An old friend of mine, Joe Moran, took his son to a Catholic worship service when he was visiting his family in New York State. Joe was a former priest, and his family was very Catholic. After Joe left the priesthood, he attended a Unitarian church, where they do not celebrate communion. The time came when the people went forward for the Eucharist, Communion, and Joe’s son watched as his cousins went forward, and naturally he wanted to go to. Joe told him to stay seated, because, he said, you have to be a Catholic to take communion here. That just made matters worse and the next thing he knew, his son was marching defiantly up the aisle, and took communion from the priest.
On the ride home Joe’s son asked why he was not supposed to take communion. “Because,” Joe said, “communion is a sign of the suffering and death of Jesus, and when you take it, you are committing your life to conform to that of Jesus, including his suffering.”
His son looked at Joe in horror, and said, “Now you tell me!”
Jesus and Power
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Mark shows us how some of the disciples were still confused about where Jesus was heading. The story starts with James and John coming to Jesus and asking, “When you come into power, when you become our new king, we want to sit beside you on the throne, one on your left hand and one on your right.” They were still under the impression this was a political movement, and any day now Jesus would be declared king, set on the throne by God.
Now the irony of this is delicious. What happened just before the two brothers came to Jesus? Here are the verses that immediately precede the Gospel lesson.
32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Here Jesus says explicitly what will happen to him when he gets to Jerusalem. King? Sure. His crown will be made of thorns and his throne will be a cross. It is right after this that James and John will come to Jesus and ask to be on his right and left hands as he is lifted up.
“Well,” Jesus says, “as matter of fact, you will drink from the same cup I drink from and you will be baptized, or immersed in the same waters that will surround me.And when I am lifted up, there will be two people on either side of me, but I don’t get to choose who they are.” Jesus will have two people beside him, one on his left and one on his right, but they thieves, and are to be crucified with him.
Later, when both were undergoing times of persecution, and when both were martyred for their faith, I wonder if either of them remembered that conversation with Jesus, and thought, “Now you tell me!”
And then, to make matters worse, the rest of disciples see James and John talking privately with Jesus, and they suspect something is going on. They suspect that James and John are making a power play, and they are angry–mostly because James and John beat them to the punch.
At that point Jesus looks and them, and says, “OK guys, huddle up.”
And then he gives them a life lesson. “What is it about the Romans that really burns you guys? It is that they take power, and they use their power to control you. They take your money through taxes, they regulate how and where we can sell things, and worse of all, they want us to worship their gods. But what is you want to do if we get into power? You want to do the same thing you hate the Romans for doing. You think real power is when you are able to tell people what to do. You’re wrong. Real power is the ability to serve others, not to control them. It doesn’t sound like you guys have figured all this out yet. I came to serve, not be to served, and when I leave, I want you to serve as I served.”
The Church and Power
In the first letter from Peter, he says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The word he uses for “always be ready,” is the same word they use for two gladiators who are about to fight to the death. In other words, we should muster all the strength we have to tell people about why we are followers of Jesus. We should be as ready to do that as a gladiator is when he is ready to fight.
But Peter does not leave it there. He continues by saying, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” In other words, we should be prepared to take someone’s head off with what we know about our relationship with Jesus, but when it comes to actually sharing our faith, we should do so with gentleness and reverence. The word he used for reverence is actually the Greek word phobos, which means fear. The power we have should be respected the same way a wise person respects fire.
In the Hebrews passage the author describes the duties of the High Priest. A High Priest was one of the more powerful people in Israel, similar to say, a Catholic bishop in medieval days. It would be like an adviser to the president today. But this is the job description of the High Priest: Every high priest selected to represent men and women before God and offer sacrifices for their sins should be able to deal gently with their failings, since he knows what it’s like from his own experience. But that also means that he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins as well as the peoples’.
Again we see that the use of power was meant to help people, not control them.
It seems Christians make two major mistakes when it comes to power. The first, and easiest to see, is how some have abused power over the ages. There are too many examples of this to list them all, and it happens in a variety of ways. The most egregious is when Church gets a hold of political power. Giving the Church the job of wielding political power is like giving an alcoholic the job of being a night watchman in a liquor store. You can be certain that abuses will occur. The Church has NEVER done well with political power. The Church was never meant to have political power, and when it does have it, the politics always outweighs spirituality. The demands of the politics take over the needs of the church. Political power is seductive, and it is all too easy to end with a faith that is led by political beliefs, instead of a political convictions that are informed by your faith. Call me a pessimist, but when faith meets politics, the knee is eventually bent to the political altar, and not to God.
