Sample Sermon — Ephesians 1:15-23

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.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Brene Brown offers a good one-page summary that analyzes power in terms of how it is used. You can download that summary here:

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:

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 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.

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.

Recovering Today

Last evening our anti-racism book study group finished our discussion of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-racist. Several of us were struck by the connections between Kendi’s final chapters and what we know of a variety of recovery processes (12-step and otherwise). I find it helpful to think about my anti-racist living as a daily and lifelong process of recovery from the disease of racism – or more properly, I think, “white-ism.” I found a great deal of hope at the end of Kendi’s book, coupled with a daunting and stirring call to continuing repentance, repair and renewal.

Kendi connects his own process of recovery from stage 4 colon cancer and his/our recovery from racism. “Racism,” he writes, “has always been terminal and curable. Racism has always been recognizable and mortal” (page 223). On a personal level, Kendi describes “successive steps” in the process of being an antiracist (pages 225 – 226).

  • I stop using the “I’m not a racist” or “I can’t be racist” defense of denial.
  • I admit the definition of racist (someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas).
  • I confess the racist policies I support and racist ideas I express.
  • I accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist).
  • I acknowledge the definition of antiracist (someone who is supporting antiracist policies or expressing antiracist ideas).
  • I struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces. (Seizing a policymaking position.)
  • I struggle to remain at the antiracist intersections where racism is mixed with other bigotries.
  • I struggle to think with antiracist ideas.

He uses verbs which make a strong connection between his steps and other recovery disciplines: admit, confess, accept, acknowledge, and struggle.

I know that recovery is a daily as well as a lifelong reality. As a Lutheran Christian, I can’t help but think of Luther’s description of baptism as a daily discipline. Baptism, Luther writes, “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther’s Small Catechism, page 44).

Of course, I tend to find connections everywhere. This morning I listened to the final installment of an excellent podcast series called Future Perfect. Here is a description from the front page of the website. Future Perfect “explores provocative ideas with the potential to radically improve the world. We tackle big questions about the most effective ways to save lives, fight global warming, and end world poverty to create a more perfect future.”

The current season has shared “stories about how the meat we eat affects us all, from the non-human animals to the farmers and factory workers who raise those animals and slaughter them to the environment.” One of the goals of the program is to help up “learn about some potential changes, big and small, that could make the food we eat more sustainable and more humane.”

My spouse and I have lived with a vegan diet and have pursued a “cruelty-free” lifestyle for almost two years. We are mere novices, so I’m glad for all the encouragement and guidance I can get. The final episode of the podcast took me into another arena of my recovery, what could be called “carnism.” I am a recovering meat-eater (and quite happy about the cuisine, the health benefits, and the decreased moral dissonance in my life). I think I could insert “carnist” in the place of “racist” in Kendi’s list, and it would work just as well for me.

Then I got my regular fix of Brene Brown on her podcast, Unlocking Us. In order to help listeners make it through the election week emotional vise, she reviewed her basic life mantra: “strong back, soft front, wild heart.” I’ve liked that since she shared it in her book, Braving the Wilderness. But I was particularly impacted by it today.

Brown’s words connected me to my third recovery process of the moment. I am in daily recovery from I have to call “protectionism.” It’s not perfectionism. It’s not power or control or domination -ism. I am addicted to simply protecting myself from emotional vulnerability. That’s my default, and to work in any other way is, well, work.

Protectionism requires what Brown calls a strong back and an armored front. So, the price of protection is an expressionless impenetrable wall of rigid rationality that masks a terrified and lonely child. I’m a lot better than I once was (well, at least some of the time). But the recover verbs are the same: admit, confess, accept, acknowledge, and struggle.

What is most telling and challenging for me is that all these toxic -isms come from much the same place: the urge to manage and control the world and everyone in it so that I can feel safe, strong, and certain. The recovery process is the move from defensive fear to vulnerability – what we, in baptismal terms, call the daily dying to self and rising in Christ.

White-ism, Carnism, Protectionism: And today is another day.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist. Published by One World, Aug 13, 2019. ISBN 9780525509288.

Future Perfect podcast:

Brene Brown, Unlocking Us podcast:

Luther’s Small Catechism, Fortress Press, 2008.

