The Spirit vs. The Structure

September 28, 2014; 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 17:1–7; Philippians 2:1–13; Matthew 21:23–32

It is always tough beginning a conversation with, “Oh, and by the way, who made you the authority? Who put you in charge?” Nothing like being put on the spot. That’s basically how Jesus started his day in this Gospel story.

Actually this Gospel story is a little out of sync with the regular Gospel progression, because this conversation takes place the day after Jesus has done his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and upset the money tables. This would have affected hundreds, if not thousands of people, and it would have effectively shut down the sacrificial operations of the temple for quite some time. This was no small disturbance!
You see the only way to purchase items for sacrifice was to exchange money at the temple from money-changers in the court of the Gentiles. Then you purchased the appropriate sacrificial animal from the merchants with temple currency. No money-changers, no temple currency. No temple currency, no sacrifices to buy. No sacrifices to buy, then few if any sacrifices at all. The only thing, it would seem, that prevented Jesus from being arrested on the spot was that there were so many supporters of his there shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” I am sure the religious officials were not sure they’d be able to arrest Jesus without provoking a riot.

So this confrontation and question the next day was not just because they wanted to know his credentials. They wanted to know how he thought he could get away with this and then dare to show his face at the temple the next day as a teacher there. And they wanted a public answer and explanation that they could attack. They wanted a way to remove what they perceived to be dangerous authority that Jesus had over the crowd. So they challenge him in front of his disciples and the people he is teaching by asking, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you that authority?”

I think that at the very least they are trying to get Jesus to commit blasphemy so that they can at least put him under house arrest and make sure that the Passover continues in peace.
But Jesus flips their a question back to them: “Where did John the Baptist get his authority?” And he says: If you can answer this question, I’ll answer yours.

I can imagine the priests and the elders going off into a corner, and arguing among themselves over how to answer. They aren’t stupid. They realize immediately that no matter how they answer Jesus’ question, it is going to mean trouble for them. If they say that John’s authority came from God, then they would have had to deal with the next natural question, which would have been, “If you believe that John’s authority came from God, then why didn’t you listen to him?”

On the other hand, if they answered that John didn’t have authority from God, then they would have been in trouble with the common people, surrounding them, because John had been very popular, and many of those people had believed he was a prophet of God. And even though the priests and elders knew that they shouldn’t rely on public opinion as the determining factor in how they answered, they also knew that public opinion was a very powerful thing and that if it turned against them, they might lose the authority that they have from the populous.

So they did what lots of people who find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place do: they dodged the question. They shrugged their shoulders and said, “We don’t know.”

And Jesus, of course, responded, “Well, if you don’t know, then I won’t answer your question.”

Actually I think that was a moment of hard, but honest, truth for the scribes and Pharisees. “I don’t know” is a legitimate response for when you don’t get it or are unsure of your answer. All of us as believers, including ministers and teachers of theology, don’t have a lock on the absolute truth.

Then Jesus does something interesting: He invites the elders into a discussion about the relationship of a person to God. He tells a parable about a man had two sons. The man went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son copped an attitude and answered, “I will not,” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and that son gave his father what he wanted to hear. He answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. And Jesus asks: Which of the two did the will of his father? And of course they said, “The first.” Then Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

The relationship of this whole confrontation is Spirit confronting Structure. The elders of the church are the Structure, the Institution of the Temple. Initially, institutions are created to support and nurture the spirit of a movement. Our own church, the larger Methodist Church, came about to support the people who were involved in a radical Holiness Movement. John Wesley believed that the way to improve our relationship with God was to provide a space for people to come together and say: “How is it with your soul? And what can I do to help you with your relationship with God in this world.” Our structure, our buildings, our rules, were created to give us a boundary and set of tools to help us have a better relationship with God. That is the foundation of our spiritual movement.

Now the problem with structures is then they start to exist to take care of themselves, not the spiritual movement. Institutions defend what they hold to be most valuable; and the power to name and defend that is on their own terms. In Jesus’ time The Temple and synagogues were primarily about stability, not conversion, and about faithfully preserving tradition, not changing lives here and now. They couldn’t account for tax collectors and prostitutes changing their lives because of John the Baptist’s ministry which repurposed and radicalized a washing ritual and made it a personal preparation for the judgment to come.

And the Methodist Church, all through its life has, been in conflict with itself as a structure or a spiritual movement. Some of the major issues: Should African-Americans be permitted to take communion with Anglo-Saxons? Should we support slavery? Should we have organs in our church? Should we allow women to be ordained? And today should we be fully accepting of people who are of a homosexual or different gender orientation?

The last discussion, some would say dissention, has seemingly gone on for a long time. But I have to tell you all the others have gone on just as long. (Except for the Great Organ Wars – that was pretty much over inside of 15 years)

A question we need to ask in this dispute, or any dispute when the spiritual movement clashes with the institution, is not the question, “Well, we’ve never done it before, so how can we possibly do it now?” But which child in this story are we going to be?

Are we going to be the second one who when God and Jesus call us to minister to all the world say, “Sure Dad,” because that’s what the parent wants to hear, and then we do nothing? OR are we going to be the first child who maybe has that reaction “No way,” and then starts to think about it. Starts to process the request. Starts to see the benefits of working in the vineyard. Starts to see that loving all of God’s children might just be a good thing. And then they don’t go back to Daddy and say, “Hey, I was wrong,” but just goes into that that vineyard and starts to clean it up, and actually probably enjoys the process and the results.

The Larger Church is fluctuating on being the first and second son on this issue. But in our own lives when are we being the first child and saying, “Sure, I’ll go,” but not doing we need to ask if we are walking the path of Christ, and if not, for what reason? And when are we being the second child and reacting “No,” but then considering it and coming to “Yes,” we are being more Christian because we are thinking about developing, maintaining, and fulfilling our relationship with God.

To be a Methodist is to be dedicated to the spiritual movement and process of our relationship with God in our lives. It would be great if we could get to be like the third, unmentioned, child in the story who just says, “Great Dad, sure I’ll go,” and goes. But if we did that – we’d be Jesus.

Where is God’s movement in your life, and are you using your structures to block it? Something to think about. But even in the thinking your NO might turn into a YES and you might accept a moment to work in the vineyard of the Kingdom.


About pastorpeg

Hi -- I'm the pastor of the United Methodist Churches in Lakeville and Sharon CT. This blog was created to post my sermons so that people can read them who were not able to come to our worship services (Times of Worship: Lakeville: 9:15 am, Sharon 10:45) or for people who want to review them during the week. I hope you enjoy reading them.
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