The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, Pentecost 2, Sermon 6.7.15
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Where does power come from? This question seems to be at the heart of this week’s gospel story. The people have seen Jesus going around and performing miracles, healing people and teaching. And they wonder how he got to be so powerful that everyone is following him. His family rejects him, and the Jerusalem scribes (the teachers of the law) say that he is possessed by Satan. Maybe they are trying to discredit him because they can see that he is popular with the people? Maybe they really don’t understand his authority. Jesus is challenging the Roman leaders, and he is teaching is that he is the new covenant.
In this story, we see a pattern of comparing Jesus to Satan. Who is stronger, Jesus or Satan? Bible scholars have called this Mark’s “strong man/stronger man” theme. By comparing Jesus to Satan, the Gospeler gives us a way to think about what power really is, and where it comes from.
The confirmands and I thought some about this theme in our lives in one of our first confirmation classes. We looked at magazines and advertising and thought about what the images tell us about what’s valuable in people, what matters most in our world. Who in our society has power and who is powerless?
We looked at pictures of young people with fancy and expensive clothes, we saw advertisements for faster and bigger cars, we saw ads for houses to buy, electronics to consume. We read about ways to get thinner and more beautiful, more educated and more financially successful. People in the US put a lot of time and effort into looking younger and feeling fitter. Many of us are constantly in physical training trying to slow down the aging process. All of these messages suggest that power and strength are things that we can buy or achieve by work. What are some others ways that people get powerful in the US today? People get power by education. People are born into power—race, gender, ethnicity, all play a part in determining people’s power in our society.
As the confirmands discussed, popular culture may suggest that these are the things that matter most in society—these are certainly things that give us status. But the Gospels suggest that there might be other more important things. We talked about how the message of the Gospels is counter-cultural.
In this parable, Jesus tries to explain his own strength. He speaks in parables to show that his strength does not come from Satan. A Kingdom or a house divided would fall. Jesus is explaining that he can’t get his power from Beelzebub or Satan because this would just be a house fighting dividing itself. Jesus is offering real strength, strength, power that will overcome sickness and death.
With the parable of tying up the strong man to rob him, there are two different interpretations possible—Jesus could be suggesting that the only way to overcome Satan is to come from God—come right into Satan’s territory and overcome him so that everything will belong to the God. Or it could be that he is talking about himself, Jesus could be referring to his own opponents who would rob him of everything he has including his life—by tying him up.
I find these parables hard to understand. But on their face, we can see that Jesus is talking about who is stronger and where that strength comes from. Ultimately he gives them the answer—all people will be forgiven by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you blaspheme against God, you will never be forgiven, but if you believe you will have eternal life.
Jesus goes back to the divided house parable when he asks, “who are my brothers and my sisters”? Jesus is pointing to the idea that the strength of family comes faith. Remember at the beginning of the passage when Jesus’ family denied him, and thought that he was crazy? At the end of the pericope, Jesus tells his family that real family is the family of believers.
If the question for this week is, “Where does power come from?” then the answer is found here—when Jesus says it comes from faith in the Holy Spirit.
Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians , says the same thing. He points the Corinthians to Jesus’ saying, “I believed and I spake” and he points out that they too can believe and speak with authority. Paul is pointing out that they will have the same strength, the same power as Jesus if they share his faith in God.
And Paul gives us more ammunition for our counter-cultural sense of what it is to have real strength. If today’s magazines and TV suggest that power comes with youth, Paul suggests that we shouldn’t worry that we are aging, or wasting away. He says, even though our outer natures are wasting away, our inner natures are being built up. Inner strength is coming and this is what matters.
Paul tells the people that what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. This might apply to our “image”—our makeup or hairstyle—what we can see is temporary, but our souls, built up by faith—this is what is eternal. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” It’s not our cars, or fancy houses, our nice gardens or even our beautiful church—it’s what’s inside of us, our faith that gives us true strength.
And then finally, I look at our reading from Genesis today—the story of Adam’s fall. Remember that Adam gains knowledge by eating the apple that the serpent and Eve gave him. Adam had knowledge from God, but he thought he needed more. Maybe he thought that if he ate, he would learn some things that God hadn’t shared with him. But after he eats the apple, God rebukes him. Instead of getting power, Adam is no longer innocent and now he is afraid. He hid himself because of his nakedness. God tells him that because he ate the apple, now he and the serpent will be at odds—the serpent will bit his heel, and he will trod on the serpent’s head.
Instead of getting power, he is getting discord.
I think that all three of these passages help us to ask these hard questions—where does power come from, what is real strength? Maybe we can look at the world and its challenges and ask, where are the powerful people getting their power? Are they dividing their houses so that they can’t stand, dividing the Kingdoms so that they will fall? Are powerful people building earthly tents that will disappear, or are they building the heavenly Kingdom?
Maybe when we complain that we are “wasting away”, there is a truth to that—our outer natures are declining, but our inner natures are being built up. Our friend Christopher Martin from St. Paul’s talks about building up the spiritual core—maybe this is the kind of strength that these passages are speaking about. As we build up our faith, turning our hearts and minds and feet towards God, we are coming closer to the eternal house of God.
There is the danger that we might understand this question about power as a question about personal power coming from personal faith. In other words, if I turn my mind towards God, I will have authority. But a careful reading of this Gospel passage and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes clear that we are talking about our communal authority, our communal work. Our strength comes from God, we come together as a family of mothers, brothers, sisters with Christ. We work with the purpose of eternal strength, God’s glory shared among all.