John 10:11-18 and 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
The saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The moralist and historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote these words in a letter to his friend, Bishop Mandel Creighton (1843-1901), professor of church history at Cambridge, in 1887. Lord Acton was not the first to say something like this. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1770, William Pitt (1708-1778) the Elder (who later become Prime Minister), said, “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds that possess it.” Both quotes assume that inherent to power, itself, is something that tends toward abuse and corruption. We often hold negative associations of power, as something bad (or that can quickly go bad). There’s considerable suspicion of anyone with power, or too much power, or people who become tyrannical or authoritarian in their use of power. We are distrustful of powerful corporations and institutions, governments, and even churches—often for good reasons. It’s been said that the church is called “to speak truth to power in love,” which is a noble calling. Yet, even in this mantra we hear the concern that power has a way of speaking untruth or misstating the truth or obscuring the truth or avoiding the truth altogether.
Power doesn’t have to be bad. A lot of good has been done and can be done in the world through the effective use of power, when power is pressed in service to something other than power itself. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Professor Dumbledore says, “It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” Unfortunately, there are too many people in power these days who are only there because they sought it; all they want is power and more power.
Power is a potent elixir. It’s like a drug. Power in the hands of sinful, broken, fearful women and men can be catastrophic. That’s why human nature, being what it is—John Calvin (1509-1564) was right about human depravity—it’s important to put a check on people in power. Our Presbyterian polity is built on a system of checks and balances, so that power is shared by congregation, session, minister, and presbytery. Our own Federal government borrowed the concept of checks and balances from us, from Presbyterians. The Founders were nervous about absolute power being invested in one person or one branch of government. They weren’t naïve. They knew what could happen if any branch assumed too much authority or if one branch, in the desire to gain more power and control, became authoritarian or tyrannical.
So, what is Christian power? I was asked me to preach on this question as part of our summer sermon series. Yes, another easy question to tackle. Where does one start?
Unfortunately, Christianity has a built-in ambivalence toward power. Theologian Kathryn Tanner, who teaches at Yale University, notes that Christianity “oscillates between unequivocal hostility and ready complicity with the ‘powers that be.’” The Bible gives witness to the supreme power and might of God, of Jesus’ authority over demonic forces. The Bible also tells of God’s divine mission for the world that culminated in the weakness and humiliation of the cross, which was God’s victory over the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12) through Christ’s magnificent defeat.
The first followers of Jesus were a tiny minority within Judaism, which was a tiny minority within the Roman Empire. They had no power or influence or respect in Roman society. The Church eventually became very powerful. First, the Edict of Milan in AD 313 granted Christianity a legal status in the Empire. Some view AD 313 the year that marks the collapse and erosion of the Jesus movement, when Christianity was absorbed by the Empire and became an extension of imperial authority. Second, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in AD 380, under Emperor Theodosius I (347-395). In many respects, it’s been all downhill from then.
Brian McLaren reminds us, “Before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society.” Christianity emerged and thrived on the margins of society, not at the center. Then, as now, people on the margins have little power, they reside far from the center of authority and influence. Maybe that’s why they hold a special place in the heart of God. When the church became an arm of the state, all hell broke loose. Whenever church and state collude, it’s rarely good news for either the church or the state. This is not to say that the church should have nothing to do with the state, it should—the gospel is political. The gospel is always political, but never partisan. The gospel has a political nature because it has something to say about power and how power is to be used for the sake of the common good. When the Pope is also Emperor, when the King rules by divine right, when church and crown merge into one, when those in leadership, whether in Parliaments or Congresses, seek to establish theocracies or hope to form a “Christian” nation, it never ends well—as history has shown, time and again.
We see this seductive fantasy at work among our sisters and brothers on the Christian Right these days—and it’s important to remember that the Christian Right is still part of the body of Christ. That said, the Christian Right in the United States is obsessed with having political power. They want to control Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court, and turn the U.S. into a “Christian” nation—with their own definition of what it means to be Christian, of course. They are also obsessed with strength, with being strong and appearing strong, because they are afraid to appear weak. Among their fold, especially in their leaders, there’s a clear connection between their obsession with strength, and authoritarianism, and patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, which results in misogyny.
Take, for example, the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. While the breakfast invites a diverse group of Christians each year, there are strong ties with the Christian Right. The breakfast was organized by a group called The Fellowship, back in 1935. It’s founder Abraham Vereide (1886-1969) said that God told him that Christianity had been getting it wrong for nearly two thousand years by focusing on the down and out. God wanted him to build a movement for the “up and out,” and for “key men” with power to shape whole societies for Jesus.
There have been excellent articles written over the past two weeks exploring the Christian Right’s long-fascination with Vladimir Putin and Russia and even Russian Orthodoxy. There’s a reason why Maria Butina, the Russian spy recently indicted, was at the National Prayer Breakfast last year. The Christian Right respects Putin’s strength, his use of power, they also like his anti-GLBTQ+ agenda. They view Putin and the Orthodox Church as defenders of “Christian civilization” against a secular, decadent West.
In 1888, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote a scathing polemic against Christianity, titled The Anti-Christ. Son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche saw the nineteenth century expression of Christianity as the source of all that was wrong in the world. He asked, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? –The feeling that power increases…Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency, … The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philosophy…. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity.” All this from a man who saw actively caring for the weak in society as a weakness, a weakness that had to be overcome. The weak had to be removed from society. Is it any wonder that Nietzsche was suspicious of democracies and became the poster-child, ironically, for middle-class Protestant Germans that elected Adolf Hitler to power in the 1920s and 1930s?
