A New Way of Being: Redefining Power

Ecce Homo, Antonio Ciseri (1871).

There are lots of ways to feel or be powerless:

You can be trapped in the McDonald’s drive thru at rush hour, with a long line of cars in front of and behind you, and then realize after you order that you left your wallet at home.   You can start telling an off-color joke to a friend or sibling, only to have your boss or your mom enter the conversation and ask you to continue with what you were just saying.  You can propose to your significant other on the jumbo-tron at an NBA game, only to have that person say “no” in front of 10,000 people.

On a more serious note (not that rejected marriage proposals aren’t serious):

You can walk the hallways of your school in fear, watching your back for that bully who somehow always manages to find you anyway.  You can cut every luxury and non-essential expense from your budget, only to realize that you still have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries for a week, because you’re hourly-wage job won’t allow you to do both.  You can struggle for years to break a bad habit or overcome an addiction without much success.

There are lots of ways to feel or be powerless.

There is no such thing as absolute power.  Every single person on this planet, up to and including the president of the United States, experiences powerlessness in some way or another.  Officially or unofficially, everyone answers to someone.

In spite of this fact, or perhaps because of it, people everywhere are constantly trying to step over one another in an attempt to be top dog of whatever hill they happen to be climbing at the moment.  In a social system where power comes in limited quantities, people try to take whatever they can for themselves, believing (rightly or wrongly) that with power comes security.  So they grab whatever power they can get and use it to their own advantage.  Powerful people fight one another for more power.  People with this mentality tend to use phrases like, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there.  It’s survival of the fittest.  Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.  No one is looking out for you.  You’re on your own.”

Compassionate and kind-hearted folks tend to wince at this kind of cynical talk.  We don’t want to believe the world really works that way, but when we look at the facts, we have to admit that the world often does seem to work that way.  What makes cynicism so enticing as a philosophy of life is its apparent realism in the face of difficult circumstances.  Is this who we really are?  Is this all we are?  Or is there another way of being, of being of being alive, and of being human?

This morning’s gospel reading sets us down right into the middle of a particularly intense competition for power in the ancient Middle East.  The religious authorities of Judea were engaged in an ongoing cold war with the occupying Roman government.  Each side, through their official representatives, vied for the loyalty and obedience of the people.  On the particular day in question, their conflict revolved around a common nuisance: Jesus of Nazareth, the latest in a series of so-called Messiahs who promised peace, liberation, and yes: power to the people of Judea.  Each one would rise up, gather an army of zealous insurgents, try to overthrow the Roman occupation by terrorist campaign, and eventually fail.  The religious authorities, on the other hand, had learned different ways of dealing with the occupation.  Some, like the Pharisees, sought to empower Judean society by a return to traditional morals and values.  In time, so they thought, God would intervene on their behalf to free them from foreign rule.  Other groups, like the Sadducees, learned how to manipulate the strings of the political system from the inside.

Members of these last two groups saw Jesus as “just another self-appointed Messiah with his army of zealots.”  As such, he was just another temporary nuisance and a threat to their power that had to be dealt with.  So they brought him to Pontius Pilate, Rome’s appointed governor over the perpetually unstable and troublesome province of Judea.

Pilate, for his part, didn’t care about who Jesus was or the content of his message, nor did he care about the Pharisees and Sadducees with their incessant squabbling and competing strategies for survival.  The only thing Pontius Pilate cared about was maintaining order and loyalty to the Empire.  If this Jesus really was claiming to be the anointed one who would liberate the Judean people from Roman rule by military force, then Pilate would have to deal with him swiftly, in the name of maintaining civil order.

Jesus, for his part, was powerless: caught between multiple groups who were competing for power on a national stage.  To the outside observer, he appeared to be a failed revolutionary: his closest followers had denied, betrayed, and abandoned him at the moment of truth.  His own people had arrested him and handed him over for crucifixion, a punishment reserved for terrorists.  Pilate’s job, in this situation, was to figure out whether Jesus really was a terrorist or not.

This morning’s gospel reading opens as Pilate begins his examination of Jesus.  By all accounts, Jesus is helpless, powerless.  He has been reduced to the status of a pawn in chess game between multiple powerful parties.  The scene plays out as one would expect: Jesus is examined, cross-examined, tossed back and forth, and eventually executed, not because he was found guilty, but because Pilate could find no other way to regain control of a volatile situation.

