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Power in Christ

Sermon - 11/23/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ephesians 1:15-23

The passage we're using this morning is from the letter to the Ephesians, selected for this "Christ the King" Sunday (the last Sunday on the church's liturgical calendar):

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so 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, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far 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. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


So I'd like to think with you a little bit about power.  I asked the question in the first service:  name the 10 top people you think of in the world today as being the most powerful.  And this is what they came up with:


So who would you add -- who's not on that list that you would add?

Vladimir Putin
Warren Buffet

You know what's interesting to me, when we think of powerful people, not 1 King comes up in the list.

We don't think of Kings anymore in that context.  Our images of Kings are like King Arthur, or Yul Brenner (the first service didn't quite catch that reference J).  They're kind of archaic.  What are we saying when we say that Christ is King, if that's our image of Kings?  That our faith is archaic?  That we really don't believe in democracy?  That we want a theocracy with a monarch ruling over us?

And you see I'm not suggesting that we abandon this kind of language, this image of Christ as King, but I am suggesting that we need to be more aware of how the language we use from scripture comes to us from a different time and context.  And how we need to update that language if we wish to be relevant today.

In Biblical times, if you made this kind of list of the top 10 most powerful people, there would be a number of Kings that would appear on that list.  And Emperors.  Therefore, to refer to Christ as King was not just some abstract idea of personal devotion, it carried a very real and specific meaning of ultimate allegiance.  Both in the positive as well as the negative.  To whom you give your allegiance to, as well as to whom you do not give your ultimate allegiance to.

And thus, that sign, that you will remember was placed on the cross of Jesus, "King of the Jews", was a very powerful statement.  And of course, for Pilate, I think it was sarcasm -- that Pilate intended it as a political statement of Rome's power over the Jews, and the futility of any insurrection whether in worldly terms or spiritual terms.

We see it today not as sarcasm but as irony -- King of the Jews, yes, and so much more.  Not only in terms of Jews and Gentiles, but also in terms of Kings and Emperors, that Christ is so much more than that.

When I was in Turkey in 2003 on that pilgrimage with Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, we went to Priene, where we sat amidst the ruins of the temple of Athena, built on the hill overlooking the valley:

We are seated in front of this stone:

I have shown this as an illustration before -- it was at the entrance of the temple, above you as you entered in.  It dedicates the temple to the "Divine Caesar, the God Augustus, the Son of God".  That's a lot of power for 1 human being, to be declared God and Son of God.

As we sat there, Marcus challenged us to think of the terms we use for Jesus:  Son of God, Lord, Savior, Redeemer, King.  Those were all terms used for the Emperor of that day.

So what term might we use today to refer to Jesus, to capture that same meaning?  We wouldn't use, I don't think, "Jesus is our President".  Implying that we elect him Son of God, Lord and Savior, and therefore can un-elect him.  So he (Marcus) suggested maybe "Commander in Chief" as a more appropriate term, but that has it's own limitations too.  For one, it's almost exclusively militaristic, and Christ is so much more for us than that.

So when you come down to it, there are no modern equivalents to convey the power of the ancient image of Christ as King.  And that itself, I think, is instructive.  The power ascribed to Christ here in this passage in Ephesians, the 'immeasurable greatness' of his power, 'crucified', remember by the most powerful authority known to human history in that time, but not defeated by it.  There is no human equivalent to convey that sense of power.

And therein lies the potential for an enormous danger, all to evident in the history of the church, that in our worship of Christ, we at times mistakenly worship power instead. 

Power corrupts, Machiavelli said, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And thus the worship of power leads to all kinds of corruption -- people who seek power for power's sake.  Who accumulate wealth for the benefit of power.  Who think that because of their power, they are above the law.  Who buy houses just for their status symbols.  Who buy cars with the most powerful gas-guzzling engines because they love that feeling of power when they step on the pedal.  Or who love guns, because of the sense of power it gives them.  Who like fancy titles and wear fancy robes . . . .oh, wait, that's not a good example J.

And just because we call ourselves Christians does not mean we are immune to the trappings of power.  Indeed, religious leaders have been some of the greatest abusers of power.  Clergy who use their position to gain sexual gratification.  T.V. evangelists who have fleeced unknowing flocks to support their lavish lifestyle.  And remember Kenneth Lay, the CEO of Enron, much praised as a Christian businessman because of his philanthropic giving.  Money, it turns out, most of it gained by unscrupulous and illegal means.

When I visited the Vatican this summer, I was most impressed with its tremendous display of art.  Quite incredible.  And put on to share with the public -- here a painting you'll recognize from Raphael:

And all of that is but one manifestation of a tremendous collection of wealth that makes it possible.  But what I found disturbing was not the display of wealth, that didn't bother me, it was rather the display of power. 

The centerpiece of the Vatican is St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world:

Built over the tomb of Peter, it is a magnificent structure.  The intent of it is to show the magnificence of God.  Whether through such artwork as Michelangelo's Pieta:

Or other artwork displayed throughout the Basilica, or just the sacredness of that space:

But here's the rub:  the meaning of "basilicas" will not be evident until you visit the basilicas in the Roman Forum just a couple kilometers away.  Like this basilica, the remains, built in the 3rd century by the Emperor Maxintius:

Or this basilica, the foundation, built during the time of Julius Caesar:

Or this basilica, covered by the ashes in Pompeii:

Probably about the time that this letter to the Ephesians was written.  And it wasn't until I visited these basilicas that I understood that 'basilica', which I thought was just another name for 'big church', in fact originally meant the halls of power of Kings and Emperors.  This is where the Governor, or the King, or the Emperor, whichever the case may be, sat to hold court.  To issue judgment.  To make decrees. 

