Power and Authority

Mark 1: 21-28; January 28, 2018; Pastor Rebecca Ellenson: ICCM

He taught as one with authority.  Let’s talk about power today.

Biblically-speaking, there are two words for power.  One is the word from which the word dynamite comes.  That’s raw power, strength or force.  The other word is best translated Authority.  It means a power that is granted, like the power of a position, like that of an elected official. When that word is used about Jesus it means he had the authority from God and the right to use it. 

Mark tells us that Jesus astounded his hearers when he taught, because he taught with authority–with the power of God and the right to use it.  But it wasn’t just in his teaching that Jesus’ authority was obvious, not by any means.  Mark tells us that he cast out demons from those possessed.  To that the people responded “What is this?  A new teaching–with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

Even that’s not all though, as we page through Mark’s gospel we find Jesus healing Simon-Peter’s mother in law and all the sick and possessed in the whole city there.  He cleansed lepers, healed a paralytic, and a man with a withered hand.  After a while his authority was so well known that:

a great multitude followed him.  Hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. 

In other words, they came from everywhere by the droves to see his authority and be touched by its power.  Mark tells us that he had to get into a boat so the crowds wouldn’t crush him.  After that grand healing scene by the lake he taught some more and then stilled a raging storm. Then it was back to healing again.  He cast out a whole troop of demons from the Gadarene man, healed the woman with the flow of blood, and then a real power burst showed up when he restored life to the 12-year-old girl.  After some more teaching he fed 5000 men plus women and children with just five loaves and two fish.  Directly after that he walked across the water to his disciples in the boat.  By including all these stories, the gospel writer is showing his audience who Jesus is and that his authority comes from God.

All of that happens in less than the first half of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus has power, that’s for sure!  But . . .  if we stop to think about what Jesus used that power for we discover something really interesting.  Jesus exercised his power over nature, over demons, and over illness.  But he never coerced people with his power.  He never forced anyone to do anything, or think anything, or be anything that they did not freely choose to do, or think, or be.  Jesus did not use his power to control other people.

I suppose Jesus could have controlled people if he had chosen to.  He could have made people believe him, and trust him, and follow him, if that was what he wanted to do.  But . . .  that is not what Jesus did.  He let people make their own choices, even when it meant that they chose to crucify him.

If any one of us, with our limited wisdom, had such great power we might have made different choices.  We might have decided the end justified the means and used some of that power to control others, or to save ourselves.  After all, power struggles are nothing new to us. We know about corporate takeovers, wars, political jockeying for power in national capitals.

Sometimes we become involved in much more personal power struggles.  We can lose our own personal power to alcohol or other compulsions like eating or gambling.  Power shows up in our need the need to have more and better things, or peer pressure, to need to fit in with some particular crowd.

Sometimes we lose our personal power to other people.  Parents and children often fall into the trap of control, whether with whining and tantrums on one side or with severe punishment and shame on the other side.  Spouses can manipulate each another to try to get or keep control.  When these situations reach their extreme points, when a child’s personal power is taken away and held by a parent, or when a person is controlled by a spouse, and choices are taken away then it is called abuse.

Jesus did not take even one step in the direction of controlling another person.  He exercised great power over natural forces and over destructive forces but when it came to people he respected their dignity and self-determination and let them make their own choices.

The way Jesus relates to people shows us that God wants free and willing partners not puppets cowering in submission.  I believe that God wants love from us not abject dependence.  God does not want to control us.  God wants to relate to us in joy and freedom.  Faith is a freely chosen relationship, freely chosen from both sides, God’s and ours.  God does not manipulate people.

One of the aspects of our common understanding of power is that power is limited.  It’s as if we think of power as a physical commodity.  If you have three cups of power I can have only one cup, since we think there is only a quart to go around.  The more power a child has, we think, the less the parent has.  The game of monopoly is a play version of this view of power that controls the business world.  The object of the game is not to build up the other players while you yourself are being built up.  The object is winning– the key is getting it all for yourself and making the other players lose all their power.

There is another way to think about power, though.  Power is like love, there is not only so much to go around.  The more power is shared the more it increases.  You and I also have a measure of power and the right to use it.  We are given personal power and freedom to use it as we see fit.  Sometimes I think it would have been nice if God did control us and the way we use our power.  There wouldn’t be abuse, slavery, war, or poverty then.  There would be cooperation and equality.  But there wouldn’t be freedom then either.

We are much more comfortable talking about our humility and obedience before God than we are talking about our power and authority.  Maybe that is because we are so familiar with abuses of power in the world. But power, as seen in and through Christ is not a scarce commodity–doled out according to status and position.  I believe it is God’s hope that we will see in Christ the way to use our power and follow his example.  It is God’s hope that we will recognize that Jesus used his power to overcome brokenness and evil, that he restored wholeness without taking away anyone else’s personal choice and control.  He is our model for using our power.

That is what Paul was getting at in Philippians 2 when he said,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

The power of God and the right to use it was given to Christ.  He used it wisely.  A measure of power is given to each of us.  It is an awesome gift to be used wisely.  One danger is overusing and overstepping our proper place, taking away another’s power.  Another danger is underestimating God’s ability to work in and through us.

Like the people gathered in that synagogue in Capernaum, we have seen Christ’s authority.  We have seen Christ die and rise again to claim ultimate power over everything that threatens wholeness and life.  As we live out our faith we imitate Christ.  We conform our lives to that compassionate one who used his power, not to lift himself up, but to empower others, to heal the brokenhearted, and to lift up the lowly.

May God grant us wisdom and courage and trust to follow Christ faithfully and fruitfully, as we are called and as we are able.  AMEN

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