This week I’m sharing a sermon on this text I preached a few years ago. It’s dated, but you deserve to see some of my own work sometimes. I have taken out the specifics of the situation in which it was originally preached and updated some references and implications.
No Powerless Christians
The late, great Jimi Hendrix said it well. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” Today that sounds like just another hippy-dippy sixties bumper sticker slogan. In our time the love of power is the order of the day. The pursuit of power overwhelms all other projects.
Power is a major topic in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The overall theme of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is that God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Today let’s talk about how that power works in our Christian journey.
Love of power was a way of life in ancient Ephesus. In Paul’s time, Ephesus was second only to Rome as a seat of imperial power. Ephesus was home to a rich and entitled elite who controlled the government, manipulated the markets, and ran the religious life of the city. When it came to power, the Ephesian Christians were on the outside looking in.
Many of us feel like little people in big systems. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when all the power rests in the hands of others. Carried along by impersonal politics, mindless markets, faceless social forces—we know powerless.
So, it’s jarring to hear Paul’s prayer today. “I pray that…you may know,” Paul writes, “what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe, according to the working of [God’s] great power.” Paul is so intent to make his point that he uses three different Greek terms for power in the space of fourteen words. There are no powerless Christians.
Paul longs that the Ephesians will know that this power is available to them for their daily use. The Holy Spirit longs for us to know this as well. There are no powerless Christians.
Paul draws it all together in verses twenty through twenty-three. Let’s take those verses step by step.
Step One: All Christian power is Resurrection Power. That’s where Paul begins, and where we must always begin. “God put this power to work in Christ,” Paul tells us, “when [God] raised [the Messiah] from the dead…” God’s love looks like a cross. And God’s power looks like resurrection.
Step Two: Jesus is now the rightful Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth. God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Jesus the Messiah is Lord of heaven and earth, right now.
Step Three: Jesus exercises that rule in part through the Church. God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The Spirit empowers us for loving service in Jesus’ name.
There are no powerless Christians.
Of course, there is power…and then there is power. There is “power over.” From this perspective, power is a scarce commodity available only to the privileged few. Power over is maintained by fear and violence. Power over treats everyone other than me as a means to my ends. Power over believes that power over is the primary goal of human existence.
And then there is power with/to/within. This power sees itself as multiplied when applied and is the property of everyone. It relies on connection rather than coercion. This power treats everyone other than me as ends in themselves. And this power believes that power is a means to an end. That end is human flourishing.
Brene Brown offers a good one-page summary that analyzes power in terms of how it is used. You can download that summary here: https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Brene-Brown-on-Power-and-Leadership-10-26-20.pdf.
The witness of the gospels, and of the whole New Testament, is that the power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. Power with/to/within is the power of vulnerable love. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “and to give his life, a ransom for many.” The Incarnate Christ did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped and hoarded but rather emptied himself for the sake of obedient service, including death on a cross — as we read in Philippians 2. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. If we exercise power over, that’s not Jesus power.
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 can be framed in these terms. The question posed by the Lord is, “How did you use your power?” Did you use it to serve the least, the lost and the lonely without thought for yourself? Or did you use your power to pad your privilege? Do we use our power for others or for self? It’s not more complicated than that. If we use our power for others, that’s a sign that Christ lives in us and that we are responding to Christ in the other (see my post on Matthew 25).
Speaking of Matthew 25 — I was reminded by a podcast yesterday of Dolly Parton’s song, “Would you know him if you saw him?” Lyrics here: https://genius.com/Dolly-parton-would-you-know-him-if-you-saw-him-lyrics.
How do I use my political power in this representative democracy? How do I use my power to choose whether or not to mask up? How do I use my power to purchase ethically-sourced and cruelty free goods and services? How do I use my power to resist housing segregation and educational inequality when I think about buying a home? How do I use my power to be kind to my next door neighbors, no matter how irritating their Christmas lights are at two in the morning? How do I use my capacity to influence others in my life when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.?
How many of us does it take to make real change in a system or culture? The research is still developing. But it may be that it takes as little as 3.5% of a population to bring about systemic change, especially if that 3.5% chooses to be visible. See https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world. The other end of the research spectrum says 25%. In any event, change does not require a majority. It takes brave people who use their power for the sake of others.
For fun and inspiration, listen to how Dolly Parton uses her power as power with/to/within. Brene Brown interviewed her on the most recent edition of “Unlocking Us.” It’s definitely worth the time. https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5tZWdhcGhvbmUuZm0vdW5sb2NraW5nLXVz/episode/NDdjMjFjOWMtZmViNi0xMWVhLWIxZWYtZWI3ZjM5OTY5Njdk?hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwi22K7m347tAhXFF80KHaYPDQcQieUEegQIJRAF&ep=6
Church people use their power to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick, advocate for the imprisoned and defend the persecuted. This is worth cheers and hallelujahs. This runs against cultural currents flowing in the opposite direction. This is the power of the Spirit at work among us to put all the powers of sin, death, and the devil under the feet of Jesus the Messiah. This is Jesus, the strong man, binding Satan and plundering his household. This is real power.
Church people also use their power to defend their privilege, sustain racism, concentrate wealth, maintain abusive systems and hide from the realities of the world. We need to call out such abuses of power over in our own faith communities and in the conduct of other believers.
There are no powerless Christians. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. With Paul I pray that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” This is the hope to which God has called us—to make the power of love conquer the love of power. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in us and through us. This is how God is pulling it all together in Jesus.
The world cannot see this power among us. The world is blinded by the love of power. That’s why it takes the vision of an enlightened heart. That’s why this is about the hope to which God has called us.
There are no powerless Christians. Of course, there is no power unless you plug in. The Spirit equips us to see where the power is. It is in God’s Word of law and gospel. It is in our worship. It is in our welcoming and loving community. Let’s pray…
For a list of refences and resources for this week’s texts, please see my November 16 post.