Teaching With Authority
Our reading from the gospel of Mark today places us in a synagogue in Capernaum, Peter’s home town on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus spent his childhood in Nazareth, which is inland by about a half-day’s walk, and up through a pass in the mountains as they rise toward the Golan Heights. Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry in the villages around the Sea, and in the hill country of the Lower Galilee nearby. He was among his people here — Galileans.
I spent a lot of time around Capernaum myself when I lived in Jerusalem two years ago, traveling the two hours by car (or rolling church, as I called our St. George’s bus) from Jerusalem North into the Galilee. Capernaum, where Peter and his family lived, was a first century fishing village on the edge of the Sea. As you read the gospels, and as you walk in what we often call the Fifth Gospel — the land itself — you get a feel for the scale of how people lived, and how their world was. We read today that Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum. When the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. And people were astounded by his teaching, because he taught with authority, and not like the scribes.
What is authority?
That’s a meaningful question to ask. Especially now, especially as we listen so hard through our frustration, our loneliness, and our sheer exhaustion with this pandemic and the restrictions it imposes on our families, our economy, and our daily lives. It’s a meaningful question to ask as we reflect on how we read or listen to the news. And how we hear and perceive our leaders — local, state, and national.
Mark’s gospel this morning, and the small, intimate setting of Capernaum, is a perfect setting for a close look. Because Capernaum is not a big urban center, even now. It is a fishing village, and one that was abandoned at the time of the Crusades, around the 11th Century of the Common Era. So we can see from the ruins of Capernaum that even if it grew after Jesus’ ministry there, it was still on a very intimate scale.
In present times we see the ruins of a synagogue from the 4th century of the Common Era. Archeologists think that the White Synagogue, as it’s known, may even have been built as a Christian pilgrimage in Capernaum to recall this passage from Mark’s gospel showing us Jesus’ teaching with authority. Even an unclean spirit recognizes Jesus’ authority! A demon would not have been likely to agree with Jesus’ teaching, just because he was a neighbor.
So What IS Authority?
So what is authority? Merriam-Webster points to leadership: the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior. Authority is also convincing. The idea stands on its own as believable and true. Authority is a foundation, or the convincing basis for the belief or understanding that something is true.
And authority is expertise, the knowledge or experience that makes one’s advice worthy, or one’s teaching credible — not like those who might not fully understand the question, or are pushing their own personal agenda, rather than what is true and right. The amazing thing is that the people in the synagogue in Capernaum were astounded because Jesus taught with authority, not like other teachers in the synagogue who weren’t all that believable and didn’t seem to be right about things.
By the context of small, intimate, first century Capernaum, we know that Jesus’ authority wasn’t signaled with hundreds of flags with his name on them, or broadcast over a loudspeaker, on a Jumbotron, or followed by millions on social media. It was just Jesus and the people, and yet they were astounded by his leadership, power, and credibility. His teaching felt immediately true and believable.
Today we have our Annual Meeting. We are electing new leaders to the vestry. All of us are leaders, or can be — in our families, among our friends, and in our community. How do we speak with authority? How do we listen and read carefully to hear what is believable and powerful and true — even in a world with lots of noise and many different good ideas?
Let’s listen carefully for authority among our leaders — all of them. Let’s listen for love. Let’s listen carefully, and be sure our own words come from the deep scriptural foundation of kindness, patience, faithfulness, and truth — the authority that Jesus teaches, and that even a demon — someone who is most likely to disagree with him — can see. And let’s call on that same authority, remembering each other, remembering ourselves, and remembering Jesus as we listen, think, speak, and act. Amen