There is a bumper sticker I sometimes see, especially near college campuses. I do not
recall the car or cars this bumper sticker was on, but I doubt that I have been following
the same car around the Midwest. The bumper sticker I have seen says, "Question
Authority." To someone who grew to maturity and served in the military during the
Viet Nam War, this bumper sticker stands out because the Viet Nam War marked a turning
point in our culture from unquestioning acceptance of authority to an almost unquestioning
skepticism, if not rejection, of authority.
"Question Authority" has become an accepted motto of our time. Teachers,
military leaders, political leaders, doctors, and ministers are no longer accepted as
those with unquestioned authority simply because of the position they hold or the function
they perform. Even the President of the United States of America, no matter who he or she
is or will be is constantly scrutinized and questioned. Authority is now suspect.
The question of authority is important to us and to our society. Our country grew from
revolt against what was regarded as the abuse of authority, but, as is true with all
revolts, those who rebel must use the tools provided by what they rebel against and, if
successful in rebellion, use the same tools to build a new system of authority. So it was
that a country built upon the idea of freedom of expression and thought became a society
that regarded criticism and behavior beyond certain restricted boundaries to be subversive
What we need to remember is, as stated in the founding documents of our country, is
that the basis for the authority of the government comes from the people who are to be
Authority can be abused and misused, that is true. We have seen and continue to see the
abuse of authority in this world, in this country and others. We see such abuse and misuse
in local and personal situations. It might be that we ourselves have been guilty of
abusing authority. It is also true that authority is necessary if we are to live in order
and harmony. We have needed authority since we were born to guide and teach us until we
reached the point when we integrated authority into our being, able to decide and act for
ourselves, able to act and decide for those who are placed in our authority.
Times have changed. Authority once unquestioned is now questioned. I have a strong
suspicion that the great church boom after World War 2 had something to do with the
attitude of a generation that accepted authority as a necessity of survival in a great war
against totalitarianism I also have a strong suspicion that the end the church boom had to
do when authority was questioned, when social values and institutions were questioned,
often with good reason, and when confusion issued as to the issue of authority, when all
authority became suspect.
Once it was enough to say that one should go to church because one should. Now that is
no longer enough reason for most people. I was told that sixty-three per cent of the
population of this county claim no religious affiliation or connection. We must be careful
to realize that there is still a deep interest in religious matters, even if the language
of the day refers to "spirituality" rather than religion. What has happened is a
tendency, especially of the younger generations, not to accept such things secondhand from
authority. Talk is cheap and authority is questionable, but there remains an undertone of
spiritual interest in our souls. One of the big hits on MTV this year is a song with these
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus, trying
to make his way home?. . .
The singer of this song, Joan Osborne, talked about the theological nature of this
song. On an on-line chat, Osborne said, "I do have strong feeling about [religion]
and about questions of faith. To me, the beauty of 'One of Us' is its ability to make
people think about God without filtering their thoughts through the structure of organized
religion. ['What if God was one of us?'] is a very innocent question, but it touches on a
lot of complicated feelings as evidenced by the many different responses I have gotten
about it. I don't belittle anyone's religious belief because I have some problems with the
way some organized religions wield their political power. . .Those are some pretty deep
statements for a simple pop song to unearth though, don't you think?"
We need authority, but which authority? There is a need for spiritual authority, but
what? When a simple pop song can unearth some pretty deep questions and thoughts, then
there is pretty deep yearning for the truth of the depths that authority unconnected to
these depths can satisfy.
Notice that I referred to authority unconnected to the depths of truth and meaning
which cannot satisfy the yearning for the truth of the depths. That is a disturbing
statement because it implies that there are those who are satisfied by the superficial
authority based on something else rather than truth and depth. It also implies that
authority can become disconnected from the depths of truth and being. It also implies that
we have the choice, if not the responsibility, to choose our authorities and that we are
responsible for recognizing truth.
