Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sermon: "More About Power" (Ephesians 4:1-16)

I was listening to the radio, to a music program I hadn’t listened to in a long time, hearing a bunch of songs that were all new to me. One song came on, and I don’t know who was singing it, but I did find out later that it was a cover of a song originally written and sung by a band called the Flaming Lips.
The lyrics of the song caught my attention. They went like this:
“If you could make everybody poor so you could be rich would you do it? If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back would you do it? If you could take all the love without giving any back would you do it? With all your power, what would you do? With all your power, with all your power, with all your power, what would you do?”
I listened to the song… and I thought of Nathan, the prophet who confronted King David.
If you were here last week, you may remember that my sermon was about Nathan confronting King David over his misuse of power.
God had given King David power, anointing him as king, so that he could use that power to lead God’s people. But instead, when it came to Bathsheba, David used his power for his own pleasure.
Then Nathan confronted King David over this misuse of power, and basically asked him, “What have you done, King David? With all your power, with all your power - with all the power God has given you - what did you do?”
I was amazed at the parallels between that song and my sermon. “With all your power, what would you do? How would you act?”
Now, last week, when some people on social media found out that I was preaching on this, they said I was being too political, and that I shouldn’t preach politics, I should just preach what’s in the Bible. And I thought: “Huh. The scripture is about God sending a prophet to the ruler of the nation, to confront him and tell him that he has misused and abused his power.
That’s political. The Bible is political. The Bible is very concerned with the behavior of the rulers of the nations, and especially how their behavior affects the poor, the outcasts, the “least of these.”
It’s political. It’s not about “right” or “left,” but it is political. I don’t try to preach right or left. I don’t try to preach liberal or conservative. But I always do my best to preach the gospel.
And I know I’m not perfect. Which is why I am so thankful that, in my ten years as your pastor, I’ve received nothing but support from the people of Bixby Knolls Christian Church. You have guided me and encouraged me in a way that let’s me know: we ARE in this together, and together we are struggling to understand and apply the gospel to our daily lives.
And a part of that gospel message, as I understand it, is knowing how power is appropriately used, and how power can be abused.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s lectionary reading, from the letter to the Ephesians, is also about power, and how power is used.
The book of Ephesians appears to have been written by Paul. It appears to have been written by Paul, but it is more likely that it was written by one of Paul’s followers, who wrote in Paul’s name and inscribed what he believed were Paul’s thoughts. That was a common literary practice in those days.
Because the letter to the Ephesians contains Paul’s thoughts and was written in Paul’s name, we often say it was written by Paul, especially since it is a letter that was greatly influenced by Paul.
So, a little background about Paul.
Before Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was a man with a fair amount of power. As a Pharisee, he held great influence over the lives of faithful Jews. He helped determine what the proper behavior was for those who were faithful, and he helped determine who failed to meet those standards. And if the failure to meet those religious standards was egregious enough, Paul had the power to authorize harsh punishments.  Including stoning.
That’s power.
Paul had power in other ways. He was a Roman citizen. He was literate, able to read and write. Both of these things gave Paul a measure of power that many in that time did not have. And I’m sure Paul took advantage of the power he had.
But when Paul encountered Jesus in a blinding light, Jesus completely transformed Paul’s understanding of power, and completely transformed Paul's understanding of how power is to be used.
After that Paul was never the same. After that encounter, Paul understood that power isn’t given to a person for that person’s own benefit, that power is to be used to help those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Those who have power are to use their power to help those who have had power taken away from them.
When David took Bathsheba for himself, he was using his power for his own benefit. When he exercised his power by taking Bathsheba for himself, other people were hurt.
Likewise, when Paul enforced strict, cumbersome rules of religious behavior on others, he was using his power for his own benefit. Paul used his power to reinforce his own sense of importance, his own feeling of moral superiority. He used his power to enhance his own reputation. And other people were hurt.
But after his encounter with Jesus, Paul began using his power in a whole new way.
In fact, even though he still valued his reputation as a Pharisee, he said he considers the power he had as rubbish. He said “I think of that kind of power the way I think about what goes into the sewer. It’s all a great big pile of skubalon,” to use the Greek word Paul used.
Remember me talking about that a few months ago? Skubalon. That’s what Paul thought of the worldly forms of power, and how he had used them before his life was transformed by Jesus.
After his encounter with Jesus, Paul received a new kind of power, and a new understanding of how power is to be used. It is the power of the Spirit. It is the power given to an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is the power that is used to empower, equip, and enable others. It is the power that lifts people up, and helps them use their own power, to find wholeness in their own lives, and to contribute to the ministry of the church.
This power manifests itself in some unusual ways. This power manifested itself in Paul, even when Paul was locked away in prison.
This power manifests itself in weakness and humility. It is the power seen in Jesus when he refused to fight back, refused to draw a sword or harm a single one of his accusers, and instead allowed himself to be arrested and crucified. According to Paul, Jesus could have grabbed hold of power, and gone straight to a throne at the right hand of God.
But instead of ascending to that place (to use Paul’s language), Jesus descended to the lowest parts of the earth. Jesus went where kings and rulers and high priests and Pharisees dared not go: among the outcasts and the unclean. They thought that mingling with such people would deprive them of power, but Jesus shows that humbling oneself and loving the least of these shows the greatest of all powers, because love is the greatest of all powers.

In a different letter - the letter to the Philippians - Paul talks more about the kind of power Jesus had, and how he exercised that power. Paul writes
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Paul says that the cross appears foolish to the world, because the world looks at the cross, looks at the crucifixion, and sees the victory of Roman power over Jesus.
Yet in that death on a cross, believers come to recognize a very different, very powerful kind of power. An amazing power… and an amazing grace.
And according to Paul, this power and this grace has been given to each one of us.
We don’t all receive the power in the same way. As Paul says, some of us receive this power to be apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers. To put that in a more modern context, some receive the power of the Spirit to be ordained pastors and preachers, some to be elders and deacons, some to lead and organize VBS and other programs, some to extend hospitality and welcome, some to take care of legal and financial matters, some to devote themselves to prayer, some to engage in acts of compassion and care… all these ways of exercising power contribute to the ministry of the church. All these ways of exercising power demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit. All of these demonstrate love, the greatest power.
We see this in the gospels. Read any one of the gospels as a story, and you’ll see that one way to describe it is as a story about power. Specifically, the contrast between the power of Jesus and the power of Rome. Demons try to exercise their power - and the demons are often associated with Rome - and yet it is the power of Jesus that triumphs over them.
All the conflicts between Jesus and his adversaries have to deal with power. Who has the power to forgive sins? Who has the power to declare people clean or unclean? Who has the power bind or set free?
And, time and time again, Jesus demonstrate that such power belongs to him. Or, more accurately, belongs to the one who sent him: God the Father.
I don’t know how often you read the Bible, but the next time you do, read the story, and ask yourself: how is power represented in this story? Who thinks they have power? How do they exercise their power? And at the end of the story, where does power really lie?
Yes, how we use our power is important to God. That’s true of rulers and politicians. But it is also true of each one of us. Because God has granted power to each of us. Each of us has the power to forgive or not forgive, the power to welcome or cast out, the power love or to hate.
Every day, we get to choose how we use that power. And it is important.