July 22, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series 3 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Authority Issues”: Revelation 2:26-29 and 4:1-8; “The Great Throne” by Tania Runyan
This week I broke a rule I have for myself: Don’t get into Facebook fights about bad theology on Thursday afternoons! (It’s a rule for me because Thursdays are my Fridays, when I’m trying, usually in vain, to keep focused on finishing my to-do list before my day off.) Despite how often I’ve warned myself, I get into it on Thursday afternoon when someone posted some pastor’s reflection on… authority. You might know the passage this pastor was expounding on. It’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that
which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has
instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)
What made it worse was the exploration of this passage came under the headline “Not My President.” (Pause) Yeah. I just couldn’t let it pass, not that passage, not this week, not this year. Maybe because I’d already been working with this morning’s sermon… I kind of… lost it. (In a really measured way.) “Not buying it,” I posted. Then pointed out Paul’s context as a Roman citizen in a time he was trying to survive and get by vs. the various times and places that particular bit of ancient letter has been used since. It’s beloved by slave holders and strongmen holding office. I described the history of how this passage has been used to harm so, so many, in so many times and places. All because of that word “authority” and the power we give it. (Pause)
Authority. When I say the word, how many of you have some hair that sticks up on the back of your neck, maybe your teeth clench, maybe your fists? As I was preparing for worship this morning, the more often I typed that word, the more I disliked it. It started giving me the heebie-jeebies. Some of that is my own personal story. I grew up in an environment where authority was wielded as permission to control others. Some of the religious folks who shaped my childhood, in particular, were quite obsessed with authority when it was men’s authority over women or parents’ authority over children. One speaker and author favored by my community liked to talk about umbrellas of authority – everyone needed to be under one. It’s not biblical, and not good psychology either, but it was popular for a time in my childhood. I was shaped… perhaps you could say scarred by the backlash to the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, when authority re-entrenched with a vigor and zeal almost comparable to Greco-Roman patriarchal times, in some places: what we could wear, where we could go, what we could read. This kind of authority is really about control. If you are a fan of the English language or an armchair sociologist or psychologist, you know of course there are all kinds of authority, both formal and informal. There’s the authority you all bestowed when you called me to this position, authority to preach from this pulpit. We give people authority when we elect them to hold office in the church. We even give one another authority in our lives, sometimes uncousciously. Even in its sectarian settings, someone who is an authority on something is thought to have the final word. Authority. It’s just too close to its dictionary neighbors: Authoritarian. Authoritarianism. We have – for lots of good reasons – issues with “authority.” (Pause)
So when early in John’s vision, in his message to the churches, when that trumpeting voice of Christ makes a promise to “the one who conquers” – to the one who keeps witnessing to Resurrection Life, who keeps insisting that Rome is not the one in charge, that the Ancient of Days, the One-Who-Is-Who-Was-Who-Will-Be, that that power is in charge – when the trumpeting voice of Christ makes a promise to give the ones who conquer authority over the nations… what are we make of it? In John’s day, it was the Romans held that authority. And what would his churches want with Rome’s authority anyway? The chance to switch places with the Bully Empire, to become the thing they most feared? The way John tries to illustrate a stark dichotomy between good and evil, it can be easy to think that. That the promise is to trade places and become the oppressor and abuser and enslaver and captor and controller of others. To become the new authority. (Pause)
Authority. If we go back to the roots of that word, especially as it’s used in our sacred texts, it’s obvious authority doesn’t work that way. Authority is always derivative. “Authority is the conferred ability or capacity to act.” It’s the usual English translation of the Greek word exousia, which is used more in the Revelation to John than any other book in the younger Testament. It’s a legal term, related to the right to exercise or not exercise power. Authority isn’t about intrinsic power, but the externally recognized right to exercise power. Exousia… is the capability conferred by another. Let me try a word that might work better for us: Exousia is empowerment. (Pause)
When John gets invited into that throne room, we’re told “a door is opened into heaven.” He gets to see this vision: the Ancient of Days on the throne. And if you listened closely to the way the Ancient of Days was described earlier, you heard he has “hair like wool,” meaning not the smooth, straight hair associated with European ancestry.) The Ancient of Days is shining, jewel tones, with a dazzling robe, and he is not the only one in the place with a crown. The Ancient of Days is surrounded by 24 elders, also on thrones, also bearing crowns, also with authority. And they’re singing, so much singing it never ends: Holy, holy, holy, to the One who Is, Who Was, and Is Yet To Come. But it’s hard in the midst of all this brilliance to figure out what this means. Contemplating the great throne, the poet Tania Runyan writes, “Rabbi, I’m losing you in all the robes.” And it’s in her poem I hear what authority really means. The authority Jesus has in her life comes from the leper skin under his nails and the sensitivity he showed to a woman touching his hem. That’s the authority God has given in Jesus… way back in the Gospel of John, when Jesus prays to his Divine Parent, “You have given your Son, your Child, authority over all people,” he prays. What kind of authority? Authority “to give eternal life to all whom you’ve given me.” And how does he do that? By making God known. Jesus’ authority was to give life. We see it in how lives and how teaches. He heals. He feeds. He welcomes. He extends grace. He forgives. (Pause) If the Christ in John’s Revelation wields a sword, it’s the sword of a true word spoken, not the sword that cuts people down and takes their life. (Pause)
“A door was opened into heaven” in John’s vision, and it’s Christ who opens that door, revealing to John the brilliance of the Ancient Days, who is not the only one wearing a crown. Circled by those elders, they bear some of the same authority on their brows: the authority to give life, the authority to open the door of heaven to others. That’s authority. It comes from somewhere else. It’s not a free pass to control who and what we want. It’s the empowerment to love the way Jesus loves. Today, we get the opportunity to “confer authority” on our new officers, team leaders, and Council. Just like Jesus’ authority came from God, so our authority comes from Christ. Christ confers on us the authority – the ability – to open the doorway to heaven. Christ confers on us the authority to heal, the authority to bear witness to resurrection life, the authority to tell the truth about who and what’s really in charge, and the authority to give life. In the life of our congregation, we’ll see that acted out in really mundane way. This morning we bless our new leaders, and we’ll get to see their authority acted out… in the grace people give one another for a poorly worded email, or in the encouragement they give one another to offer a minority opinion. We’ll see it when we see someone willing to speak up when we stray from our values or to ask someone else to speak when their voice has been missing. We’ll get to see the authority of Christ shared in really mundane ways. Just like that leper skin under Jesus’ nails. We’re empowered by Christ to love in the day-to-day. And believe it or not, that’s how we open the door to heaven. (Pause)
It’s not about the brilliant décor of that throne room that John sees. It’s about what kind of power is shining in there. It’s shared power, power that gets spread out. To Christ the Creator confers the power to give life… that’s the kind of authority Christ has and that’s the kind of authority Christ gives us. Christ authorizes us to give life so that someone else can write a fevered note or letter to their friends or family or neighbor, saying, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today!” And they might not use these words, but what they’ll describe is, “A door was opened in heaven…”
 Margaret S. Odell, “Authority,” The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, ed. Donald E. Gowan, p.26-27.
 Brian K. Blount, Revelation, The New Testament Library, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.
 John 17:2.