But, when we look at the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in detail, a different picture emerges.  The author of John’s gospel tells this story through the eyes of a Christian, writing decades after the events of Jesus’ crucifixion took place.  As John tells this story, the positions of power are actually reversed.  It is not Pilate who is interrogating Jesus, but Jesus who is questioning Pilate.  Jesus makes no apology, confesses no crime, and concedes no ground.  Reading this story is actually confusing to the modern reader because it seems like Jesus and Pilate are talking about two different things.  In fact, they are.  They’re not so much talking to each other as much as talking past each other.  Pontius Pilate obviously doesn’t understand what this Jesus guy is all about and Jesus obviously doesn’t care about Pilate’s need to maintain order.  Their conversation goes around and around but never really gets anywhere.

At one point Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”  Pilate, thinking he’s finally found his opportunity, pounces and says, “So you are a king?”  But Jesus wriggles away from his trap and returns the proverbial tennis ball back into Pilate’s court.  “You say that I am a king.”  Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Their bizarre dialogue ends with an unanswered question in Pilate’s witty retort, “What is truth?”

Pilate never gets an answer to his question, presumably because he would never be able to understand any answer that Jesus gave him.  In the language of John’s gospel, Pilate exists in “darkness”, quite apart from the “light” that Jesus offers.  Pilate is an “unenlightened” being.  The 21st century spiritual teacher and Catholic priest Richard Rohr would say that Pilate was “operating at earlier stage of consciousness” than Jesus was.  Pilate was operating out of what Rohr would call a “tribal consciousness” wherein an individual is preoccupied by identifying with a particular group in conflict with all other groups.  Competition and power are primary concerns for those who see the world through an “us vs. them” ideology like Pilate had.  Jesus on the other hand, according to Richard Rohr, was operating out of a much higher, non-dualistic consciousness.  He was not caught up in the petty us/them struggles of the world as Pilate knew it.  In the eyes of Jesus, all people and all things are one in God.  This is why Jesus was able to say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”  I don’t think Jesus ever meant for us to think that he came from some far-off, magical kingdom in the sky where everyone is happy and sits around on clouds, playing harps all day.  That is the stuff of fairy tales and story books.  Nevertheless, Jesus’ kingdom is a reality and it truly is “not from this world” in the sense that it includes all people, all creation, and all other kingdoms in its wide, wide embrace.

As a king, the “king of kings” in fact, Jesus redefines power.  In place of domination, Jesus holds up service as the ideal.  He said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as this human being came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  At the Last Supper, we see Jesus leading by example in this regard as the Servant King.  He gets up from the table, wraps a towel around his waist, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet.  This was a task typically assigned to the lowest, most despicable slave.  No one in his or her right mind would volunteer for this job, but Jesus told his disciples that this is what being a king, a leader was all about.  Humble service, for Jesus, is one of the marks of true power.

In a similar vein, Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” because he rules by compassion and mercy rather than by violence and judgment.  Forgiveness, according to Jesus, is the most powerful act any person can ever commit, whether king or peasant.  Victory is not achieved when your enemy is defeated.  Victory is won, according to Jesus, when your enemy becomes your friend.

Obviously, Jesus’ ideas seem “out of this world”.  They were incomprehensible to Pontius Pilate.  They were foreign to the Judean religious authorities.  They still sound bizarre to our ears in the 21st century.  We’re still operating out of a lower level of consciousness where our competitive, tribal concerns keep us from seeing the big picture, the whole of reality in which we live, move, and have our being.

When it comes to Jesus’ kingdom, we’re simply not there yet.  We might not ever get there in this lifetime.  But we, as those who claim to be Christians, who claim to follow Jesus, have an obligation and a responsibility to take Jesus’ words and Jesus’ life seriously.  What Jesus is offering Pilate (and us, by extension) in today’s gospel reading is a new of being, of being alive, and of being human in this world.

Something inside each of us cries out for this.  Even though we tend to give in to the temptation toward cynicism, even though we tend to trust in the power of warfare, weapons, and bombs to make a better world, even though we tend to seek power rather than service, there is nevertheless a deep longing within our souls for a world and a life where we will not have to live in fear and mistrust.  Something inside each of us knows that this is not how the world was meant to be.

