Power corrupts – here’s its antidote (sermon of May 20)
Seventh Sunday of Easter; May 20, 2007
Acts 16:16-34 Psalm 97 Rev. 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 John 17:20-26
Music: Lord, I Lift Your Name On High; Rejoice, the Lord Is King; Crown Him with Many Crowns; Above All
Paul and Silas are still in Philippi, when things get serious:
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
Why? Rich guys lost an income source. … So they go to the rulers. Now – what does a Roman magistrate care about more than anything else? What’s he held accountable by his bosses for, at peril of his life? Keeping things calm. For it’s a far-flung empire, ever-threatened by the idea of insurrection. Chances are the magistrate doesn’t give a hoot about rich guys making money, and their complaint won’t carry much weight. So watch what happens.
20They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
Really? An uproar? Scarcely! It’s an excuse on the part of wealth and power to get the crowds on their side. And they tell it well, and the crowds believe it. And that’s enough to set off alarm bells in the minds of the authorities. The rich guys stretch the truth – give an issue that isn’t really an issue – to get the crowds to put a scare into the magistrate. Government is pressured to act.
22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
See, the crowd wouldn’t have cared that rich guys lost their ability to get richer. The crowd might even see the slave girl as a person rather than a property. Power and wealth’s reasons don’t sell to people who are neither powerful nor wealthy. Power and wealth has to come up with another reason in order to successfully manipulate the crowd, because by manipulating the crowd, they put pressure on the government, forcing them to do what they want. Paul and Silas could have argued they weren’t stirring up an uproar until they were blue in the face – it wouldn’t have mattered – because the rich guys stirred up an uproar and blackmailed the magistrate with it.
Lawrence, at the ever-excellent Disclosing New Worlds, tells this personal story:
I remember a conversation I had with David Bosch (the South African missiologist) in his home. It was 1989, and things were very bad indeed in South Africa under the State of Emergency. The Apartheid regime was in its death-throes, but it wasn’t going without a fight and it was taking a whole lot of people down with it. The Dutch Reformed Church was engaged in a huge propaganda offensive, pillorying people like Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane and labelling them as ant-Christian Communists who were betraying Jesus Christ, the true faith and the Church by opposing Apartheid. We were sitting drinking wine and lamenting the state of the Church in South Africa. I asked, “How come the Church – which is supposed to be the sign of all that Jesus preached and promised – has become this monster that needs removing? When did it all go wrong?” His response was interesting. Quick as a flash, he said, “313AD. That’s when the Christian Church left the tent of Moses for the court of Pharaoh!”
313 AD? Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity acceptable, and possibly personally converted. Our faith moved from jail cells to Senate chambers. From the powerless to the powerful.
His point was that the Church is an institution and actually behaves like other institutions. … the guts of his comment is that the Church has historically allied itself with the powerful, rather than the weak – and so it has become an institution that acts with the sort of cruelty and ruthlessness that characterises groups of people who wield power over others and hang on to it at all costs. The problem, as he saw it, is that the Church has cut itself off from its roots – severed itself from the places from which it draws its life-blood and nourishment. Small wonder that it loses its way. Small wonder that it is so frequently a sign of the opposite of the kingdom that Jesus preached and lived and died for.
When the Church loses its connection – its rootedness – in God-in-Jesus, it becomes one of the most unlovable of institutions. It becomes inhuman and inhumane. Faith becomes religion, with all its self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. It becomes an end in itself rather than a sign of a new world, sucking up obscene amounts of money, time, energy and resources, and demanding that people serve it rather than the other way around. The servant becomes the slave-owner – and it can be as tyrannical and ruthless as any slave-master.
In 1898, a few Americans of wealth and power had begun to desire a way to get richer by having a trade outpost in Asia. Then the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Cuba, of course, was a Spanish colony at the time. Wealthy media magnates quickly spread the story that the Maine had been sabotaged by the Spanish, and that American women had been strip-searched by Spanish soldiers. Likely, neither was true. But with Americans sufficiently outraged, war could be launched against the Spanish.
And the Spanish also claimed the Philippines, which the USA now had an excuse to “liberate.” And, oh my, look, there is an Asian trading outpost that just happened to fall into our laps on the way to making the world a better place.
[A non-sermon comment: Neo-conservatives advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein early in the 1990s. But they knew it would not be accomplished by US forces without “another Pearl Harbor event.” Then came 9/11.]
Filipinos, of course, didn’t want American ways any more that they wanted Spanish ones. Before long, most of the US Army was there – fighting Filipinos. Atrocities followed. 200,000 Filipinos died, some by mass execution. But the wealthy and powerful got their Asian trading outpost, while soldiers died believing they were vindicating the honor of America. Sound familiar?
Here’s my point: Just as in Philippi, the business needs of wealthy men for more wealth would have never motivated Americans sufficiently to send their sons to die and kill. There had to be a cover story. And that’s how it is with wealth and power, and why we who follow Jesus have got to keep a healthy skepticism toward passionate notions that sweep across the country – and across the church – that make barbarity seem like righteousness.
We’ll come back to finish the Paul and Silas story, but let’s look first at the beautiful pattern Jesus laid out for the church.
Jesus Prays for All Believers
20″My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24″Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25″Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Oneness – The Father lives in the Son. The Son lives in his people. And they live, one with the Father and the Son, and so, one with each other. 23 “complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” 26: “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
And let’s see it in Revelation:
12″Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.14″Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
16″I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you[a] this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
17The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
20He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
21The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
Who can come and take of the free water of life? 17? Whoever is thirsty.
People thirst for God. They receive these gifts of life and love. They are transformed. Those around them behold something different. Things happen – big things, inexplicable things, world-changing things. But not by force. And not by wealth and power. Those are not the ways of followers of Jesus.
Let’s finish the Paul and Silas story now:
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. 27The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.
Money and power manipulate the world and the church into barbarity. Their antidote is a simple thirst for God, simple care for each other and the world around us, and a God who builds more and more of himself into humans. And God, through love, acts to transform.
Related post: A tale for every American (Mark Twain’s comments on the Spanish-American War)
Tags: Acts+16, Ephesians+1, Luke+24, Philippian+jailer, slave+girl, wealth+power, Roman+empire, Macedonia, Philippi, Philippines, Spanish-American+War, USS+Maine, Havana, patriotism, Monte Asbury