The word for authority in Greek is “exousia” which referred to the right (as in authorization) of someone to exercise power. This Greek word is made up from two other Greek words: “ex” meaning “out of” as in our word “exit” and “ousia” meaning “being.” So, authority comes from one’s being. The emphasis is on the quality of the inner being from which a person exercises power, and not on the raw power itself.
I think the difference between power and authority is very important in our faith. The authority of Jesus comes from the essence of his being and not from brute strength to enforce his will or from his ability to perform extraordinary and spectacular deeds. In other words, his authority comes from the integrity of who he is. We are told that after he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were “astonished at his teachings because he taught as one having authority” (Matthew 7:28-29).
The Emperors of the Roman Empire claimed three forms of power: potestas, imperium, and auctoritas. Potestas referred to the power and ability to govern. Imperium referred to the command emperors possessed through the use of their military legions to enforce their will throughout the empire and to keep them in office. Auctoritas referred to the credentialed power one possessed in the sense that the emperor had the right to govern through inheritance or proclamation of the Roman Senate and, one would hope, through a wise and moral character which would command respect. Some historians define auctoritas as “supreme moral authority.” Needless to say, few if any Roman emperors ever deserved the respect Roman propaganda claimed for that exalted position.
So, what was the basis of Jesus’ exousia? The church has always claimed that in Jesus we see the nature and character of God. And what is that nature and character? The New Testament is unanimous in its answer: love. All Jesus did and said was rooted in the love and compassion of the one he intimately knew as Abba. And it is the outrageous claim of Paul and every other writer in the New Testament that this unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and eternal love was sufficient—more than sufficient to heal, redeem, and transform the world and everyone within it. Even in the much misunderstood Book of Revelation, Christ uses only three weapons in his battle with sin, evil, and death: self-giving love, the Word of God, and the faithful testimony of himself and his followers. And John the Seer through amazing symbols (though easily misinterpreted by those who don’t understand the nature of apocalyptic literature) proclaims that such love has conquered, is conquering, and will conquer all efforts to thwart God’s grace-filled intention for history and the cosmos.
But let’s be honest–it’s difficult for us to trust much less to flesh out the kind of love Jesus proclaimed and lived in a braggadocios culture like ours where leaders and followers strut about with threats, intimidation, obscene agendas, and arrogant uses of power. It’s easier and more “sensible” to fight fire with fire—to play the disastrous game of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—to embrace the myth and lie of redemptive violence—to “win” at something that only compounds pain and alienation–to celebrate “victories” which only divide and lay the groundwork for future misery and revenge.
But perhaps some etymology can help us. The auctor part of the Latin word auctoritas means “to create.” That meaning of “creating” is the background to our word “author” (which of course, comes from auctoritas.) Authors create through their use of words. We might ask which form of power (that of Rome or that of Christ) “authors” life. The way of Rome is alive and operative in our world. Most of the Twentieth Century is a gruesome testimony to the cost and tragedy of Rome’s definition and use of power [World War I and the unbelievable slaughter of the Somme, the greed which resulted in the world’s Great Depression, the rise of Fascism (which Mussolini intentionally modeled after the Roman Empire), Nazism, Communism and Stalin’s purges, World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the senseless imperial wars in Korea and Vietnam, the U. S. repression of democracy in South and Central America, and, above all today, the tragic destruction of the planet through greedy and foolish uses of power.] And yet, apparently we still have not learned that the way of Rome is the way to death, misery, and destruction.
The way Jesus lived and commanded his followers to live is the only way that can author life—a life worth living and worthy of our identities of a God who is above all else love. Only his way offers a future that is not a violent shock and a horrifying nightmare. But his way seems so counterintuitive. It’s always easier to destroy than to build. But as Jesus taught, “those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.” We have 5000 years of kingdoms and empires to prove his point. But habits are hard to break. Creative Imagination comes harder than addictive memory. Tended gardens take time and effort while weeds can grow anywhere and with remarkable rapidity.
The church in our day has a critical choice to make. We must either follow Jesus and flesh out the kind of love he found in the One he called Abba, or we will lose our very souls if we choose the alternative way of Rome. John the Seer was right. The message of his whole book can be summed up in one sentence: “Who is Lord? Caesar or Jesus?” Caesar (in many different incarnations) is alive and powerful in our world today. But as always, Caesar only brings evil, suffering, and death. Only God (who is love) can author life, heal suffering, and transform evil into good. God’s way takes time and requires sacrifice. That’s what the cross is all about. The cross redefines power (Paul in the first chapter of First Corinthians eloquently presents that new definition.) In Christ we see that God is in the healing business for what apparently must be the long haul. The question is, are we?