Power and Authority
Philippians 2:1-13 November 10, 2019
Let’s begin with some good news: You are loved and cherished!
That should be no surprise because, after all, God created you.
READ Psalm 139 For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are your works, and that my soul knows very well.
So, why do we have trouble really believing that we are so valued?
It’s a curious fact because we don’t have trouble believing the bad stuff about ourselves.
Criticisms we take to heart; compliments we disregard.
The monastics had a prayer that said, “Lord show me the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”
This is why Jesus asks to take authority over you.
But maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t really want anyone taking authority over me.
“I don’t like it when people tell me what to do and when to do it.”
But let me explain that there is a big difference between power and authority.
Some weekdays an LAPD traffic cop sits in our parking lot with a radar gun.
You know how it works:
You’re driving along absorbed in your own thoughts, when you suddenly see a cop peeking out from behind a bush.
Reflexively, you lightly touch your brakes to slow down without appearing too obvious about it, but by then it is too late because he logged your speed way back there.
Sometimes he doesn’t even have to pursue you on his motorcycle; he just steps into the street and waves over offending vehicles who comply with his command, even though they know that doing so will cost over $600 in fines and increased insurance.
That is power, because we know that – if need be – to make us pull-over the police can call-up all the manpower, helicopters and firepower they need.
We may resent their power, fear their power, think they are arbitrary with their power but in the end it doesn’t matter.
They’ve got the power.
Now, authority is different.
Vivienne has authority over me, but little power, really.
By that I mean that I am bigger, taller and stronger, physically more powerful – yet when she speaks, I listen.
She’s earned her authority by proving her love, her trustworthiness and her wisdom through countless sacrificial things she has done for me and for people I love.
Jesus wants authority over us – he chose not to have power over us.
When Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of the gospel this was the issue.
“Turn the stones into bread,” said Satan.
That’s the temptation of economic power. Jesus said no.
“Go and jump off the pinnacle of the temple. Show them a miracle.”
That’s the temptation of religious power. Jesus said no.
“Go to the top of the mountain and see all the kingdoms of the world that I’ll give you.”
That’s the temptation of political power. Jesus said no.
Jesus said, “I don’t want political power.
I don’t want economic power.
I don’t want religious power.
“I want to change the world by lovingly serving the lost and lonely, the poor and the oppressed, the angry and addicted and I know that the more I sacrifice and love, the more authority I will have.
“And then I am going to ask my followers to do the same.
“It will be a full-out revolution against the powers and principalities of the earth.”
If the church wants to influence our society we can never succeed from a basis of power.
We tried that in the fourth century when we let the Emperor Constantine paint crosses on Roman army shields – the church grew in numbers, geography and wealth, but quickly lost the heart of Jesus’s teaching.
It happened in the sixteenth century when John Calvin tried to impose his idea of a pure Christian life in the city state of Geneva.
Geneva quickly became a police state transforming the entire city into a convent, to use Voltaire’s words.
Plays and popular entertainment were banned as the ecclesiastical council enforced their idea of piety, and for 200 years not a single musical instrument was played in Geneva.
We’ve tried political power again and again through the centuries, aligning with political brokers in the false hope that we can win moral victories for Jesus.
It’s happening again today as the largest segments of American Christianity remain mute to the blatant racism, homophobia, sexism and nationalism of some of our leaders in exchange for some political favors.
But just as Jesus rejected Satan’s offers of political power, Christians need to speak with authority rather than power … and we earn authority by living with the humility, morals and integrity Jesus taught.
There are no shortcuts.
No corrupt, immoral politicians offering special favors will advance the Kingdom of God.
The Christ Hymn cited in Philippians 2 couldn’t make it plainer.
God came from Heaven to find us, became human, took on the nature of a servant,
and after a lifetime of confronting the personal and social sins, evil and injustices of his time he sacrificed himself for us out of love.
He’s the example to emulate.
Philippians 2:4-7 (Message) Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.
