November 24, 2019
Power Team (s)
John Jacobs stood before an audience of thousands flexing his muscles. Across his 54-inch chest stretched a red T-shirt with the words, Power: God Made You to Win. He was there to demonstrate such power. On stage was a pile of bricks, which Jacobs promptly pummeled apart. More bulk men joined him: some snapped Louisville Slugger bats in half and bent steel bars by hand; others carried refrigerators on back and tree trunks overhead.[i]
This was the Power Team, an evangelical spectacle aimed at winning teens for Christ. The Power Team performed their act all over the world in the 1980s and 90s. As they performed herculean stunts, speakers blared:
Our God is an awesome God.
He reigns from heaven above,
With wisdom, power, and love,
Our God is an awesome God.
Filled with awe at such feats of strength, thousands of teenagers professed new faith by the end of their shows. The Power Team boasted in their power to move a generation.[ii] They certainly were a movement. On television Jacobs flexed at pop performers, saying, And I tell you, Mr. Prince, there isn’t going to be any Purple Rain. There’s going to be a reign of power from Heaven.[iii] Such power, professed Jacobs, was manifest in his body. By God’s power, he insisted, he could break bricks, bonds, and bars. We don’t need anabolic steroids, John Jacobs said, we got the Holy Ghost.[iv]
The Power Team took seriously, literally what we heard from Colossians this morning. May you be made strong, it says, with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power. The Power Team proclaimed the reign of power from Heaven, a reign that is described in Colossians. And yet, what John Jacobs and his Power Team got stupendously wrong was the nature of power, at least according to the New Testament.
Place John Jacobs next to Apostle Paul, one of the first evangelists, and there is some striking dissimilarity. Paul told the people of Corinth, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. He reminded them that when he first evangelized to them he was weak, afraid, and trembling.[v] His team of apostles were likewise weak and weary.[vi] In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.[vii] Paul wrote this because the Corinthians were enamored with evangelists boasting superhuman spiritual power. God’s might is not manifest in human strength and stunts. Christ crucified, Paul wrote, is the power of God.
Roman soldiers could not see this as they crucified Christ. They heard him called King of the Jews and so they appealed to his power saying, save yourself! But Jesus was not the kind of king who needed to prove his power with some majestic act. The criminal beside him heard Jesus called Messiah, mighty savior, and so appealed to his might saying, save yourself and us! But Jesus was not one to use might to fight those that opposed him. To spectators of his crucifixion, Jesus seemed weak and powerless.
And yet, Jesus exercised some extraordinary power on the cross. In his life, Jesus used his influence and authority to restore and build relationships. At the point of his death, he did the same. He declared forgiveness for the very soldiers who beat and mocked him. In this, he did what was in his power to connect with them. Even more, he confidently claimed that the criminal beside him will be with him in Paradise. In this, Jesus established a relationship with the criminal that endured death. Even while Rome used its power to divide and destroy, Jesus used his to unite and restore. It is apparent weakness, but maybe we have our categories wrong.
The way power is shown to us in the gospels, described to us in the epistles, is utterly different than what often counts as power in the world. It is not in a strong arm. It is not in the highest political office. It is not in the hands of the wealthiest. Power, according to the New Testament, is not oppressive, coercive, or manipulative. The problem is that we so often hear oppression, coercion, and manipulation labeled power. We are accustomed to defining power by its abuse. We easily confuse power with force, an organizer in Baltimore once told me.[viii] Force is, as Colossians states, the power of darkness. There is the power of light. Power can be understood positively. It must be, or else we will continue to suffer under its abuse.
Our struggle with power and how it’s defined is evident in the name of this Sunday in the church year. Your bulletin states that today is Reign of Christ Sunday, wherein we—among other churches—consider the rule of Christ in our lives and world. This day was, more often in past years, named, Christ the King Sunday. But many churches, like ours, have moved on from the older name for a couple reasons. First, American Christians now have little concept of a king and, historically, have resisted them. Secondly, kings represent unilateral power: dominion over people, authority that cannot be influenced by the people, absolute control and clout. The overwhelming evidence of the gospels show that Jesus did not employ unilateral power. Jesus had power and authority, but it was used differently. Certainly, Jesus reigns, but in a unique way. Surely, Christ is King, but of another kind.
