Sermons

Sun, Feb 05, 2017

Power and powerlessness

Series:Sermons

What does it mean to be successful?

 

According to my father…

being successful meant going to a good school and getting a good education…

working hard and doing well––

even if that meant going without…

such as forgoing social and sporting activities in your final years of school…

so that you could concentrate on your studies––

get into Uni…

get a degree and become a well-paid professional.

And, having achieved that, it meant continuing to work hard to earn more money––

not to spend on frivolous things but earning as much as you can––

and saving it…

and investing it wisely in property…

even if that meant borrowing as much as you owned.

For my dad, success meant working hard…

going without…

and accumulating wealth…

so that you would be comfortable as you got older and retire on a reasonable income…

and not have to worry.

For other people, of course, success means accumulating status symbols:

having the mansion in Beaumont…

the BMW…

the trophy wife…

and the designer labels.

For others, success lies in the amount of power that they wield…

and the amount of influence that they can exert––

whether it be running a company…

or running the country.

For others, success means being popular or famous…

having your picture in the paper or on the cover of magazines…

scoring the winning goal…

or hitting the winning run.

 

We live in a society where power, possessions, privilege and prestige are important.

We live in a society where people’s identity and worth are determined by their achievements…

by what they have accumulated…

by how successful they are.

We respect the high achievers.

We admire those who seem to have it all.

And, of course, the flip side is that we tend to label people who aren’t successful:

loser…

failure…

bum…

sponger…

deviant.

 

In the first century, Corinthian society was a status-driven society…

especially for the wealthy and well-to-do…

for those who had power and control.

In a sense, image was everything.

In a world where it was believed that you could judge a book by its cover…

how you looked revealed who you were.

Status and honour were crucial.

Appearances and impressions were critical.

Theirs was a society where people’s worth was dependent upon where they were born…

and into what family––

what was its name or reputation.

Theirs was a society where status symbols and conspicuous consumption were praiseworthy.

A person’s esteem––

apart from where they were born and into what family—

depended on the grandness of their mansions and estates…

the number of slaves that they owned…

the number of tenants that they had working their land…

the number of ordinary folk that they could control or manipulate…

the grandness of their parties…

and the number and size of their public benefactions.

But a person’s esteem also depended upon their skill with words and with rhetoric…

which they honed, in particular, by taking one another to court…

in an effort to humiliate the other.

Life was a constant battle to be––

or to be seen to be––

better than everyone else:

more esteemed…

more successful…

more powerful…

more eloquent.

And, of course, the well-to-do who belonged to the Corinthian church…

simply imported those attitudes and values into the church.

So that it, too, became a battleground for personal rivalry…

and for staking a claim to honour and reputation.

 

And yet, contrary to the expectations, aspirations, and

values of Corinthian society––

or certainly to those of the elite––

Paul points out to the church:

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling”.

Paul’s ministry among them was the antithesis of what they expected or wanted.

Paul was, in fact, the antithesis of everything that they aspired to…

everything they valued…

everything they admired.

But, in so doing, he was making a profound point––

being a follower of Jesus involves a very different set of values…

a counter-intuitive logic system.

For, at the heart of the Christian faith, is the cross:

a symbol of utter shame…

a symbol of complete and abject failure.

And yet, Paul contends, it’s in that symbol––

the cross of Jesus Christ––

that we encounter the true power of God.

Therein lies the counter-intuitive logic…

therein lies the profound paradox.

God’s power is to be found in powerlessness.

God’s strength is demonstrated in weakness and apparent failure.

And, it’s in the experience of utter god-forsakenness…

that God is most profoundly present.

Within the context of Corinthian society, the cross was a scandalous symbol.

It was the antithesis of its values, its expectations, and its aspirations.

 

And the scandal of the cross is something that we, too, need to be confronted with…

again and again…

because it’s still so counter-intuitive and counter-cultural––

even, or perhaps especially, within the church.

Don’t we get caught up in a “success” mindset––

obsessed with the number of bums on pews and with institutional survival?

Don’t we get caught up in evaluating ministers by how well they can preach––

how good are they with lofty words and rhetoric?

Don’t we get caught up in playing power games and worrying about image?

The cross continues to confront and confound all of our strivings…

all of our aspirations…

all of our perceptions and values.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the way that we define and evaluate power and success…

and what is important.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the way that the Church of today so often operates.

 

So we need to be reminded––

again and again––

that it’s only when we embrace the powerlessness and vulnerability of God;

it’s only when we live the questions and wrestle with the doubts––

rather than offer trite and hollow answers;

it’s only when we put aside––

as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it––

all of our attempts “to be religious in a particular way”…

and to “look…to the power of God in the world”;

it’s only when we embrace our experiences of fear and utter god-forsakeness;

it’s only when we risk abject failure…

yes, and even death––

the death of all that defines us…

the death of all to which we aspire…

and the death of all that we hold dear––

it’s only then that we actually proclaim the gospel;

and that we proclaim it with credibility…

and with power…

and with an eloquence than words can never express.

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