What Is Power?

This is the message that I gave on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 11: 1 – 15, Ephesians 3:14 – 21, and John 6: 1 – 21.


We are a nation preoccupied with power. We fought a revolution so that we could control our own destiny and we fought a bloody civil war to define that destiny.

And it is not only our political history in which the control of power has played such a dominant role. Our social and economic history, the struggles of farmers in the late 19th century, the struggles of workers in the early 20th century have all been about who would benefit from the power of wealth. Perhaps the political, social and economic dissent that dominated our own time was a culmination of that struggle.

As we have struggled to define individual freedom, we have also found that the notion that “all men are created equal” cannot be true if situations exist where one individual’s freedom or ability to succeed is limited because of someone else’s power. Unfortunately, even as we seek a society in which equality is true, we find situations where an individual seeks power for his or her own gain.

We want to hold on to any power we might have, no matter how great or small it might be. It gives us security and allows us a sense of comfort. When we control life, our life is simplified. We do not have to deal with others because we have a sense of mastery over our world. And we get uncomfortable when others threaten our power. We feel threatened when there are others who might take away what gives us security.

The killing of Councilman James Davis Thursday was an example of one man feeling that his own power had been taken away. This past week also brought us reminders of the accounting scandals of last, when CEOs of various corporations sought to hoard the power entrusted to them for their own selfish goals or interests.

And the news of the nation brings into question the motives and interests of our own leaders. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was evil and that the Iraqi people feared for their own safety. That fear is deep since they will not believe that Saddam’s two sons have died until they confirm it themselves. But, was the manner in which the freedom for the Iraqi people obtained consistent with the ideals of freedom expressed by this country or was it merely to further the desires and motives of individuals in the administration?

Power when used for one’s own benefit, even if it should also benefit others, can never be justified. In light of what has transpired in the past few days concerning our rationale for going to war, I found it ironic that the Old Testament reading for this Sunday involves the death of a solider on a battlefield far from home to cover the lies and deceptions of his commander.

There are clear reasons whey the story of David and Bathsheba is in 2 Samuel. David’s place in history should be that he was God’s choice to be the king of Israel and that it was through him that the people of Israel would be linked to the kingdom established by Jesus.

But we also need to be reminded that such anointing did not give David the right or the ability to misuse the power of kingship. One commentary noted that by sending the messenger to Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11: 4) David ultimately breaks the seventh, ninth, and tenth commandments.

And it also shows that David was slacking off as commander-in-chief. In verse 11, Uriah’s statement suggests that the Ark of the Covenant is in the field with the army rather than in its customary place in Jerusalem. Now, the Ark would only be away from Jerusalem if there was a battle going on and if David was at home, he was not leading the army, as he should have been. In other words, he was more interested in his own needs than he was interested in doing his job as king. David’s sins will come back to haunt him, as we will find out next week. But we can see that when one persons abuses the powers given to him, others will get hurt.

By the same token, the Gospel reading for today is also about power. The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle (aside from the resurrection) reported in all four Gospels. It shows Jesus using the power of his position to insure that others gain. One cannot understand what was in the minds of John, Mark, Matthew or Luke when they wrote their Gospels but we know that they were trying to tell people who Jesus was.

To the skeptics, centered as they were in their own sense of the world and trusting in only that same sense, Jesus was not capable of doing any miracles. After all, as they mocked him on the cross, “He saved others but He cannot save Himself.” But the powers that would have allowed Jesus to do exactly that, save Himself, were the same powers that enabled him to feed the multitudes. And it was not just the five thousand as reported in the Gospels or the four thousand that Matthew reported that He fed later but rather the fifteen or twenty thousand that were actually on the hillside that day.

The application of power is still a concept we have difficulty understanding. We fail to realize that Christ offers us a new view of life. As long as we view life from our own prospective, of power enriching us at the expense of others, we can never understand why Christ died to save us.

But when we allow Christ to be the center of our lives, we begin to see life differently. Paul’s words to the Ephesians express this very clearly. Paul is stating his own awareness of all that God is doing for us. The primary gifts from God that Paul speaks of in this regard are the power that He gives to us to do His work and the love He has for us through Christ.

But the power we receive is not power that is hoarded but rather shared. We can never conceive of this power in its entirety because it surpasses all of own knowledge. But we are able to use it so that others may benefit. Leadership means power and that in turn should mean that we help people.

Instead of limiting what we can do, the power given to us frees us. It allows us to expand our boundaries, to see beyond the limits of the physical world. Power in the old sense limited what we could do because we would not give up what we had. And when there are limitations to what can be done, hope diminishes.

There can be no hope if there can be no way to see beyond the present. And if there is no hope, there can be no life. There are too many people in this world who have lost hope; they hunger for life’s basic needs but see no relief; they see too many problems but cannot find a solution. (Adapted from Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)  But when we realize that the solution is not found in the power that we have but rather that power that comes from God, hope can be found.

Power is a wonderful thing but it is absolutely worthless unless others benefit. We are reminded that John Wesley struggled in his early years with his own salvation because he was trying to solve the problem on his own, with his own power. It was only when he turned over the center of his life to the Holy Spirit that he received the answers he so desperately sought.

The same is and will always be true for us. If we try to use whatever power we might have only for ourselves, we will fail. It may not be immediate but it will be the result. By surrendering our lives to Christ, by giving up what we desire the most, we will eventually gain what we seek. We seek power over our lives, the ability to do what we want; but the ultimate power is the power over death. Through Christ, that power is possible.

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