First Debate: The Howl of the Hollow Man

In the company of millions, I am struggling to process the first candidate debate. I could watch no more than a few minutes of what both my spouse and CNN’s Dana Bash described as a “shitshow” (testimony to my spouse’s obvious political insight and journalistic acumen—no joke!). I was quite able to keep up with the salient points by periodically checking the hailstorm in Twitterverse while I watched Star Trek reruns. I found my initial decision justified at every point. I’m grateful many wise observers had the stamina and fortitude to continue to watch. I couldn’t.

I wondered why (as I often do). I wondered why I couldn’t watch the unfolding train wreck. Along with many others, I found myself in Joe Biden’s place – the subject of an ongoing torrent of irrational, violent, and racist lies and abuse.

Joe Biden has not been able to protect the women and children in his life from disaster, disease, and death. A traffic accident, war, addiction, cancer – these are only the most public realities that have stripped Biden of any delusions of white, male, omnipotence.

I am projecting my own experiences on to the former Vice President, but I see something in his eyes and in the pained smile he shares when under such personal attack. Joe Biden knows the pain, the rage, and the shame of being a white male and failing to keep his loved ones from dying.

After my first wife died rather suddenly – now almost ten years ago – I had no framework for naming and dealing with what and how I felt. I rotated from numbness to suicidal depression to mania and back again. Then I encountered the work of Brene Brown in her first TED talk and in The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown shared a story about her lack of attention to “male shame.” Her early research focused on women and shame. She shared the story of a husband and father who pressed her on the topic of male shame. Her response was basically, “I don’t do that.” The man replied, “Isn’t that convenient.” He talked about the expectations of the women in his life and concluded, “They would rather I die on that white horse than fall off of it.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being fair to those women, but I understood what he was saying. I had inherited and built a world where male failure was the worst and only sin. I had failed to keep Anne alive. I had failed to care for my grieving sons. And I was drowning in the shame that blossomed from those failures.

I have learned to be a far better swimmer over the years, but the tide continues to ebb and flow. To give credit where credit is due, Brene Brown gave me more than that story. She also opened a door to a different way of living – a life where vulnerability is a gift rather than a punishment, where failure is the doorway to greater depths of life and meaning and joy.

Joe Biden knows the pain of loss and the joy of life in the midst of the losing. I can see it in his eyes, in his smile, and in his shoulders. He bears the shame of white male failure, and he has become more real as he comes to terms with it.

In Trump’s eyes, because Biden has lost, Biden is by definition a loser. Joe Biden has not bullied and bought, denied and deceived his way back to omnipotence. Worse yet, Biden has publicly acknowledged and mourned his losses rather than callously ignoring them (what have we heard from Trump about the death of his brother?).

Biden has put down his armor and embraced his vulnerability. Therefore, in Trump’s world he is a loser. Biden has not retreated into narcissistic self-medication. Instead, he has devoted himself to beliefs and causes larger than self-interest. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is a sucker. He has remained devoted to one wife (at a time, at least) and has paid his taxes. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is both simple and stupid.

While Biden has laid down the armor of white, male, omnipotence, Trump has nothing left but that armor. So, Trump is a hollow man, a shell of vitriol and violence, rumination and rage, fakery and fear. He howls without ceasing to drown out the drumbeat of mortality (and spends a lot on hair, it seems).

Joe Biden has also willingly worked for and submitted to the authority of a black man. He has chosen to subvert what Trump sees as the natural hierarchy of being. This is another level of Trump’s contempt for Biden. And it was also on full display last night.

Joe Biden is no paragon of anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-colonial virtues. Nor am I, but I think we’re both trying. Biden does, however, refuse to inhabit the opaque costume that American, white, male, omnipotence requires. Trump is nothing but that costume, so proximity to a real alternative (such as Biden) poses an existential threat to him.

It’s not that the emperor has no clothes. It’s that the emperor is nothing but his clothes.

Biden is a loser. He has lost and makes no secret of his grief, or of the fact that his losses have made him a better and stronger person. Joe Biden is open to the possibility that he might become real before he dies. That’s my personal goal as well (but it is surely a work in progress).

Of course, becoming real is the definition of the original sin for Trump. For Trump, reality requires loss and is therefore shameful and disgusting. He would rather kill than lose. And perhaps most troubling is the fact that Trump represents millions who would rather kill than lose.

I will soon be voting for a genuine, flawed, hopeful human and not for an empty set of costume armor.