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Reflection January 12, 2020
"Be Strong! Me,Too!" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Our brother Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” The Greek word used implies something more than “be strong.” It implies to “receive strength” - to “be empowered.” As the Contemporary English Version of this passage states: “ … let the mighty strength of the Lord make you strong.” Amen to this Pauline admonition!
Our strength does not come from any power we may possess individually. Our strength comes from the power of God. In the past few weeks, I’ve felt decidedly weakened as I struggle with a painful and severe case of shingles and the realization of needed heart procedures from my cardiologist.
But how do we judge power? Is the most powerful the one who can beat up everyone else? Is the most powerful the one with the most influence in society? Is the most powerful the one with the most money and resources? Is the most powerful the one with the most education? Is the most powerful the one with the most wisdom? Is the most powerful the most Christ-like?
One thing is certain. How we understand power as Christians is very different than how the world judges power. We are able to see power in weakness. As God tells Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is certainly a different approach to the notion of power than we find all about us. Power in weakness! Who would have thought such was possible? Certainly not most of our current politicians nor most of our pastors and religious leaders!
Yet we need to be careful. Yes, when we admit our weakness, God is able to fill us up with godly power. But we’re also called to be instruments of God’s power, God’s peace, God’s love. As Paul teaches us in 2nd Timothy 1:7: “ … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of self-discipline.” Or as the Worldwide English Translation phrases this text: “God has not given us a spirit of fear. But he has given us a spirit of power and love and self-control.”
But how do we, as followers of Christ Jesus, use this power wisely and prudently? One thing we understand in following Jesus is that power is to be used in service of others. We recognize that true power is always shared. False power is hoarded. When power is not shared, people become oppressed by false leaders who do everything they can to cling to power. I preached a bit on this last Sunday.
We‘ve all heard the famous saying from the Englishman Lord Acton: “Power corrupt(s) and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is this the case? Does power corrupt? It might help to know Lord Acton’s dictum was written in response to the Vatican’s declaration of papal infallibility.
We’re not powerless. We cannot be powerless since God’s power has been poured over us in our life in Christ Jesus. But how do we allow God’s power to flow through us without falling prey to corruption? How can we use the power given to us by God in a way that is in keeping with our call to compassion?
This call to compassion is made clear in Luke 6:36 when Jesus asserts: “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (New Living Translation) So how might we exercise power in our world without succumbing to its corrupting influence? How do we use God’s power in our families and congregations in positive ways rather than negative ways?
First, we must understand as Christians that we see Christ Jesus as both the power of God and the wisdom of God, as Paul asserts in 1st Corinthians 1:24. Paul goes on to claim: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong.” (1st Corinthians 1: 26–27)
In other words, when we accept our inherent weakness, we are then made capable of being strengthened by God. The acceptance of our weakness allows a space to grow within us where God enters and fills us with power. The difficulty is that there are many who refuse to accept their inherent weakness. Admitting weakness seems to many to be a proclamation of capitulation. But when we admit that we are not very powerful, then we can finally let go of the diabolical illusion that we should always be in charge, in control, in power.
The truth is that God is in charge. God is in charge in every circumstance we ever encounter in life. In one sense, this is what faith means, the awareness that everyone and everything is in the hands of our Almighty, All-Powerful God.
Yet this doesn’t always appear to be the case, does it? If God is in charge, then why is there so much violence and terrorism, so much suffering, so much bullying, so much sin in our world? If God is omnipotent, All Powerful, then why is the world in the state it is?
Does everything that happens - happen according to God’s will? I don’t believe this can be the case! This is tricky theology! I believe our God is ultimately a God who “Let’s Things Be!” God does not rush about the cosmos fixing this that and the other.
For the past two weeks, I have pondered why God would create the herpes zoster virus which causes chickenpox and shingles. Why, I wonder again and again, the point of this diabolical virus?
In a true sense, this is the perennial problem of evil and suffering. There have been many attempts to solve this conundrum. I’ve been actively trying to solve this dilemma for almost fifty years.
I remember the 1981 bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner after the death of his 14-year-old son to a rare genetic disease. Kushner concludes that God is not all-powerful … if God had the radical power to stop random suffering he would stop it and, since he does not stop it, we can conclude that God is not all-powerful.”
I, for one, reject this conclusion, even though it arises from Kushner’s own suffering and compassion. God is always a mystery which means that our finite human minds can never fully fathom the divine infinity we call God. God is wildly beyond any human comprehension. Yet we believe that God will finally justify God in the face of all the suffering endured by creatures throughout time. We believe in faith that all injustice and suffering will be eventually corrected when God finally reveals the divine-fullness. This is not just my dream. It is the dream of the prophets and the dream of Jesus Christ.
All and every Biblical attempt to explain the Almighty God are bound to fail. All Scriptural attempts to reveal God‘s Fullness can only be described as approximations of what can never be adequately described. God is pure mystery which is why most theological statements regarding God usually explain what God is doing rather than who God is. God calls us to accept the mystery and to continue believing in God’s ultimate healing and justice.
In other words, I can preach and teach about what God might be doing, how God might be acting among us and within us, but I can never preach with any coherence about the divine essence, about who God really is. Our language breaks down whenever we attempt to define God.
We can engage God but we can never fully define or describe God. We can seek God but we can never catch or grasp God. The closest we’ve ever come to seeing the face of God is seeing the face of Christ Jesus. This is our bedrock belief as Christians, the belief upon which all other beliefs are grounded.
Faith is not something that one person ‘has’ and another ‘doesn’t’; faith is not a thing, and so (faith) cannot be measured or possessed. Faith is a way of being … it is a place inside where we’re in a compassionate relationship with what is strong and whole within ourselves … a quiet place of deep trust and truth.
When we live by faith, we embrace the spirit of power given to us by our All-Loving Creator. When we live by faith, we are energized, strengthened by love rather than demoralized and weakened by fear. When we live by faith, we reach out to each other with care and kindness instead of isolating ourselves through busyness and bullying. When we live by faith we are able to see what’s right with our lives and right with our world. When we live by faith, we trust in God and in the redeemed goodness of one another.
When we live by faith, we place our questions and doubts within the hands of God and allow God to guide us and comfort us. When we live by faith, we do not settle for the easy answers many seek to push upon us. When we live by faith, we open our hearts to each other in ever-deepening relationships. When we live by faith, we pray for one another every day. I can use daily prayers right now by everyone in our family of faith because when we live by faith, we’re filled with the power of the Almighty.
When we live by faith, we find our strength continually renewed. When we live by faith, we run and do not become weary. When we live by faith, we walk and do not grow faint. When we live by faith, we mount up with wings like eagles (to paraphrase Isaiah 40:31).
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor