Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
April 22, 2018 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
We have talked before about the difference between formal authority and informal authority. Dry as it seems, it runs all through our Good Book…and all through our lives…and we should be aware of it…because whenever informal authority becomes more compelling than formal authority, it means that something important is about to happen.
Formal authority is the power you have because of your position. Your teacher had all kinds of authority over what happened to you in school. The principal of the school had even more authority. Your mom was always right…because she was your mom.
The Pharisees had authority over what happened in Jerusalem. The Temple Priests had even more authority. And Pilate, as the Roman proconsul, had even more authority over the punishments that could be imposed on anyone.
But sometimes your teacher said things that were different from what was in the book. Sometimes your father didn’t know the answer. Sometimes our leaders – those in position of authority – have gone astray.
You were just a student, just a child, just a citizen, but you knew they were wrong. The only authority you had was informal authority…the power to speak truth to power only so long as you were right and they were wrong.
This was the only authority the prophets had in Bible times, and it is the only authority people without office…without the power to compel us to obey them with physical force… had then…or have now.
But the truth is the ultimate power in this world and people who rule over others without it are on thin ice…and sooner or later they need to yield…to the real power: truth.
One thing we know from reading the Bible is that the center of power can shift suddenly…from formal authorities to informal authorities or vice versa. Jesus is all-powerful on Palm Sunday, powerless on Good Friday, and all-powerful again… even after death…on the Eighth Day of Creation…on the morning of the third day, Easter.
So Peter and John, two of the three disciples who were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration… members of the inner circle…have been arrested as we open our readings with the Acts of the Apostles.
Before where we pick up the narrative, they had been going to the Temple at the hour of prayer when a lame beggar sitting on the steps asked them for alms. Peter said he didn’t have any money…but look at us… “what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
He gets up and walks. People witness this and are amazed. Peter tells them,“This was done by the One God sent to you – Jesus Christ … the one you crucified. But you acted out of ignorance and so did the rulers. So repent and wipe out your sins.”
For this, of course, they are arrested and brought before the Temple authorities […read here: “formal authorities.”] Peter says, in our reading this morning, that he and John are being examined because they did a good thing, not a bad one. Why is that?
I can feel the shift of power…from formal authority to informal authority…from Caiaphas to Peter…in motion. The truth is speaking to power. Eternal power is speaking to fleeting power. Something important is happening here.
The funny thing is that these days we see this same thing happening in our nightly newscast. We all heard about the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy fighter pilot, safely landed Southwest Flight 1380 after an engine blew apart and a passenger was killed… and her aircraft rolled 41 degrees to the right.
Her calm voice talking to the air traffic control tower is one of those things we should all listen to, knowing the peril that she and everyone on board was facing every second they were in the air…but remaining in the air was their only hope.
It reminded many people of the day in January of 2009 when "Sully" Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. And there is a link between these two incidents and the formal/informal authority shifts we are talking about today.
Sully called Air Traffic Control and told them they had just hit a flock of birds, they were coming down, and they needed [formal] authority to land. They told him to return to LaGuardia and he told them…No. This bird won’t get that far. I’m landing on the Hudson.
The informal authority of a pilot of one plane trumped the formal authority of air traffic control choreographing 100 planes in the air.
It was the same but different nine years later when Tammie Jo Shults had an engine blow up as Southwest Flight 1380 was leaving Philadelphia. She called Air Traffic Control and they asked her where she wanted to land. Suddenly, sometimes, the center of power shifts from formal to informal authority.
I was pleased to read that the National Transportation Safety Board had evidently absorbed and institutionalized the learning of US Airways Flight 1549 so that there was no pause with Southwest Flight 1380 and they turned and re-turned to Philadelphia.
There are some times that everyone needs to do the right thing or it’s going to get very complicated. The right thing, when a planeload of people are waiting for what happens next is one of those times. The people with formal authority need to find the grace to share it, and shy people need to find the courage to get up and do what needs to be done.
