St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2023
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM is the longest word in the English language. I learned that as a child, but I never knew the meaning of this jawbreaker. The Church of England had been the official church of England, Ireland and Wales since Henry VIII. In 1871, the Irish church disestablished, became the Church of Ireland, like the Episcopal Church in the USA, apart but still Anglican. Wales did the same in 1920. To be against separating from king and Canterbury coined that monster of a word I just said. It was about authority. Authority is an even bigger, and less understood word.
One day Jesus met a Roman soldier, a commander of 80 men of war, a centurion. Most such men scoffed at a rustic like Jesus as being barbaric, superstitious, ignorant and inferior to themselves. But this soldier sought Jesus out, begging Messiah to heal his servant, taken gravely ill. Jesus offered to come to the bedside, but the Roman said: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” He diminished his own standing, assuring Jesus he believed His power of command, and that His spoken word would heal the man, even at some distance. He then explained, “I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me…” and detailed how his orders were carried out without needing to watch. But his phrase, a man under authority was key, because he knew Jesus’ power to heal came from above Himself, that it was done in obedience.
Jesus remarked at this, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” He commended the Roman for recognizing something about the Son of God that His own followers had missed. What Jesus could do came from His complete obedience to His Father. Once I’d observed this, it set me on a path of discovery. How can God the Son be under the authority of the Father, if they are both fully God? Would a chain of authority make them unequal, and therefore challenge the unity of our Triune God, where every attribute of His divinity is shared equally among the members?”
I looked in Scripture, and found that indeed Jesus set Himself as beneath His Father in authority. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” John 5:19 If His power comes by the Father, what of the Holy Spirit? In Jesus’ foretelling the coming of the Comforter, the Spirit would come at the command of the Father, requested by the Son, and would reveal whatever the Father and Son told Him to us, His Church. The Persons of the Trinity, equal in all aspects of glory, might, knowledge, mercy, and essential godhead: are thus unequal in authority. The Father is the source, descending to the Son, and both above the Spirit. This realization shook my world.
We often fail to understand authority, and even rebel against it, disrespect it. We’re good Americans, and our nation was born in a rebellion against a monarch. But our founders then established new authorities, placing them under a rule of law, bound by the Constitution signed by the member states. The power to rule was itself derived from an authority that stood above, and above all was God Himself. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” We are equally created, the Creator endowing our rights, and He is above us. If God Himself exists with full equality in His Three Persons, and yet His authority descends in order of Persons, then why not humans? We can be equal as humans, and still have godly authorities. This is the proper theory against anarchism, against an unbridled simple democracy.
Jesus gave His disciples power over demons, over disease and crippled limbs. In His parable, a servant who had served his king by enhancing the ruler’s wealth was given authority over ten cities. Luke 19:17 St. John wrote that whoever believed in Him was given power to become sons of God. Power was left in the Church to receive and dispense God’s graces. Such authority is granted in families, setting a husband as head over his household. We moderns chafe at such headship, citing the abuses of power we’ve known, but abuses were never the reason for authority. God harshly judges those who have abused the power they’ve been given. In God’s economy, power is always granted to serve.
Jesus told them, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them... But it shall not be so among you: whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; whosoever will be chief, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matt 20:25-28 Rulership has always been meant to bless, serve, heal, enhance, empower, reclaim, and embrace. That’s how God loves us, pouring His grace down through the authorities He’s established on earth, only tobless us. As we raise our children to become equal to ourselves, to grown in stature and exceed our achievements, God raises us up to Himself, and His godly authorities are empowered to do the same. Jesus, the ultimate example of this, laid His life down beneath our feet so that we might return to the Father through His sacrifice. This is godly authority to serve in total love. He told us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” John 15:13-14 The higher authorities are established for our benefit.
There is no command of God for us to obey a godless order, given by a superior who is disobedient to the authorities above himself. That was the gist of the Declaration of Independence. We should not obey the English king if he is disobeying God. But this doesn’t set aside authority, it answers to the definition. St. Paul writes, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God…” Romans 13:1-2
12-step programs were created to gain power over addictions, like alcoholism. A man who realizes that drugs or booze has claimed too much of his life may also realize that he has lost the power to overcome it by himself. Thus, in such a program, he admits powerlessness over his addiction - that his life has become unmanageable. The 2nd step says he believes a Power greater than himself can restore him to sanity. He makes a decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of God. After a fearless moral inventory, he admits to God, to himself and to another person the exact nature of his wrongs, now willing to have God remove these defects of character. In steps 8 and 9 he makes amends to all those he’s harmed. Step 10 continues in self-honest restoration. Steps 11 and 12 deepen the relationship with God, seeking God’s power to carry out God’s will, and to seek out those also in need of God’s power. These steps are Christianity borne out for the reclamation of our world. We are all broken toward sin at birth. Every soul needs to set him or herself under God’s power to break their chains.
Every Mass I mention the names of Archbishop John Upham and Bishop Donald Ashman in the prayers. They are my immediate superiors in a chain of authority that leads to Christ and the Father above. I am blessed to say they are also my friends, which diminishes nothing from my respect and obedience to them. It blesses me that they wear the mantle of authority, for I know they do so obediently to God, and with a heart for us all, with good judgment, merciful concern, experience in management, and a duty to the truth. I would follow them into a hail of bullets. You all are blessed to have such men at the head of this church, for indeed St. Augustine’s human rulers are its bishops – and two of them are above me. I am a deputy, the appointed agent who serves in another’s absence.
Human authorities were meant to reflect the perfect authority that exists inside the Trinity. When they do this, great power releases benefits that flow down to heal us, transform us, give grace to us, and empower us to live better lives. Like someone submitting to the 12 steps, obedience leads to transforming power and submission to a better life. For this reason, only the State holds the power over life and death in our world, and still only God holds the power over heaven or hell.
Jesus answered Pontius Pilate’s assertion that he had power over life and death, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:11
Your Higher Power must be the true power. You can’t invent a god and use your own invention to save you. That was the error of idol worship. They always knew they were playing god, inventing dead statues to serve, and so serve themselves. You can’t save yourself, and so you have to be a man or woman under authority. And being under the authority of authentic powers, powers derived from above and obedient to Him, you can heal, you can achieve greatly, you can rise above your station, and you can live eternally.
He is your king. This king gives you a command, and it’s hard to do. We need all His strength to achieve it, even to believe it’s possible. His command is not to kill a dragon, or climb Everest, or swim an ocean. It’s much more difficult. He tells us to pick up a cross and follow Him, and yet that’s not His most arduous commandment.
In all seriousness, He looked at His chosen Apostles and said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:34-35 If we can get that right, and by His might alone, then the whole world shall be His, won by the loving authority that He gives to us.