What if God were one of us? Let me tell you a story of what once happened. Long, long
ago, far away from here, from out of nowhere came a person, a man named Jesus, who taught
about God, who healed the ill, who forgave sinners and traitors, who called people to
follow. Eventually this Jesus and His followers entered the Holy City of Jerusalem during
the great religious festival. Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem turned into a spontaneous
parade that shocked the authorities. Then Jesus shocked the authorities even more. He
entered the great temple and drove out the money changers and sellers of religious ware.
It was at this point that religious authorities approached Jesus and asked, "By what
authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
So far, so good; this is a question of our time. Question authority. Note though what
Jesus does. Jesus says he will answer their question, if they will answer His question.
"Did the baptism of John (the Baptist) come from heaven, or was it of human
origin?" The authorities retired to argue about their answer. If they said that the
baptism of John the Baptist was from heaven, then why did they not believe him, but if
they said it was of human origin, they would go against the people who thought John was a
prophet. So they said, "We do not know." And Jesus said, "Neither will I
tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
Consider the question that Jesus asked. He did not ask about the authority of the
religious authorities because they could have answered that they taught as was passed down
to them in the Holy Scriptures from Moses and by all the acknowledged teachers since. They
could point to their position and their training, but they could not answer from whence
came the authority of John the Baptist. So Jesus told a story about two children. One was
asked to do some work; the child first refused, then changed his mind, and did as asked.
The second said he would do as asked, but never did. Who then, Jesus asked, did the will
of the parent. Then Jesus said that the outcasts and sinners are going into the Kingdom of
Heaven because John came in the way of righteousness and they believed him, but the
authorities did not follow and did not change their minds.
This is what the final question comes to. Who are the authorities we truly follow? What
we say we submit ourselves to is not as important as to what is the true authority in our
lives. John Wesley spoke of the importance of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason
in Christian faith, but these have no authority for us unless we accept these as having
meaning and relevance and truth of the deepest kind, not at second hand, but in the depths
of our being and searching. What is the authority of Jesus for us? Is it because we have
been told that the Holy Scriptures say that Jesus is Savior? Is that enough? Is it because
good and sincere people have told us that Jesus is the Son of God? But good and sincere
people can be sincerely mistaken. What does reason tell us about the concept of God in
human flesh, much less the thought of God in the flesh of one condemned and executed by
the legal and religious authorities? Is not such a thought absurd? That leaves only
experience, and experience can be delusional.
None of these alone is enough. Even combined, they are not enough. God does not force
us to believe. God does not overwhelm us with proof. What God does is to send one as one
of us to proclaim the love of God, who empties Himself of all grandeur, of all power, of
all glory to accept the most humble fate of a criminal. As the apostle Paul said,
"Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every
name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of
God the Father."
This then is the great mystery of Jesus Christ that each of us must for our own self
answer the question of what is the authority of Jesus Christ and who gave Jesus this
authority. Are the hands of Jesus empty or do they hold infinity? Is Jesus crucified and
dead forever, or is Jesus risen to life eternal and lordship over all the universe? Was
Jesus abandoned by God to death, or is it the will of God that at the name of Jesus every
knee will bow? The great deep truth is the truth of the love and will of God Almighty who
created us, who redeems us from sin through Jesus Christ, who calls us but does not compel
us to righteousness, but never ceases to love and forgive and heal and accept. The truth
is that no one, no authority can keep us from the love of God, and that authority is we
ourselves. That is why only we can bow before Jesus, only we can accept the empty hands of
Jesus as holding infinity, only we can accept the love and life eternal Christ offers.
Please turn to page 167 in the United Methodist Hymnal and read the Canticle of
Christ's Obedience with me in responsive reading. We will not sing the responses, but we
will let these words serve as answer to the question of "What if God were one of
us?" Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God
a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in
our likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto
death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the
name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven
and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to
the glory of God the Father. In the name of Christ, in the love of Christ, in the truth of
Christ, you are forgiven, healed, accepted, and raised into new life. Let every tongue
confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen and Amen. ©1996