I had a client who got in a bind and came to me to get them out of a bad place. The thing that got them into trouble was that they spoke to the police and spilled the beans.
When I told my client that I thought they had gotten themselves arrested they replied, “I thought I was in so much trouble I didn’t have any choice but to tell the truth.”
I talked to the prosecutor and they confirmed that it was their statement that got my client arrested, but then he was willing to not be real hard on my client… because they had told the truth.
The truth got them into trouble, but it got them out again, too. That is not at all unlike John and Peter today. They got arrested after doing a good thing…not a bad one…and telling the truth about it. They got themselves released by telling the same truth.
That’s the thing about doing the right thing. The truth is at the heart of it and love is at the heart of the truth. We find the truth by accepting it…yielding to it. We dare to be right… to share that truth to help others… because we are loving.
We are loving because we have been loved. That’s the thing about the truth: Doing the right thing even when it hurts…even though we are putting ourselves at risk…is at the heart of it. It’s not about us. It’s about the truth…about bringing light and goodness into the world.
The truth and doing the right thing are more powerful than the most formal of authorities. Jesus’ crucifixion is evidence in support of that…by submitting to the authority of God and not siding with the people who could impose physical penalties on him…siding with truth rather than power…he brought justice into the world and triumphed over the Temple authorities, over the Roman authorities, and over death itself.
It is the little guy…the lost and the least and the lost…who comes to understand this throughout the Bible. Abraham can hear God’s voice and follows it by faith to land, prosperity and many descendants…as he becomes the patriarch of three of the great religious traditions of the world.
It is Moses, a fugitive in the wilderness, who can see the bush that is burning and comes to defy Pharaoh and lead the captives into freedom.
There is a lot of this that goes on around us every day. The powers that be can control many things but they cannot control all things and sooner or later the truth comes out. In the end, the powers that be cannot overcome the greatest power in the world and that is love.
Our reading from the First Letter of John this morning urges us to love not just in words or speech, but with truth and action. The more we get into the Word, the more we are drawn into the world, and the farther we go into the world, the deeper we find ourselves in the Word.
The true and loving act of one person can redeem many. The true and loving act of a guiltless man… an unblemished soul…can redeem the world.
It can redeem all who come to believe in the power that a perfect act reveals…loving with truth and action…illustrating the words we speak with our lives. We are called, John tells us, to believe in the name of Jesus…just as the Apostles believed in it…and to love one another as he loved us.
There is only one definition in the dictionary that cites scripture to explain it. The word is “maundy” as in Maundy Thursday. Many dictionaries will refer the reader to John 13:34.
If look up that passage, it is Jesus talking to his disciples on the night he gets arrested…the night he washes their feet. He is telling them how to act to show people who they are.
He says, at verse 34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And he continues at verse 35,“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And we read in John’s First Letter today that we are to love with action and truth…with our hearts and hands. One act alone can sustain a truth…if it is the truth…from age to age in the story of humanity upon the earth.
There is no other reason this story would survive until today except that it is the truth in action. It is subversive and it deflects the wrathof raw power with the shield of its own righteousness…its own right relationship with God…the source of all life…and truth…and love.
Jesus obeyed this commandment before he gave it to the ones he trusted the most…on the night he had to tell them what was most important in the few hours he had left.
Love one another as I have loved you.
He has loved us as a good shepherd loves the sheep in his charge. He has laid down his life for us. He came to an early end because he would not betray either us or God, and he is honored forever because he took his own best advice and obeyed his own last commandment.
Love one another as I have loved you.
“Eventually, all things merge into one,” Norman Maclaean wrote,“and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.”
Sooner or later, the truth becomes obvious to anyone who really wants to understand life…who wants to become woke to the meaning and power of their own lives.
The wolves may surround the flock. They come looking for the weak, trying to pull them away from the community, to pull them away from the safety of those who love them.
But eventually it is all one flock and there is only one shepherd and only one way… by truth and love…that we can find our way to our true home…to our real selves…in God. Amen.