I’ve been reading a book about the fights between Catholics and Protestants during the English reformation, and the growth of Protestantism in France. Basically when one side comes to power, they would oppress the other side, usually in retribution for what happened to them when they were out of power. It was a see-saw of violence, that swung to and fro.
Pastors have abused power over the centuries; some to fleece their flocks of their money, getting rich off of the spiritual insecurities of their parishioners, telling them that giving to their ministry, and ultimately to them, assures them a place in the Kingdom of God. We have seen too many examples of pastors using their power to to sexually abuse parishioners, and it does not just happen in the Catholic church. There are too many examples of pastors turning their churches into a little fiefdom, where they control everything that happens.
But there is another problem with Christians and power. While some are busy chasing power, others don’t want to admit when they have it. I was in a small group Bible study in college. At the time I joined it, I was on the leadership council of our campus Christian fellowship, where I had a ton of responsibilities. When I joined the Bible study, I just wanted to sit back and listen. More often than, and you may have a hard time believing this, I just sat back and listened while other people talked. I had no desire to be a leader in that group. I was a leader in almost every other activity I was doing, and I just wanted to sit this one out, and listen. So I rarely engaged with the discussion. I just listened.
After a few weeks of this, I noticed that there was a tension in the group. I could not put my finger on what it was, until our adviser, a very wise man named Tom Newton, took me aside one day. “Why are you abdicating your leadership in that group?” he asked. I didn’t understand the question. He explained it to me. “You know more about the Bible than anyone else in that group, and yet you never join in the discussions. The other group members think you don’t like being in the group. They feel you don’t respect them.”
I had a position of power, and I did not use it responsibly. I wasn’t abusing my power. I was abdicating. I was being passive-aggressive. And that actually is an abuse of power.
In the years I have studied and practiced counseling, I learned something very interesting–a lot of people who claim they have no power, actually have more power than other people in their relationships. I was working with one family, and the mother kept claiming she had no power in the family. No one ever listened to her, and she never got what she wanted. But as I watched the family over time, it became clear to me that she more power in the family than any other family member. Her complaint that she never got her way led to other family members always giving in to her. In fact, using that complaint, she almost always got her way. By claiming she had no power in the family, she become the most powerful person in that family.
The rest of the family was growing increasingly angry at her, because of the mixed message of the family dynamic–Mom never gets her way, and because of that, Mom always gets her way. They were angry, but they didn’t know why.
You see each of us has some kind of power. When we don’t admit to it, things start to get dysfunctional.
I want to close with three observations.
The first, and most important is that as friends and followers of Jesus Christ, we should make sure that the power we have is always used to help others, not to control them. We lead from below. We lead by serving. We use what power we do have for others.
Second, we do have power. We are gifted by God, and that is where our power lies. It is not always power the way the world sees power. I would occasionally a church in college that was pretty free form. They had a band, and the first part of the service was all singing. That part of the service lasted about a half hour, and people, mostly college students like myself, would stream in at various times in the service. The sanctuary was pretty full, and as people came in, they had to look for a place to sit. There was one guy, an older guy, who stood at the back, and kept an eye on the seating. When anyone came in late, as I usually did (I was in college and it was an early service!) this guy would point you to an empty seat. In some ways he was one of the more important people on that ministry team. Without him there would be a constant jumbling of people trying to find seats. But with him there, exercising his spiritual gift, things always ran very smoothly.
He might not think he was one of the more powerful people in the room, but in spiritual terms, he was.
Finally, we have a source of power we can tap into–the power of God. Jesus, the Gospels, is frequently described as a person of power, and Paul fleshes that out in his letters. The power of Jesus is seen as he serves others, and seen ultimately in the cross. The power of God is not found in the great halls of the kingdoms of this world. It is not found in the White House, or in Congress, or in City Hall. There is a place for political power. I am not saying it is always bad. But there is no place for political power in the church. The power of God is seen in helping others. It is not a power you build up over time; it is a power we give away over time. It is the power to serve. And the more we do that, the more we experience the true power of the Kingdom of God.