Sometimes the Christian message gets reduced to saying Jesus born to a virgin
and then died as a sinless sacrifice on the cross.
But actually, it was in all the in-between years that Jesus modeled for us God’s values and purposes for our life.
It was during those in-between years when Jesus touched the untouchables, loved the unlovables, and forgave the unforgivables – and called us to do the same.
Tony Campolo shares what it means to speak with authority in a story about Mother Teresa.
There is a city in Pennsylvania where they have a regional hospital for people who are emotionally and psychologically disturbed.
The hospital planned to open five halfway houses so that patients who were on their way to full recovery could slowly transition into society.
In these transitional houses, they would learn how to care for themselves, hold down a job, and little by little, establish their own residences.
Needless to say, everyone thought this was a great idea, except where a halfway house was to open in their neighborhood.
Some of those folks organized a protest at a city council meeting.
That evening close to five hundred people squeezed into the council chambers, chanting their opposition to the plan.
They didn’t want the “crazies” living in their neighborhood.
Needless to say, without hardly any more discussion the city council unanimously voted against the proposal.
The city council had the power to stop the halfway houses.
But now it gets interesting because no sooner had they voted than the back doors of the auditorium opened and in walked – of all people – Mother Teresa.
It turns out that she was in town to dedicate a Sisters of Charity program when she heard about the meeting.
As she walked down the aisle everyone gasped.
She made her way to the front where she got down on her knees and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.”
Then she broke into prayer, “Please, Lord, soften these people’s hearts so that they will make room for these people!”
Now, imagine yourself as a member of that city council.
The news vans with their satellite antennas had followed Mother Teresa to city hall and their cameras were hungry for a misstep that could become their lead story.
And there was Mother Theresa kneeling in front of you putting Jesus’ teachings in your face.
What would you do?
After some silence, one councilman said, “I move we change the decision.”
And then came a second to the motion and they voted unanimously to reverse the decision they had made a few minutes earlier.
It was reported that of the five hundred people packed into the council chambers, not one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion.
Because Mother Teresa spoke as one having authority.
Where did she get that authority?
On the streets of Calcutta, lovingly sacrificing for the poor and the oppressed of her world, giving of herself to meet the needs of others.
When the Church speaks with authority, people listen.
When the Church grabs for power, it corrupts the message of Jesus.
It actually goes beyond that because, in the tradition of the Biblical prophets, the church is called to actively stand in opposition to lies, corruption and injustice of the powerful.
That prophetic stand, empowered by Jesus, gives the church the authority to represent justice and ethics.
Philippians 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I started out this morning saying that Jesus wants authority over us because he knows how life will go best for us and for all those around us.
And Jesus has earned the right to speak this truth to us.
How many times have you heard parents say: “My son, my daughter doesn’t listen to me anymore!
“When I talk about God or going to church, they roll their eyes and say ‘Do we have to listen to this?’”
Of course, kids go through stages and some of this is natural as they establish their identities and find their ways as individuals.
But oftentimes there is something else at play … sometimes we as parents haven’t established our authority over certain matters.
When I hear this I may think, “What do you mean I don’t have authority? I raised this kid, paid for his clothes and his doctors and his schools.”
Ok, but if on a family level, if our kids saw us spend $200 or more for a concert ticket then toss $5 into the offering plate at church they might conclude that when we talk about God we aren’t all that serious.
Or if they saw us bow our heads during pastoral prayers on Sunday but not turn to God during the week, they might conclude that when we talk about God we aren’t all that serious.
On a national level, if we talk about Christian values but fail to speak up when our leaders use racial slurs, or when our government tears children from their families and puts them in cages, don’t be surprised if people question our authenticity.
Jesus calls us to a life where we humbly live-out the values he modeled for us throughout his life.
On Stewardship Sunday next week, we have the opportunity to authentically live-out the financial aspect of our call by having our financial giving align with our spoken values.
As followers of Christ, we have been given authority by our Lord to share the Good News.
We earn that authority as we walk humbly, serve gladly and stand boldly for justice.