out all fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18, NIV)
God knows that if we do something because we’re forced to do it we can’t do it with our whole heart. He wants our whole hearted obedience. There are times when we do things from mixed motives until we get our hearts right. But God can’t use us at all if we’re totally resistant to doing his will. What God is bring about in us is the fruit of His Spirit: “. . . love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV)
In second grade I had a crush on two little girls at the same time who were twin sisters. Now in second grade I was hardly old enough to want to have a girlfriend. But I just knew it felt good to be around them. Every day I hung out with and held hands with Amy. She was a cute little Vietnamese girl. She talked constantly and so fast that I could barely hang on to what she said. We stood in line under the flag pole together before recess. When the class crossed big bad Grand Avenue to play in Tower Grove park all I wanted was to walk beside her. But she set new rules every day for the things I should like so I would look good being with her. The way I dressed, the way I stood, the way I spoke, all these things were questioned and closely scrutinized. So after a while I started to notice her sister Ann. Ann was quieter if I remember correctly.
So one day I didn’t show up at the normal spot under the flag pole near Amy but instead met Ann on the other side of the building. Ann was shy and quiet, a lot more like me. And she was harder to get to know, which I liked, so without any real commitments I was free to follow Ann around—until Amy found us together. Amy pulled Ann aside and spoke to her in Vietnamese. They giggled and Amy asked me who I wanted to be with. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “with” someone. All I knew was that I just wanted to be liked for who I was. I didn’t want to be an outsider, but I really didn’t want to have to worry about how to dress and stand and talk. I also had the strong feeling that if this was what it meant to be popular, which is all Amy talk about, then I had no desire to be popular. Of course I wanted to be liked, but not at the high cost of losing myself. The next morning when Amy and Ann strolled by together I’d made a clear decision. Girls were just not worth it.
Now of course I changed my mind about girls later. As a young adult I even invested in a few bad relationships where once again I cared more about being noticed then being known. Did you know there’s a big difference? Getting noticed is relatively easy. Really being known is something many aren’t sure they even want. Being known takes time and commitment. It’s very important to be known by a few people who really love you for you. A few people who are committed to walking with you, praying for you and holding you accountable. When I talk about authority I’m talking about trust. When I say trust I’m talking about love and yes obedience.
My little story about a second grade crush is humorous in hindsight. But the desire to love and be loved is truly serious. The need to have an anchor for our souls, to hold tightly to something and be held onto tightly, that is in all of us. We also need to be part of bringing the light. It is not enough to know the love and warmth of Christian community. The grace and love we know is ever being tested by human pride and hostility. But giving up is not an option. The love I know is not mine to steal away and keep to myself. The love of Christ is shared love. It belongs to all of us.
At just the point where we beg God to take away our weakness and pain God reminds us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul said, ”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NIV) This glory in weakness will never make us popular. We will ever be surrounded by other broken people in need of love. And though foolish to many, we know the Source of the richest love anywhere.
Like it or not this gospel of Jesus is a threat to those who desire the world’s pleasures. They want their piece of the promised pie, their ticket in the grand lottery as they see it. To relativize money’s power by giving it away to the poor, to take in those who’ve been cast away, is a reminder to them of the futility of their striving. That is threatening indeed. Our authority in Christ enables us to overcome in this world. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4)
Our authority to overcome is in our new story. The story of how God redeemed us from striving to be noticed and accepted, only to be used up and left spiritually dead. Our desires have changed. Our minds are being renewed. We now finally want what God wants for us. Our purpose is to glorify God and serve Him wholly. “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Rev. 12:11)
We face death knowing that we are not alone. We are witnesses. Remember that word for witness in Greek is martus, where we get the English word martyr. To die as a witness in the first centuries of the church was a believer’s crowning glory. With John the Revelator as the only exception, tradition tells us that all the apostles were executed as martyrs. When you die will those around you know what you lived for? Do you have a story worth telling?
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris L. Rice