Do we really understand about how to use power?

I would like to talk today about those two words power and authority and how they have been used, are used, and should be used.  Last Tuesday, it was National Holocaust Day, a day when we are invited to remember and consider the atrocities carried out on people in the name of a  particularly evil form of power and authority, a totally opposite form of the use of power or authority associated with the kingdom of God.  What we saw and what millions of Jews, Eastern Europeans, Travellers, Homosexuals and disabled people experienced under the rule of the Nazi’s was power and authority based on a rejection of God where the state  - in the example of the Third Reich a single human – sought to take the place of God.  Of course this is not the only example in history of this sort of madness.  Indeed history is sadly replete with dictatorships, expires and occupation forces delivering their own variations on torture and legalized murder on populations.  I don’t need to list them for you all today, we are all well aware of the brutality that they inflict and the current suffering experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike in Syria and parts of Iraq where the latest example of this evil – the organization known as Islamic State – holds onto power by creating fear and terror in those in occupied towns.

Jesus himself lived in a land subject to the tyranny of the time, the so-called Roman Empire, which sold the lie of a “pax Romana” as long as you toed the line and did what they said.  John reminds us in his Gospel that Jesus was God coming to live amongst us, and Jesus chose a path of peaceful resistance that he knew was inevitably going to find him rubbing up against the Temple Authorities and their governors – The Roman occupiers.  What we have here is a collision of two outlooks on power, one that was ultimately backed by the powers of darkness that sought power and authority and sought it by any means necessary, and sought to then hold onto that power by violence as and when necessary, ignoring the humanity of people that they were responsible for, coming up against a vision of power backed by God himself, the light of the world, offering a power based on servant leadership, and peace, on healing, one where the greatest weapon was to be the sword of truth, words, which would later be written down and become what we think of as the New Testament.  A testament to a new way of living.

Currently in the UK we are 13 weeks away from a General Election, in which we will no doubt be bombarded by various claims and counter claims from the range of political parties.  I don’t know about you, I wonder how many will finally be on the leadership debates.  The last count is 7 I think.  How long before we see representation by the Monster raving loony party?  Some would say of course that we already do – of course I cannot comment….  Back to my point though, they will all be promising us what they think we will want to hear, what we will vote for.  All of them vying for positions of power and authority over us.

At the start of our service we read Psalm 111, one of the so-called Hallelujah psalms because they have an upbeat tone.  The psalm tells us a lot about the character of God and in extension about how God would use power and authority.  God is righteous, gracious, compassionate, faithful, just, trustworthy, upright, holy and awe-inspiring.  How many elected or self-proclaimed state leaders can really be described in such terms?  The psalm also reflects or point to what God looks for from us in our covenant relationship with him.  VV 5-8 talk of a righteous people full of integrity.

Let us then look for a moment at our responsibilities as a people of righteousness acting with integrity.  Paul in his letter to the Church in Corinth speaks to them about the ultimate authority of God which some in Corinth had understood as giving them freedom to do whatever they wished.  The focus that Paul was speaking about rested on the common practice in ancient Rome for food to be sacrificed to gods of trade organisations prior to meetings.  The food would then of course be eaten, so there was a clear problem for Christians who were also in business and many in Corinth were wealthy, and thus likely to be members of these organisations.  How could these people maintain their social standing and remains true to Christ, and since they seem to have taken leadership roles in the Church, there was a real risk that their behavior would have a negative impact on younger, newer followers.  Paul speaks directly into this, challenging them to take a stance of responsility that is willing to put aside freedoms if it helps others.  Echoing his later stance in Phillipians when he  wrote, “ In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[
b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

He encourages those in positions of power and authority in the Church in Corinth to consider their actions on new Christians and if they feel that their actions would hinder the growth of new followers, then they should avoid that behaviour.  This is actually a hard teaching as it is saying to those in the church who were well off and perhaps thought themselves to be intellectually superior that “ OK , you and I know there is nothing to these sacrifices because these gods are false anyway, but if you act in such a way that hurts those who are new to the faith and put them off then you act against Christ”.  In other words, they should avoid the trade associations and all that posh nosh.  Paul here is repeating the teaching of Jesus when Matthew reports him as saying in his Gospel “No one can serve two masters.  You cannot serve both God and money”  In other words, they and we have a choice to make.  Are we to follow God and go where that path leads us?  Something that Bonhoeffer likened to being grasped by God.  All too aware that he would be up against the might of the Third Reich, or do we follow the path of wealth acquisition.  Scripture does not seem to support both paths which remains an uncomfortable state for us today.  How do we balance the tasks of being trustees for our churches which will inevitably involve some sort of financial proberty with being followers of God?  I am not sure I have answers for you.  Perhaps there is not an easy answer to this conundrum.  Perhaps God is saying that it is difficult, and it is really easy to ignore one at our peril.  All the more so  if we ignore God in this balance.

Mark gives us another stance on power and authority in his story of an exorcism during a service at the local synagogue in Capernaum.  If we look at Luke’s portrayal of this, which is almost word for word, Luke places it directly following Jesus’ first teaching which nearly ended with him getting killed, so this is his second preaching engagement, an suddenly someone in the congregation gets up and starts having a go.  Preaching was certainly different back then!

Jesus’ response is brief and to the point.  There is no lengthy debate, he simply slings the evil spirit out of the man.  The congregation is said to be “Amazed”.  I suspect also a touch terrified.  This setting of having Jesus facing problems and opposition at the outset of his ministry can be linked to John’s opening chapter where the darkness we are told cannot overcome the Light, a clear suggestion of battle.  The outcome reveals that true power and authority rest with Jesus.  He never hid from problems or opposition but maintained a stance of righteousness and integrity throughout.  All through his ministry he was questioned and sometimes threatened.  There are numerous examples of his being challenged by “demons”.  Whether we see that literally or metaphorically as a sign by the writer to show us that Jesus was principally fighting Satan, either way, it is clear that Jesus accepted the authority given to him and always used his power responsibly.  He didn’t run away in the Garden of Gesthemane, he didn’t avoid awkward questions, he dealt with Peter’s betrayal.

The scriptures give us plenty to consider in our own discipleship journey.  There will often be times when there are now easy answers, no quick fixes, and through it all how we hold our own power and authority given to us will be the continual backdrop.

How will you rise to this challenge?  My prayer is that we will all reflect the humility and honesty, righteousness and integrity shown by Jesus in his mission.

In his glorious name


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