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30). If we strip away the patina of Christianity that has accumulated over millennia, all the tarnish and corrosion of centuries, we find in the New Testament an altogether different view of things. We find Paul struggling (again) with the stubborn Corinthians who accused him of boasting and thus questioning his authority. He didn’t respond by reasserting his position or authority. Instead, being faithful to his conscience he offered a counter-intuitive argument. If charged with having a boastful spirit, let the judge declare him guilty; guilty, not for boasting of his strengths, but of his weaknesses.
And, then we are given a window into something that happened in his past. Paul had some kind of “thorn in the flesh” as he put it, that pinched and frustrated him. We’re not sure what it was. Three times he asked the Lord to remove it. Each time he heard back, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). We’re told that Paul eventually became content with this weakness, along with other hardships, because he discovered that “whenever I am weak, I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). This sounds so irrational, so counter-intuitive. It’s not the way the world works. Instead, we hear that God’s grace is sufficient, which means that everything else can be insufficient and still be okay. Power is made perfect in weakness, which means that God’s display of power is known most profoundly not in expressions of brute force or strength but in those moments when we acknowledge our weakness, our frailty, our fragility. Paul takes this approach, not because strength is inherently bad (it’s not), and not because he’s celebrating weakness, but because he knows that when we think our strength and individual resources are sufficient there’s no perceived need for God’s grace. If we rely upon our strength, we effectively move God out of the picture. When we are counting on our own resources and wisdom, then we push God to the side. Why does Paul boast in his weakness? He says, “So that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul discovered God’s power perfected in weakness in Christ, who was put to death by the powers of the world. Power—God’s power—was displayed in a unique and decisive way through Jesus’ suffering on the cross, through his weakness. In love, God chooses to reside in the weak, in the fragility of a human life, in our moments of weakness. Christ takes up residence when Paul is weak. Weakness is the place where Christ’s power is manifest. Pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), writing from a Nazi prison, was even bold to suggest that “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” This is a different kind of power, this is Christian power, which looks ineffective and weak from the perspective of the world, yet God chooses to love the world this way, in and through our weaknesses, in those moments when we have lost our strength, when we’ve been defeated by the powers, even to the point of death.
This understanding of weakness and strength has never been well received by Christians or the Church, as we know, particularly when the Church gets enticed by political, economic, and cultural power. The Church wants to be “strong,” we want to have influence, power, authority, we want to be big and influential. There was a time when the Monday New York Times reviewed what was preached from the prominent pulpits in Manhattan each Sunday. Those days are long gone. Still, we want to be liked, and in our long history we’ve had plenty of low moments when the Church sold its soul for the sake of being “popular.” Notice how our churches are packed on Easter, celebrating the triumphant glory and power of the resurrection; for the most part, they are empty on Good Friday, the day of defeat, when the powerlessness of God is on full display. We prefer a theology of glory, a theologia gloriae, instead of a theologia crucis, as Martin Luther (1483-1546) called it, a theology of the cross.
Weakness exuding strength remains at the heart of the Christian confession. There’s no way around this. It’s a weakness we don’t eagerly embrace because we would rather replace weakness with strength; or hide our weakness behind a persona or mask of strength. Never let anyone see you weak. Many men grew up hearing this message, and plenty of boys and young men continue to hear this message. Be strong. But that’s not the Christian way; despising weakness is anti-Christ.
Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep…. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jn. 10:15b, 18). This is the proper use of power, this is good power. Jesus chooses, in love, to lay down his life, chooses to give of himself, becoming weak, giving himself away, suffering for the sake of the other. Kathryn Tanner suggests, the “shepherd’s power is good power…because it is completely devoted” to the good of the sheep. It’s a power of care for the well-being of God’s children. Christian power, then, is motivated in love and serves the good of all. Power, from a Christian perspective has a distinctive end or purpose: it’s always placed in service to the good, it’s place in service of love. It seeks the well-being of all. God’s power, good power can be strong, but it doesn’t have to hide in strength or superiority. In God’s freedom, God chooses to be strong through surrender, free to display power in weakness. God’s power is love and love chooses to suffer on behalf of the one who is loved. God’s use of power is for love, even when it chooses in love to suffer in order to save us.
When the thirteenth century German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (c.1207 – c.1282/1292) began writing her book The Flowing Light of Divinity, she had a vision. She learned that God was helping her write her text, and as she wrote she discovered something about the powerlessness of God, whom she called her divine Lover. Her Lover says, “Indeed, when two wrestle with each other, the weaker must lose. I shall willingly be the weaker, though I am almighty.” God renounces the kind of power that impedes love.
Mechthild learns that it’s God’s powerlessness and God’s weakness that displays divinity—which is essentially what Jesus was trying to show us, and what Paul experienced, and what we, too, know in our hearts to be true. Yes, it’s paradoxical. At some level, it doesn’t make any sense. Yet, we know in our heart of hearts, it’s the way of grace and healing and love.
God renounces the kind of power that impedes love. And if we bear the name of Christ—the same must be true for us.
Image: Georges Rouault (1871-1958).
 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009), 718.
 Kathryn Tanner, “Power of Love,” in Joshua Daniel and Rick Elgendy, eds. Renegotiating Power, Theology, and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 45.
 Jack Jenkins, “The emerging alliance between Putin andTrump’s God squad,” ThinkProgress, July 12, 2017; Katherine Stewart, “” The New York Times, July 18, 2018; Mariia Butina’s Cozy Relationship With the Christian Right Makes Total Sense,” Slate, July 18, 2018
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1944), 114-115.
 Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power an the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 101-107.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone Books, 1997).
 Tanner, 45ff.
 Mechthild of Magdeburg cited in Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 84.
 I’m grateful to Wendy Farley for the beautiful way she articulates this truth, 84.