Something about Jesus awoke this longing within people.  In some way that we still don’t fully understand, he embodied, even incarnated this alternative way of being in the world.  In Jesus, the longing took on flesh and showed us what it could do if it was given the chance to run free over the face of the earth.

I have seen moments and known people in whom the Spirit of Christ does run free and raises them up above that immature, ego-centric tribal consciousness.  I remember one such person who made an impact on my life when I was in high school.  His name is Phil.  He was a grad student and one of the leaders of a youth group I attended.  Through him, I discovered another way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world.

Phil was the first person I ever knew outside of my family who made me feel accepted for who I am.  He spent time with me, mostly just goofing off and hanging around.  He didn’t care that I wasn’t popular or influential in school.  He didn’t preach to me.  He didn’t have any kind of religious sales pitch for getting me to sign on the dotted line as a Christian.  He just seemed to care.  During my freshman year, when I was going through a hard time and even contemplating suicide, Phil was the one I trusted enough to open up to.  He wasn’t a pastor or a therapist, but he knew how to love people like Jesus did and that’s what made the biggest impact on me.

Over time, I gradually came to see something in Phil.  Looking back, I think I would call it the Spirit of Christ.  And that, more than any sermon I’ve ever heard in my life, is what made me want to live as a Christian.  I had been going to church ever since I was a baby, but I never had any desire to make that spiritual path my own.  After my experience of seeing Christ in Phil, I wanted to follow Jesus too.  Since that time, almost seventeen ago, I’ve been through several crises of faith and endured many seasons of doubt, but I keep on going back to the Christ I saw in Phil: Jesus who is the friend of the friendless, the one who welcomes the outcasts, the one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners”, the one who lives above and beyond this world’s sick systems driven by competition and lust for power, the one who offers me an alternative way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world.

Each and every one of us is called to be a ‘Phil’ to someone, somewhere, at sometime.  None of us is perfect, so we’ll each do it in our own small, temporary, imperfect, and partial way.  But when the moment comes and the Spirit moves us, will we have the faith to set aside our twisted hunger for power and competition?  Will we take up the mantle of compassion, humility, mercy, and service when it is needed?  Will we allow Christ live again in us, so that someone else might hear and respond to the call of that same Spirit in his or her own way?  If that hunger in our hearts for a different world, a better world, is true and not just an illusion, if this world’s sick system of power-hungry competition is not finally an expression of all that we truly are, if there is another way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world, then it is absolutely imperative that we open our hearts and minds to this Jesus, so that Christ can live again in us, continuing in our community today the same ministry he started in Palestine two thousand years ago.  May it be so, even here, even now.

I Have Called You Friends

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

John 15:9-17

If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.”  In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.”  This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.

Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference.  Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again).  In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe.  Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.

The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.”  Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’?  We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty.  We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind.  This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances.  It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better.  The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world.  How could God possibly bring good out of it?  Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years.  If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.

I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God.  When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense.  Modern people are obsessed with power.  In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of.  We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny.  We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power.  When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power.  Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent.  It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late.  The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology.  The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification.  The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.

The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems.  I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world?  Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now.  The problem I want to focus on is a relational one.  There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude.  Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship.  This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.

This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today.  God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…

The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness.  Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible.  This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people.  In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God.  One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell.  As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.

So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power?  The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant.  So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships.  His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.”  Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense.  They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives.  It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.

Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance.  He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  His love for them is a free gift of grace.

Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments.  Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love.  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on.  And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.

What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love.  The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion.  It is divine.  Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality.  Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God.  For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud.  The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that.  The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.

If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep.  Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors.  Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you.  As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”

This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power.  According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God.  Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle.  This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”).  The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God.  Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.

Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society.  In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever.  We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes.  We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption.  But Jesus shows us that there is another way.  There is more.

Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships.  When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more.  We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.

I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life.  Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors.  Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies.  Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.

If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church.  We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try.  Come and get involved.  See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples.  Get involved and help us look for God in these little things.  Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree.  These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.

These relationships are sacred.  Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself.  Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  This is the secret to living well.  This is the fullness of joy.  This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.  This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)