Monday, March 7, 2011

Kingdom Power

This is the final installment of our series on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, and in the closing sermon Part 7 the focus is on verse 20, "For the kingdom of God does not consist of talk but of power." This is an interesting verse because it often either gets overlooked, or way misunderstood. On the one hand many Christians prefer a 'safe' spiritual life, where supernatural things don't really happen, and if they do or ever did, such things don't today. On the other hand is a sense that there is no propositional truth to the Christian faith, there is only experiencing God (whether Pentecostal or some sort of vague new age kind of thing). The idea here pits verbal proclamation negatively against 'power'.

In this chapter of his letter, Paul is defending his apostolic authority. There were those who objected to his teaching and the Gospel that he preached, and so to undercut him they attacked his position as an Apostle. Paul responds that he is not affraid of their attacks, because he knows that only God can judge him. Besides which, the mark of his apostolic office is that God is working through him and the Gospel with power, not just fancy talk. This is a subtle counter-attack, because he's stating that his opponents do not demonstrate the power of God and rely only on rhetoric and personal attack to establish their authority.

So what is power? Is Paul talking about being able to bench press 300 pounds? Not quite. In classical physics power is energy working over time; energy is essentially the capacity to do work, a force opperating across a distance. If you push on a wall as hard as you can, and nothing happens, no power has been exercised because the state has not changed. This is what Paul is getting at: when the Kingdom of God shows up, in power, things happen! Things change.

One of the great displays of power in the Old Testament is found in the life of Elijah, the great prophet. In one event in his life he was taken up from the world in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-14) - talk about making an exit! The other event in his life was the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:1-40). Ahab, the evil King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel, had led Israel astray and caused them to worship Baal instead of God. So God sends Elijah to get everyone back on the right track, and Elijah proposes a contest to see who is the real God. Two altars will be set up, and the prophets of Baal will call out to their god, and Elijah will call out to his God, and the true god will be the one who demonstrates their power by setting the altar on fire. Simple. Very definitive in the results. In fact, why any religious debate since then has been settled in any other way is beyond me.

God demonstrates his power by setting the altar on fire. Everyone saw the power of God manifest in space and time, and they were faced with a decision. They could either try to ignore it or explain it away, or they could trust God and repent and return to Him. We Christians believe that God has in fact acted in a supernatural way in space and time. God's greatest demonstration of his power is in raising his Son Jesus from the dead. You have to deal with that power - either you ignore it or you trust it. Jesus even says to his detractors, hey, you might not like me or what I'm saying, but if nothing else believe me because you've seen the miracles (i.e. the power I've demonstrated).
A lot of people think that to know or experience the power of God they have to make themselves powerful first. Our theme through this series has been to see, to understand, to realize the gap that exists between the ideal and the actual. Ideally we ought to trust God and experience his power, but the problem is that we are in fact weak, selfish, and lost. To put it another way, we want to be powerful, and can come up with pretty good technieques to help us think we are powerful, but we are in fact weak. The Gospel speaks to this weakness, not to our efforts at power. God says, "My strength is made perfect in your weakness." The power of God is for the weak.

Where in your life do you need to experience the power of God? Where do you need to know God's forgiveness? To be healed? And we do hope that the power of God can and will do something, for God whose power is at work in us is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Kingdom Power

1 Corinthians 4:14-20
This is the final sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians. The guiding principle we've used here is that there is always a gap between the ideal things and the actual things, and if we try to fill that gap on our own, we will shred ourselves and those around us. The only thing that can truly fill that gap is the grace of God. In this passage Paul indicates that God's grace, God's kingdom, is not simply a matter of words but of power.

I don't think Paul is merely saying here that "Talk is cheap", as if he were saying that propositional truth is useless and advocates for action only. I think this for two reasons. First, the 'words' he is talking about are those of his detractors, and he is essentially calling them out. If they are right and he is wrong, then they need to back it up with the true power of God and not play 'armchair apostle.' Secondly, we know that the Word of God is indeed powerful - God created the world by speaking it into existence; Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."

The power he is talking about is the visible power of God, manifesting in history. Take for example the Old Testametn prophet Elijah's showdown with the prophets of the pagan god Baal. The showdown was simple: the true god will be the one who sets the altar on fire. Baal guys are up first and they call out and do their mojo and nothing happens. Elijah then step up to the plate, orders some servants to put water on the altar so everyone knows there is no funny business going on, calls on the Name of the Lord...and shazaam! Fire! Lots of fire. The winner: Elijah. The kingdom of God demonstrates itself with power. This is what Paul is talking about.

The Gospel tells us that God works in history, in time with his power so that we might trust in him. Where most people fall flat is this way: they think that in order to experience God's power they have to first make themselves powerful. Jesus' power actually come to those who are weak and in need of him. God says that "My strength and power is perfected in your weakness." How often do we think that "I've got to clean myself up for God to love me." The Gospel tells us that the opposite is true - that the power of God is most present and at work in those who are in most need of him through weakness.