And when you visit all those basilicas in the Roman Empire, and then you see St. Peter's, that's when it hit me:  the basilica is the symbol of ultimate power of the empire.  And it became adopted as the new home for the church.  And I don't mean the Roman Catholic church, I'm talking here about all of Christendom.  What better way to display the new-found power in the post-Constantine era, when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, than to place it in basilicas.

With that new power, of course, came all kinds of corruption from which no church is immune.  And I cite just one example -- not from the age of the Crusades or the Inquisition, those kinds of things that we know all too well, but more from the modern age. 

The Reverend John Bradbury, attending as a U.S. delegate to the Baptist World Alliance Congress (and the fact that it was Baptist is not significant, it could have been any group of any denomination), writes:

"It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold.  Where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown.  This new nation has burnt great masses of corrupting books and magazine, along with its bonfires of communistic libraries.  Praise God".

What new nation was he referring to?  Germany in 1934.

I left out 1 phrase so it wouldn't be as obvious, but along with those communistic libraries was also Jewish libraries that were burned.  For which this minister gave praise to God.

You see, without the support and the blessing of the church in those early years, it is highly unlikely that Hitler could have done what he did.  And by the time the church realized its error, it was too late.  The worship of power corrupts.

Now that the election is over, I can confess to you that I was one of those supporters of Senator Obama, widely ecstatic at the election result, and I know that catches you by surprise, you never would have guessed, right J?  And I say that jokingly, but seriously, I always try to show that political affiliation is not a requirement or an expectation in the church, where all are welcome and included.  But to all my equally ecstatic Christian friends who look to President-elect Obama as some new kind of political messiah, I give this caution:  be aware that power still corrupts.  And if our newly elected president and all his eager supporters are not vigilant, this government will be no different than those of the past, blinded by their own power.

So then, how do we who worship the one who holds such immeasurable greatness of power avoid that corruption that it represents?

Walter Wink, in his epic work analyzing the language of power in the New Testament, provides invaluable clues, published in 3 books.  And I have to tell you, I heart Wink lecture here once in Eugene several years ago, in which he devoted an entire lecture to the article "the" when placed in front of the phrase "Son of Man".  Which is just to say that he is not the easiest Biblical scholar to read, highly technical, but it is precisely because of that thoroughness of his work that he has become of the most significant and respected scholars of our time.

Wink notes that references to both worldly and spiritual power permeate the New Testament.  And this text from Ephesians is a classic example, where God's power is at work in the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  Placing him above all power, and authority, and dominion, and rule, and every name not only in this age but in the age to come.  That's a pretty comprehensive list.

When we speak of spiritual powers, we often personify them as spiritual beings, either good (angels) or bad (demons).  Wink sees these 'spirits' as being just as real as you or me, but he does not see them as being individual beings, rather as the inner aspect, or the spirit of the created world, including ourselves.  And he uses the example of an unruly mob after a football game, or a soccer game, and we read about these tragedies when in the frenzy of the moment the mob gets caught up in acts of violence and often there are innocent victims in the process.  And when you talk to the participants of that mob, they almost always say that they got caught up in that frenzy and that spirit of the mob.  And they did things in that mob that they never would have thought of doing as an individual.

So, Wink says, is that 'spirit', is there some mob 'demon' that hovers out there somewhere just looking for those opportunities to wreak havoc amongst us?  Or is it instead something intrinsic to the sociology of mobs?  Something that resides in all of us?

Though he says he cannot offer any proof one way or another, he sees the latter explanation as imminently more helpful in our own struggles with the powers, both of this world, and of the spiritual world.  For when we see evil not as something intrinsic to the human condition (something within us), and we see it only as something external, you know, something out there, in others, something that we have to defeat, that's when we're more apt to be caught up unknowingly in those demonic spirits of the moment. 

And Wink provides a very timely example for today in his book, written some 22 years ago, from the Weather Underground, of which we've heard quite a bit lately because of the supposed association between the co-founder, Bill Ayers, and Barack Obama.  Wink says that the Weathermen were quite correct in their critique of the barbaric violence used by our government in Vietnam, but they erred in using the very same barbaric means.  And he writes:

"Whenever we let the terms of the struggle be dictated by the power that we oppose, we are certain to become as evil.  That is why we must not engage the powers without rigorous examination of our own inner evil, which we often project on our opponents.  We must discern the spirituality that we oppose and be careful not to grant it victory within ourselves.  And we must settle it within ourselves once and for all, and then over and over and over again, that we will not celebrate any victory that does not include a setting for our enemy".

This is the measure of that immeasurable power we have in Christ, the means by which we might judge in fact if it is Christ's power or something else within us -- who will we include at the victory feast?  Will we include a setting at the table for our enemy?

For the gospel message is quite clear.  We may hold a banquet of victors, as we often do, but such is not a Christian one.  Just as power, which we use to benefit ourselves and only ourselves, is never of Christ.

And so we remember, according to tradition, that on that first Thanksgiving, natives and settlers, red and white, citizens of this land and the newly arrived immigrants, shared together in a common meal.

Such is the fullness of Christ, who is the head over all, and fills all in all.


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