I left you for less than four weeks, and what have you done in the meantime at the General Election? I went to Poland to save the Presidential election there, but that effort too failed spectacularly, as it was not won by my candidate. My enormous authority is now in tatters, both there and here. And – just in case you didn’t pick up on my sarcasm – I’ve said all that with tongue-in-cheek. However delusional I might have been about my influence on other people’s opinions and upon authority, the reality is that it’s extremely limited, thank God.
In today’s gospel Jesus – unlike me – makes a very bold claim: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ At first glance it doesn’t sound overly modest, to put it mildly. Even the newly-elected President of FIFA hasn’t gone that far (quite close, though). Does he (Jesus, not Mr Blatter,) back his claim convincingly? Because of the constant stream of bad news, ranging from personal adversities, through large-scale natural disasters to full-scale wars, sometimes it’s hard to believe that claim. A common argument raised often and by many is that the idea of loving and merciful God, who is interested in our world and in our lives, cannot be reconciled with all the pain and suffering present here. This argument seems to be more convincing than Jesus’ claim to his unlimited authority.
I think there’s a misunderstanding causing the problem here; it’s the same misconception held by many of Jesus’ contemporaries, including his own disciples. They expected that a powerful man would be sent by God; powerful politically, and perhaps militarily too. His coming would change the political, social and religious landscape of Palestine: he would throw the Romans out, purge the people of Israel, and re-establish the long-lost independent Jewish kingdom. Those expectations echo on the road to Emmaus, when one of two of Jesus’ disciples says: ‘Our own hope had been that he (Jesus) would be the one to set Israel free.’ Even immediately before Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples kept asking: ‘Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Over the centuries, too many Christians have held dear this misconception of earthly power, a misconception causing problems and even leading to bloodshed. The misunderstanding is that it wasn’t Jesus’ idea of authority.
In the whole of his public activity, we cannot find a single instance of Jesus claiming any earthly powers, despite the many occasions that he could have exploited in order to do this. People wanted to proclaim him king after he had multiplied bread and fed thousands – but he backed off. Many urged him to make a clear and explicit declaration of his messianic status – but he always refused to do so. His idea of authority is clearly presented in the gospel of St John, chapter 10: ‘I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again.’ In contrast to that of most of those who seek to wield power and influence over us, the authority of Jesus is not forced upon us, but presented and left to each one of us to make a personal choice whether to accept or to reject it.
Jesus’ declaration in today’s gospel is followed by a three-stage plan of action left to the Apostles: ‘make disciples of all the nations; baptise them […] and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.’ The order of this plan isn’t accidental. Encounter with Jesus and becoming his disciple is the first step towards understanding his plan for one’s life; the person can make a prudent and mindful decision to accept or to reject Jesus. If the decision is positive, it’s sealed in and by baptism. This commitment is then continually strengthened and deepened by a developing personal relationship with Jesus.
I can see a problem for many of us here… Most of us were baptised when we were helpless babies, unaware of what was going on around us. It seems we’ve missed the first train, we’ve caught the second one without a ticket, and now we are rumbling along in the third one, not quite sure why we’re on board or where we’re going. But fear not, all is not yet lost. Jesus tells you here and now: ‘Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’ It’s never too late to delve into the gospel and to find Jesus’ plan for your life, to accept it in full, and to let Jesus reveal his loving and merciful power and authority over your life. Perhaps making this commitment wouldn’t make your life trouble-free; but you’ll definitely find out that Jesus can make sense of even the most senseless happenings. He’s got the power. It’s the power of love.