“Now listen up,” the father said to his son during coffee hour at church. “Your pastor has some wisdom to offer you as you head off to camp.”
Truthfully, I had more questions than wisdom to offer, but I did appreciate the integrated perspective that everything we do is somehow spiritual. So, why wouldn’t the pastor offer some spiritual guidance to this young soul on his way to his first overnight camp? Now, contrast that with the child on the airplane who is too old to safely sit in his mother’s lap during takeoff. The flight attendant passes by and kindly reminds the mom that the child needs to be in his own seat. The mother obliges for the moment, only to disregard the flight attendant’s authority as soon as she is out of sight. And years from now, this mother will wonder why her child seems to have a problem with authority.
I was just on a trip with girlfriends and all of us went to a restricted area of the resort (with permission) to grab some food. We were told to return to the unrestricted area after we got our food. “I guess we could just hang out here,” one of my friends said. But, quite quickly, we all admitted to being rule followers and made our way back to the designated area. My mom told me at an early age that there are two groups of people: those who follow the rules and those who think the rules are for everyone but them.
To call oneself a Christian is to submit to authority — specifically the authority of Jesus Christ. We agree, some of us with a little more resistance than others, to let Christ rule our lives — essentially to follow Jesus and allow him to lead us, rather than make all of the decisions by ourselves and for ourselves. Spiritual language often calls this surrender, but call it what you want — we are following the rule of Christ. Fortunately for those of us who land a little more on the rebellious side, the authority of Jesus often includes defying authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and the law of loving Christ and loving others. There are plenty of opportunities to break some rules here on earth (but never out of selfishness). And, at times the outlaw nature of Christ can comfort us deeply and inspire us to stand up for those who have no voice or ability to defend themselves. When we disagree with the people in power, we are reminded that Christ lived and loved under Roman authority and was persecuted by the very people he came to save. To follow the rule of Christ is neither easy nor black and white much of the time. It requires courage, intelligence, biblical study and service.
Our culture often encourages us to be rebels, but not in the way of Christ. I mentioned the example earlier of the mother who defies the authority of the flight attendant on the plane. If we can’t even defer to someone who is an expert in their field to guide us and our children, when will we ever relinquish our own authority? We live in a society where we are encouraged to say whatever we feel and “live our truth.” Independence is glorified, often at the expense of other values such as safety and security for the community as a whole. Even as those who claim to follow Christ, we so often put ourselves first and operate from a theology of scarcity rather than abundance. We act as if we are fighting for the cause of another, while hoping for a little attention of our own along the way. Culture tempts us to assert our individuality and speak out even when the Christ-like action is to be part of the community or support others from the sidelines. Moreover, most of us enjoy being right. A friend of mine once said to me, “God is always right” no matter what side we are on. How many of us want to be on God’s side even if it means we are wrong? How many of us have thought selfishly that God must be on our side because we are right?
I often find it amusing and humbling at the same time that I spend so much of my pulpit time as a pastor telling my congregation that I am far from perfect and make all sorts of mistakes, yet they still dare to put their trust and faith in my spiritual authority. I still remember so clearly at my ordination day being completely blown away that God had called me such a position when there is nothing especially holy about me or my life; and I remember praying on that day that I would never lose that sense of awe and knowledge that I would never be able to make it without God’s grace.
Since my ordination day, I learn about what it means to follow Christ each and every time someone in my congregation trusts me just enough to pray for them, offer them a word of encouragement or stumble through interpreting a piece of Scripture in a way that helps them see God. It is the great mystery of the Christian life that God chooses people so completely unqualified to do divine work, and an even greater mystery when we trust each other to lead and follow all along the way. And what a paradox it is that each day I learn about what it looks like to follow Christ from those who grant me the privilege and honor to exist as a spiritual authority in their lives.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.