The hardest challenge Jesus gives those inside the church is to recognize that the saving grace is not about who we were before, but during and after.
Proper 21A | Matthew 21:23-32
Before Jesus is teaching in the Temple and these chief priests and scribes question his authority, Jesus had to get there. When we saw him last, he was out, closer to home than Jerusalem, just a chapter ago. He was just teaching on the Laborers in the Vineyard and the Generous Landowner who keeps hiring more.
We know that Jesus is running around teaching about the Kin-dom of God and suddenly, this morning, just a chapter later, he’s in the Temple. What happened?
Well, you know the gist of it. He came to Jerusalem, entered on a donkey. The crowds going before him spread their coats and tree branches on the ground in his honor. While at the same time, on the other side of town, Pontius Pilate entered with the Roman Triumphal Entry. Standards reaching toward heaven, war horses and signs of physical might.
Jesus shows the people what a real “king” looks like and it’s nothing like what Rome offers.
Then Jesus heads to the Temple and disrupts the economy of exchange which facilitates animal sacrifice.
And now Jesus has shown up the next day to that same spot to teach.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
This is what’s happening before we get to the authority question. These are the “these things”. The teachings which come in word and in action. In speaking and overturning tables and in riding into town on a donkey.
The chief priests and elders have every right to ask this question. They’d be derelict in their duties if they didn’t! But this question of authority isn’t real. It’s never real. Not like this.
The problem with these questions is we conflate human authority and divine authority. We build hierarchies to defend ourselves from having to think and decide and respect each other. They act as a buffer and protection from wrestling with the authority of God.
And Jesus surely knows how we use authority to twist and manipulate each other. So he doesn’t answer their question directly, but he does indirectly. By redirecting their focus to the heart of the matter.
This is what he does when he asks about baptism. John’s baptism specifically. What’s he after?
He’s after that divine/human link.
So when John baptized these people, was this from God or was it just some dude chilling in the river dunking people?
And if you don’t think this very question has bedeviled people since, you haven’t been paying attention. This is an essential point in the Great Reformation! Are our rituals of God or humanity? If you want to know what the Episcopal Church thinks, check your Catechism starting on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer.
What is essential to the story is not that there is a right answer to the question, but that the leaders can’t answer it. While every philosopher or theologian can try to reason the truth out of the cosmos, there is no point to the endeavor, save this one: they seek a best answer out of a paradox so we don’t stay stuck between two opposites. They hope to bring order and certainty where none can be eternally found. They can only create a moment of relief.
But Jesus exposes the deeper question which isn’t expressed. A question which might just be who is doing the will of God?
The Two Blind Men
Right before Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey in mockery of Rome, overturned the tables and drove out the money-changers and dove-sellers, and then came back to teach and field this question of authority, Jesus had to get to Jerusalem. And right before he did, he encountered two blind men.
He had just been teaching his disciples and then warning them of what Jerusalem would bring. He warned them about their love of greatness and their wrong ideas of authority: of who gets to rule or die at Jesus’s right and left hands.
That’s when the blind men come, shouting, flagging down Jesus. Jesus shouts back a response that could just as easily be “whadda ya want?”
“Lord, let our eyes be opened.”
The last thing Jesus does before coming to Jerusalem is open the eyes of two beggars who already see Jesus as the Son of David.
This would be fresh in the minds of Jesus’s followers as he tells a story of two sons. One who is all talk and the other who is all action.
Here’s the proof of authority: it is in the one who obviously believes because their actions demonstrate it.
The blind men, the crowds coming for healing, the Canaanite woman shouting Son of David! The tax collectors and sinners who eat with Jesus.
Authority in Baptism
The reason Jesus makes that connection between John baptizing people and the people who seek him is because that is the intersection of authority. Right there! That’s where it can be found. Because that’s where God’s desire for us meets our will to fulfill it.
Not only in the following of rules or in doing the right things. Remember, the pious young man had his checklist nearly all marked off, too! It’s in the meeting of divine and human action. That’s the point which matters to Jesus.
That’s what we’re talking about when we flip through the Catechism. Grab the Book of Common Prayer in front of you and turn to 845. Look at those headings. This isn’t just a what of belief, but way of sharing and knowing belief.
The New Covenant, The Creeds, The Holy Spirit, The Holy Scriptures… take in this order. This is the building of belief. Not a what, but a way to believe.
The Holy Scriptures, The Church, The Ministry, Prayer and Worship…and then here on 857-8. The Sacraments.
What are the Sacraments?
The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.
They are our assurance of grace. Not the philosophical reasoning of grace. Or the rational theological conviction of grace. Or even the Biblically-authorized practice of grace.
Nor are they the ritualization or commodification of grace. We aren’t grace dealers or pretending that we just get together to remember Jesus with no consequence or connection with the divine. In that way, Catholics and Protestants were both wrong in the Reformation.
We come to the font to be changed by God. We turn from old, selfish ways and toward the activity of Jesus. And we are washed and in the waters like it’s the Jordan. As if that small stone platform and it’s metal bowl can contain the river of life!
And we come to it to be changed. We’re drawn to it by Jesus’s grace-full invitation. To become something new.
And then every week, we all get together like Jesus teaches. To remember and re-member: an action of reuniting in prayer and common mission. We gather and then convene around a common table. To experience the grace of God together.
But it doesn’t end there.
We are sent out from the table to share that grace–to share the assurance of grace. Not with rational argumentation or personal convictions, but in the creating of sacraments in sacramental moments. Moments in which God’s grace is unmistakably present.
Not because you’re talkin’ Jesusy. Or spittin’ Scripture. Or trying to enforce some dogma about sex. But because the holy is in you. Found in your joy, compassion, hope, sense of justice, love.
Our baptism grants us the authority to make sacramental moments of assured divine grace with every person we meet. We don’t need the denominational endorsement as a Catholic or a Protestant or the theological mutt that is the Episcopal Church. But by the authority of Jesus. The one who sees us as worthy of grace.
We are given that authority by the one who assures the grace given to every one of us. And hopes we use that assurance to assure others of such generosity. From the church’s most vocal protectors to its outcasts and victims. We have something to offer us all. For the offering is grace itself.