Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

In the children’s time, I talked about the second story from the Matthew passage, about the sons who each told their father one thing and then did another. The bad son said, “I’ll go work in the vineyard,” but then he didn’t follow through. The real problem is that he was for the vineyard before he was against it, and we don’t like flip-floppers. Bad joke.

I’ll admit, I look at politics the way a lot of people look at religion. Some people seem to ask why a person would invest so much interest and energy in something that interests them so little. They may maintain whatever their particular religious views are, but never vehemently. They have no interest in debating religion, they just let everyone think what they think. Personally, I have a hard time sympathizing with that view, because I’m a religion geek. Of course I have plenty of other interests in life, but I do enjoy that conversation about religion.

It got a little easier for me to see where other people come from when I realized that I have the same view of politics that they have of religion. Obviously, politics is important, and I may even have some genuine political stances hidden there underneath my lack of interest, but I’m just looking forward to November 5. Yes, the 5th, the day after this election season is over. Until then, I’ll endure the ads over and over, asking who is qualified and authoritative enough to lead this country.

Maybe this segue is a stretch, but Jesus’ authority is in question here in Matthew. He’s in trouble with the religious leaders of the day, for healing on the sabbath, for eating with sinners, and most of all for naming the unfaithfulness of Israel’s religious system. The leaders confront him and ask on what authority he works. They’re trying to justify themselves and make sense of how Jesus fits into their religious world. Or less sympathetically, they’re standing on the playground and saying, “Yeah? Says who?”

Jesus’ counter-question backs these leaders into a corner. He asks, “What do you make of John’s baptism, you who care so much about authority?” These religious leaders had apparently opposed John the Baptist from the start of his ministry, but they must have done so quietly. Now, they were stuck between admitting John was right (and flip-flopping) or denouncing him and upsetting the crowd. Bravely, the leaders punt. They refuse to answer the question. Jesus replies as if to say, “If you can’t identify God’s work in human acts, you can’t understand me.” This is what Jesus was, God fully at work in human form. Jesus doesn’t have to answer that question of authority, because his source of authority is far beyond our power to authorize anything.

It’s a human impulse to domesticate religion by finding clear lines of authority for it to follow. In our Presbyterian tradition, this impulse shows up (among other places) in the way we treat the sacraments. These rituals present a huge authority question for us. As in most Protestant traditions, we identify sacraments as valid only if we see that Jesus commanded us to perform them. Our tradition finds this command connected with two sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist.

The authority question plays out in the fact that our Directory for Worship requires the “words of institution” when the sacraments are celebrated. That is, I have to quote – and apparently I’m the only one whose quoting counts – Jesus’ command, and that validates the act we perform. So if you pay attention during the baptismal prayer this morning, you’ll hear me read some verses from Matthew 28, to remind the Holy Spirit that it was Jesus who said, “go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Nothing in our theology goes so far as to say that these words make the sacrament happen, but almost all the other words in our liturgy are optional. These aren’t. Even if our theology doesn’t give any particular words any special weight, our liturgy turns these into “magic words.” Without them, there’s apparently no sacrament, but with them, grace happens. To carry out this command, we have to quote the Bible, as if we needed any more temptation in this tradition to worship the Bible. I sort of wish we had a better way just to cite Jesus’ authority, because it’s under his authority that we really operate.

The real source of our authority as the church is the presence of God in human flesh. The real source of our authority is Christ. The religious leaders can’t see Jesus’ authority, because they’re unwilling to see God. The presence of God is our authority for the work of the church. Not the Bible’s presence, even though the Bible points to God. Maggie won’t be baptized this morning because certain words are or are not in the Bible, she’ll be baptized because God is here with us. We see God in the life of this community as it opens its arms to welcome God’s beloved child. We see God in the hope we display in celebrating a new life. We see God in the prayer and contemplation of so many members of this church. And not least, we see God in this simple ritual, a symbol of washing and rebirth into eternal life.