Instead of unilateral power, Jesus exerted relational power, as community organizers call it. Relational power is not held, but shared. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus gave his power and authority to his disciples in order that they might heal people.[ix] According to Luke, he empowered seventy more to go meet people in their homes. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus telling his disciples that they have power to do greater works than he.[x] Jesus did not hold his power over others. He did not reserve it for himself in order to sustain his status and influence. Jesus shared his abilities and authority because he wanted to see the world transformed.
Relational power, then, is used not to maintain the status quo (as kings and tyrants are wont to do), but to change and transform the world as it is.[xi] The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus taught with power and authority.[xii] While other teachers taught the Hebrew Scriptures in order to keep order and obedience, Jesus taught them to inspire change. He taught an ethic of love long buried by laws and regulations. Such an ethic challenged the status quo, the way things were. Following what he found in Scripture, Jesus connected with those disconnected from others. He related to the sinner, Samaritan, the ceremonially unclean, and tax collector. These relationships formed a movement, a change in the world as it was. It made such an impact that Rome had to end it. And seemingly they did.
Of course, there is no end for God. Colossians says that God disarmed the rulers and authorities that nailed him to the cross.[xiii] God raised Jesus from the dead and set him to reign over all thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.[xiv] If it is true that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,[xv] then he reigns in heaven as he did on earth. That is, Jesus shares his power now and that power is for the ongoing transformation of the world. Just as he did for his first disciples, Jesus gives disciples today his power and authority to heal. If he reigns, then we have responsibility, responsibility to use whatever ability and influence we have to heal what is broken in our world. We all have ability and influence. We all have power.
Will we claim and use it? How will we use our power? It is certainly the case that others are using theirs. Some are using it to save themselves, build towers, amass wealth, and oppress any apparent threaten. Some wield unilateral power in our democracy. The rest of us often feel powerless to do anything to oppose the wicked forces of our world. That is, I think, because we have let ourselves be convinced that power is force and control over others. Not so, strength is in mutual relationships. When relationships based in honesty and reciprocity are forged, they can oppose any force.
Oppose them, we must. There are grave problems in our community. Brute strength and bullying will not solve them. But they can be unraveled. Consider the white supremacy evident in racist behavior and statements at Northeast High School earlier this month and at Arundel High earlier this fall. Strong words and intimidations cannot put an end to such racism. But truth-telling, honest conversations, mediations, mentorships, accountability, and partnership can. All of us can do more than stew in righteous anger at the hate evident in our schools and county. We can begin by talking with the students who bear witness to it and let them lead us into meaningful action. Some of them are members of this church.
Most of us know the oppressive toll of unaffordable housing in this county. And we know that angry letters or statements to county officials will not amount to much. We can, however, do as Jesus instructed his disciples and do a door-knocking campaign among neighbors until we find enough people able enough to make a change.
All of us are well-aware of the staggering losses to gun violence in our state and county. We know that we cannot wait for people in so-called power to pass more forceful laws that may or may not address the problem. Better would we be to be in relationship with people like Angel Montaque of Weeping Mother’s Inc. in Annapolis, who is experienced and angry at gun violence. She can lead us in truth and justice.
There is now growing awareness of mental illness and anguish in our communities. There is also realization that resources are scarce, on account of the stigma attached. Rather than wait for the state and county coffers to provide, we can join hands with people who are seeking smaller, yet still effective solutions. One of our new members, Christina Cosio-Futch has been hard at work finding help for those suffering Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. I know she would be glad to find partners in care.
There are people addressing the problems of this world. They are not storming the gates of power with a battering ram. They are building relationships. The power of God is at work in what is discounted as weakness. It is in forgiveness, intentional conversation, community gatherings, meetings of concerned neighbors, solidarity groups, shared meals, and acts of empathy. Real power is built one relationship at a time until all these connections amount to something that great force cannot oppose. This is how Christ has established his reign. As weak as it sounds, we invest in one another until all is well. The power of God is given to share.
[ii] Sharon Mazer, The Power Team: Muscular Christianity and the Spectacle of Conversion, from TDR, vol. 30, no.4 (Winter,1994), 166.
[viii] Rob English at NEXT Church Community Organizing Training 2018.
[xi] I am indebted to Rob English and Bishop Miles for defining unilateral and relational power at the NEXT Church Community Organizing Training 2018.