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Authority in humility

4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done. (Psalm 78)

Today we hear readings that open ideas around authority and humility.  Jesus has been welcomed joyfully into Jerusalem. But now he has entered the temple turning out the moneychangers who provide a way for treasure to flow in, while inviting and healing persons unwelcome in this holy space. The chief religious leaders challenge Jesus asking him by what authority he does “these things?” Jesus responds with a question and a parable that turns the authority question back on the religious leaders.

In the letter from Paul to the church in Philippi, we hear Paul urging the community to follow Christ by practicing humility. Paul tells them to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit—but to consider others as equals and even of more importance than themselves. He asks them to look not to their own interests, but to the interest of others. And in this way to take on the same mind of Christ.

How startling this is to hear in this day when the culture tells us that it is our own self-interest that must be attended to first. That the first shall be first and last shall be last. That the strong survive and by reaching down to lift up another, you can find yourself thrown under the bus. So to attach the idea of authority to humility sounds once again like a sentimental idea that is sorely out of touch with reality.

But this may be because we confuse authority with power. Power and authority are different things. Power is something that can be seized. Power is something that anyone with enough wealth, or weapons, or army can accomplish. Power too often feeds its own needs before, if ever, responding to the needs of others. Power too often stifles other voices or actions to maintain the control of the one with power. And power too often, in order to sustain itself, consumes others in its path to continue its growth.

But authority is something different. Authority is something that must be given. Authority is something that must be earned. Authority is proven, tested, lived. Authority can be given from above by those with power or it can be given by those from below. But authority can be questioned, resisted, rejected. True authority demands a connection between what you say and what you do. Authority must be granted.

The religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority as he teaches and heals in the Temple.  But Jesus meets their challenge by drawing a distinction between earthly power and his authority as God’s beloved son. His authority is not about keeping power, but breaking open structures that prevent the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ intent was not to destroy the temple or its leadership, but instead to restore them to their original purpose—as is his intent with our churches today—to make a place of prayer for all; to draw all people to the love of God and each other. He came to open up the leadership and the temple to a future where God is always doing a new thing, calling us to work for justice and peace, inviting unexpected workers into his vineyard—a future where by God’s authority all are invited into God’s grace.

But even with “all authority in heaven and on earth’ that had been given to him, we hear in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus did not use his authority as a bludgeon or a prison. Jesus does not embrace hierarchy or rest in privileged autonomy. Jesus did not exploit equality with God.  Rather he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”  He emptied himself and in this way, he opened himself fully to be the vessel of God’s unending love. Jesus humbled himself and was obedient even unto death, so that all could be brought within the adoring embrace of God.

Humility may well be the core Christian virtue around which all other virtues cluster. Because at its core, humility is simple honesty. Humility is the honest recognition that we are in many ways the same. We all have things we do well and things we do not do so well. We all have gifts and we all have weaknesses. We are all a mixture of sinner and saint. Humility simply recognizes these truths.

Humility makes us celebrate the fact that we all need each other. Humility helps us recognize that not one of us are who we are without others. Humility helps us see our needs as well as the needs, pains, hopes and desires of others. Humility opens us to others and in doing so opens us to God whose every act, blessing, and concern is for others. Humility sees that there is no hierarchy among people because God created us all. True humility sees everyone as equal and deserving of love.

The modern world sometimes equates humility with submission—children to adults, women to men, darker skin to lighter skin, the poor to the wealthy. Those who have lived under oppression or abuse have too often been told to submit as it is God’s will. But God does not command suffering. God does not condone oppression. Rather God pours out God’s self in perfect love, so that all may be healed and reconciled. True humility is liberating. True humility produces self-love and love of others.

The humility of Christ Jesus is one of self-giving love. This humility is not self-denigrating, but an attitude of generous love that serves—as love in action, as love that continues to grow and expand–a willingness to pour out his very existence for the sake of others.

Even as Paul endures imprisonment, he is sustained by a love that burns with desire for the flourishing of others, a love whose joy can be made complete only when all are included. He implores his beloved community in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling—or in another way of speaking, awe and energy—reflecting on Jesus Christ and orienting their lives around him.

Jesus’s authority comes through God. His humility embodies the way each of us are called to be before God and with each other–self-giving rather than self-indulging; opening ourselves to others rather than walling up our boundaries, taking risks for God’s love, rather than creating obstacles to that love. In the footsteps of Jesus, following his teachings and his example, we witness the authority of humility where giving up one’s life for others transforms the world into the dream that God intends. In Jesus, the authority of humility, empowers all so that all may bow down in love before the glory of God. By following in the way of the self-emptying Christ, we make a space for God’s work to be made alive in us, enabling us to work for God’s good pleasure and the hope of the world.

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