Not everyone who claims authority in the church has it
Have you heard of ‘Oumuamua?
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Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard, describes ‘Oumuamua as, “the first interstellar object found in our solar system.”
Any picture you’ve likely seen of it makes it look like a giant cigar, floating through space. But, if you read the caption, it will tell you it’s not a photograph (as you might have thought) from a space telescope, but an artist’s impression.
The only real pictures we have (that I’ve been able to find) of ‘Oumuamua show it to be a tiny white dot.
The artist’s impression and the actual telescopic images tell very different stories.
The artist’s impression shows an ominous-looking object: not quite natural, yet not quite manufactured. I think it’s fair to say that the artist’s impression is meant to convey the idea of something menacing and that is a potential threat.
Even the name personifies the asteroid. ‘Oumuamua, is Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first.”There is a whole story in that name, don’t you think?
The actual photograph shows the object in the cool light of science and the official name, 1I/2017 U1, simply conforms to the descriptive naming standards of the International Astronomical Union.
I tell you this because the images we make, the names we give, and the stories we tell are teaching tools, and what we teach and how we teach it, are either faithful to what they represent, or they are unfaithful.
Today’s readings are all about teaching, specifically the “apostles’ teaching.”
Acts speaks to how the early church enjoyed both the instruction and the friendship of Jesus’ most familiar followers.
Peter’s letter speaks to the suffering that came to the church for staying faithful to what the apostles taught.
And John’s Gospel highlights the separation that must occur from following true and false teachers. Casting Himself as a shepherd, Jesus says:
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
John’s Gospel is very blunt. The Christian is one who hears Christ’s voice and follows. He doesn’t second-guess, argue, or quibble about what the Word says or who is speaking.
John wants us to understand that Jesus Christ is the one true teacher and source of doctrine. Or, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Now, there is a catch. Not everyone who claims authority in the church actually has it.
This is the whole point of the narrative in John’s Gospel in chapters 9 and 10. Jesus is being interrogated by the Pharisees for healing a blind man on the sabbath.
Failing to keep the sabbath day holy is indeed a problem, but it’s a problem for you and me. It’s not a problem for God. God doesn’t need us to worship Him, but we need to worship God.
That’s because false teaching, in this case, a teaching that God has not provided for our rest and re-creation one day a week, ultimately manipulates and harms the soul.
You can see how the artist’s rendering of ‘Oumuamua manipulates our impression of it. Someone wants us to see that picture and feel menaced and threatened by this unknown and alien thing.
I can only speculate as to why this is so.
Perhaps it is a clever marketing program to win funding for more programs to deter existential threats. NASA does, after all, have a “Planetary Defense Coordination Office.”
The idea being pushed here is that large, collective problems must be solved by large, collective forces.
Notice how the moral question is never raised. By moral, I mean the state of the human heart. The state of the individual human heart. The state of your heart.
The Pharisees used the law of God as a collective force to control the Jewish people. Religion is often used this way.
The Church’s doctrine is often made to look like the artist’s depiction of ‘Oumuamua — something ominous and threatening — and not what it really is: Christ tenderly calling each one of us by name.
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.”
We enter by Jesus to find safety in His church, we exit by Jesus into eternal life. This is because He knows each of us by name and we know His voice.
People often ask me, “What about the ones who don’t hear His voice or who don’t follow?” And my response is: “You need to follow the voice of the one you hear.”
But be discerning about it.
If the voice you hear tells you that your sins are not forgiven (because you have no sins to forgive), or that it’s okay to live an ungodly life (because the Bible does not say what it means or mean what it says), or that Christ’s wounds, in fact, do not heal you from the guilt and power of sin, or that you need absolution and healing from someone else — even if that someone else claims to be a shepherd and overseer of the Church — then these are the words of a thief and a robber.
And a thief comes into the fold only to steal and kill and destroy.
Do not listen to a thief’s words. Your life, both now and eternity depend on who is teaching you.
As I said, not everyone who claims authority in the church actually has it. Only those whose teaching conforms to the doctrine of Christ as contained in the Scriptures have authority.
But many churchgoers are indifferent to false teaching. Through their indifference they share in the sin of the false teachers.
The believers we read about today in Acts were not indifferent to false teaching. They willingly sat at the feet of true teachers, the apostles, whose doctrines have been faithfully recorded and handed down to us in the Bible.
They were filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. They were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need. Every day they continued to meet together and every evening they broke bread in their homes and ate together with a glad and sincere heart.
I spoke last week of the demoralization that many of us feel nowadays, but here is picture of a people whose morale is high. There is nothing sweeter and more encouraging than this kind of fellowship.
Their lack of indifference also meant that their church grew and the “Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
But eventually those early rains of God’s blessing ceased, and the Church entered a harder time. This is what Peter calls the “unjust suffering” of those who “are conscious of God.”
It’s during this time that our faith is proved and that the next generation of teachers conscious of God is raised up.
Those who have been through this proving will never again listen to a false teacher. Instead, they’ll look for teachers who have suffered for their doctrine, who have paid a price for their faithfulness, and whose faithfulness is measured by fidelity to God’s Word written.
The true Church of God cannot be misled, and, in fact, it will be by this true Church rising up to correct the false impressions made by thieves — those who have pilfered from the deposit of faith and robbed this generation of sound doctrine — that the Church will renew herself in the coming years. Amen.
Preached on April 30, 2023 at St. Peter’s Lithgow, Millbrook, New York.
Easter 4, Year A
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. Teaching can either be ____________ to what it represents or ____________.
2. Today’s readings are all about teaching, specifically the “____________’ teaching.”
3. Why is John’s Gospel so blunt?
4. Who is the one true teacher and source of doctrine?
5. Why do some who claim authority in the Church not have it?
6. Christ tenderly calls each one of us by ____________.
7. Jesus is like a gate: we enter by Him to find ____________, we exit by Him into ____________.
8. A thief comes into the fold only to ____________.
9. How are bad pastors like thieves?
10. Only those whose teaching conforms to the doctrine of Christ as contained in the ____________ have authority in the Church.
11. Many churchgoers are ____________ to false teaching.
12. The true Church of God cannot be ____________.
(1) faithful / unfaithful; (2) apostles’; (3) John makes it clear who is a Christian and who is not; (4) Jesus Christ; (5) they seek to control others; (6) name; (7) safety / eternal life; (8) steal / kill / destroy; (9) they rob people of eternal life; (10) Scriptures; (11) indifferent; (12) misled
Hannah Osborne, “First Meteor of Interstellar Origin Discovered,” Newsweek (Newsweek, April 17, 2019), https://www.newsweek.com/first-interstellar-meteor-discovered-1397886.
“In Depth,” NASA (NASA, December 19, 2019), https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/asteroids-comets-and-meteors/comets/oumuamua/in-depth/.
“In Depth,” NASA.