Celebration of New Ministry, St. Michael’s, Cookeville, the Rev’d T.J. Azar, January 31, 2024

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Mk. 1:22).

In our Gospel reading, we catch Jesus at the beginning of his ministry: fitting enough, as tonight we celebrate the new ministry of T.J. Azar as your rector here at St. Michael’s. Her ministry began some months ago, of course, but now the ministry you all share here at St. Michael’s has deepened with her call as rector. It’s a real pleasure for me to see how your ministry together has developed over the past year and a half, and as a result I look forward to how the church’s mission in this community will continue to broaden and to increase its scope in the years to come.

In order for that to happen, I think there are some lessons we can learn from the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry, as we see it laid out in Mark’s Gospel this evening. Jesus, after his baptism by John has just begun his ministry in Galilee, with the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom; immediately after he has called the first disciples to join him in the work. He comes to the nearby town of Capernaum and begins to teach “as one having authority” (Mk. 1:22).

It’s significant that this word is chosen to characterize the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “Authority” is a word with a variety of meanings. I think of what it means to be an authority, to be an “expert”: “he’s an authority on the subject,” as they say. You become this kind of authority either by being credentialed, or by gaining expertise through practice, or by both. Or you could have authority because someone or some group gave you the responsibility. You were appointed or elected to the position, to the board or to Congress or whatever. You may not be an expert but you still have real authority because it’s been vested in you.

Jesus’ authority in our Gospel has nothing to do with either of these types of authority. What’s important about him is neither that he’s credentialed, an expert teacher, nor that he is authorized by the synagogue congregation for his ministry. That’s not to say that Jesus walked into the synagogue and just started teaching: congregations in his day typically invited visiting dignitaries and local leaders to come up to the lectern. So it’s quite likely that he was invited to “say a few words.” But in spite of this invitation, Jesus’ authority lies elsewhere.

We get a better sense of the meaning of Jesus’ “authority” when we realize that the Greek word used twice here in our passage is one that can be translated either by “authority” or by “power.” Translators from the time of King James have tended to use the word “authority” when translating this passage, but always with the sense that Jesus’ authority lies in himself, and not in a credential or an election. He’s authorized, in fact, by the power of God.

Notice how quickly Jesus’ teaching with authority is followed by deeds of power, in the healing of the man with the unclean spirit, the heckler who confirms his identity as “the Holy One of God” (Mk. 1:24). Teaching is something that people do with a credential or authorization of some kind, as we know, but rebuking evil spirits requires the power of God. Notice what the synagogue congregation says when Jesus heals the heckler, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk. 1:27). The new teaching requires the move into action, as Jesus shows through this miraculous healing; it requires the recognition and invocation of God’s power to change lives, and to deliver people from all forms of bondage.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry reveals its entire character, from beginning to end. What was begun in Capernaum is consummated on the cross, in Jesus’ sacrificial death: the Shepherd for the sheep. God’s power shines forth most clearly on the Day of Resurrection, as sin and death are defeated through God’s mighty purpose. As he begins his ministry, Jesus is authorized to shake things up, and to turn the world upside down.

As his disciples, we want to follow in his footsteps. We want to move into action, through the power of the Spirit! That’s what we can learn tonight from our Gospel about the nature of ministry, and of the new ministry that takes shape tonight at St. Michael’s Church. All of you, Mother T.J. and congregation, have been authorized for this work, not by expertise or by appointment (though all of that is surely present), but by the power of God. It’s this power that you will need to rely upon as new life takes shape through this ministry, and the lives of people themselves are transformed. Let the power of God show forth tonight, in all of its splendor, as this new ministry is begun.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee