In recent weeks many in the Episcopal Church have been shocked and grieved by the turmoil that has erupted at the General Theological Seminary, the church’s oldest, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. I am among them. It is hard to see conflict dividing and eroding an institution that has offered much to the church in the past and that has the capacity to offer much in the future, now on the verge of seminary’s bicentennial in 2017.
What constitutes the faithful exercise of authority in Christian ministry is prominent among the many aspects of the current controversy that have been debated in various forums. A week or so ago I came across a sermon that I’d forgotten I preached on this very subject. What prompts me to circulate it at this juncture is not only the topic but the fact that it was preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General shortly after I joined the seminary’s ministry as academic dean in 2005.
Preached from the heart of the seminary, to the heart of the seminary, may it, I pray, be a helpful reflection in the current hard time.
Self-Emptying Authority in Ministry
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Titus Presler, Sub-Dean and Professor of Mission and World Christianity, at the Community Eucharist in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd of the General Theological Seminary, on Tuesday, 27 September 2005. Year A, Proper 21: Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.28-32
Thank you for the warm welcome that you have extended to Jane and me as we have entered this community this fall. We have a long association with the General Seminary, but this is a new chapter in our lives and a new relationship with the seminary, one in which we take great joy. We are feeling very at home here, and your welcome has made that happen. I look forward to working with you as Sub-Dean, as Vice President for Academic Affairs, and as Professor in the area of Mission and World Christianity.
Self-emptying authority is the theme I am drawn to with you this evening. Self-emptying authority: the self-emptying of God in Jesus the word made flesh, and what self-emptying authority might mean for us in our lives and ministries.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus was asked by the religious leaders, and he ends up declaring, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Authority was the issue. Alongside that, we hear Paul sketching through the words of a popular hymn the drama, the deep magic behind the incarnation, how Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped or exploited, but emptied himself and took the form of a servant —
Emptied himself of what? Emptied himself of all the prerogatives of God: the prerogatives of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence, the prerogative of exalted position, and the prerogative, I would suggest, of ready-made authority. He was in every way as we are, facing the same choices, with no more resources, whether internal or external, than you and I have. Yet clearly he conveyed authority such that those whose authority was based in hierarchical position felt they had to ask him “By what authority are you doing these things?” “By what authority?”
What is authority, and why is it important?
Let’s reflect for a moment on authority in our own life stories. I invite you to reflect right now on people in your life whom you have experienced as having authority for you. Whatever authority is, we recognize it when it is there. True authority has little need to exert itself; instead, we place ourselves in such a relation to it that we allow ourselves to receive guidance from it. Who are the people in your life whom you have experienced as authorities, people from whom you sought and received guidance in some way, people who shaped who you are? Reflect for a moment on who they were or are. What was the quality of their lives that made them authoritative for you? From what did their authority proceed?
The dictionary defines authority in a number of ways: a citation that is used in defense or support; a decision taken as a precedent; the power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior; a person in command. The definition that highlights our concern with authority, though, is authority as grounds, or warrant, or convincing force. There may be no etymological link between the words authority and authenticity, but I believe the two are conceptually related: authority proceeds from authenticity, and authenticity conveys authority. By authority I do not mean the successful exercise of power, whether legitimately through law, appointment or election, or illegitimately through whatever kind of seizure. Authority is related to power, but it is not the same power.
Authority, I suggest, is instead a quality of being on account of which we repose confidence in another, anticipate insight from another, and receive guidance from another. The word exousia in the original Greek of the New Testament actually gives some grounds for this intuition about authority: Exousia is rooted in the verb exeinai, which means to be allowed or permitted. Ousia in itself is a form of the verb einai, which means to be: as a noun on its own it means that which is one’s own, one’s substance or property, or, more to the point, the being, essence or true nature of a thing. Exousia, authority, then, is a quality that proceeds forth and comes out from one’s being or essence or true nature.