United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“What is Power?”

January 28th, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        Here we are, back in the gospel of Mark.  It has been an eventful start for Jesus.  He is baptized in the River Jordan by John (and hears from God that he is beloved, chosen, one who makes God proud).  He has been swept up into the wilderness and been able to best the devil.  He has called at least four disciples, the fishermen: Andrew, Simon, James and John.  And now they have come into the town of Capernaum, thought to be the home of his new disciples.

        As was Jesus’ habit—when he was in town, he went to the synagogue, not just to show his face, but to actively participate.  It says, “when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”  And something about the way he taught makes everyone pay attention.  “He teaches with authority, not as the scribes.”  What did Jesus do differently?  We aren’t told.  But here is our first look at Jesus’ power—he can command an audience.  They believe that he knows what he is talking about.  And there is power in being able to orate.  Look at Hitler.  Or in our lifetime—look at Martin Luther King, Jr, or more recently, Barack Obama.

        And as happens when Jesus is around, the “unclean spirits” know who he is first.  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  Remember in Mark, we, the readers, know who Jesus is (from the very beginning of the gospel, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”).  But everyone else in this story is still learning about Jesus.  And so, Jesus does his “Messianic Secret” thing and says to the spirit, “Shhhhhhhh. Be silent.  They aren’t ready to know that yet.”  And he commands the unclean spirit to come out of him--which he does, convulsing the man, and making him cry out with a loud voice.

        The synagogue goers are doubly amazed, saying “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!  He can control even the unclean spirits.  They obey him!”  And, of course, his fame began to spread.  A second use of Jesus’ power—the power to miraculously heal someone.  The power to make someone who was ill, well.  A spectacular power.  Done in full view of everyone.  I do note that Mark doesn’t tell us about any interaction of Jesus with this man after the fact (which we so often are told in other stories of healing).  No Mark is in too much of a hurry.  He is presenting his case, so that we too will get to know this Jesus of Nazareth, this Holy One of God.

        One might think, if you only read this passage about Jesus, that he was the ultimate “strong man.”  Here is someone who can speak powerfully.  Here is someone who can command even the unclean spirits.  Here is someone to reckon with.  And that is often what the world thinks of as power.  It is wealth; it is charisma; it is based on how many followers you have; how much military might you control; how brutal you are to your detractors/enemies.  That is often held up as wielding power—power “over” others.

        As John van de Laar from South Africa puts it,

“In service of this kind of power, dictators have brought suffering on their own people, corrupt politicians and business leaders have feathered their own nests, while ordinary people have to pay the consequences for their greed. In service of this power, wars are fought and nations deny their connectedness. In service of this power, men beat and abuse the women and children they claim to love. In service of this power religious organizations have lobbied governments, excluded those of different creeds or ideologies, and have pronounced judgement on the world.”

        If you had only read Jesus stories that were like this, you might believe that Jesus’ power was like those of our world who think they are powerful—in the worst way.  But we have read, we have heard more than just stories of Jesus’ authority.

     We have heard him say that the most important things are to “Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We have heard him admonish those who try to wrestle the best places for themselves (at his left and right hand at the table) with the saying, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  We know that Jesus in Matthew 25 has made a closing argument of his ministry that “as you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”

        Jesus, the King of Kings, the one crowned and upon the throne, the one with the ultimate authority, he doesn’t wield it over others.  In fact, he gives up power for others.  He goes out of his way to eat with sinners and the lost.  He shuns the idea of trying to take over Jerusalem as a guerilla fighter (probably what Judas wanted him to do).  He flies in the face of what any other “strong man” would do.

        And because of this, we, his disciples, are expected to temper our desires for power—over anyone else.  We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and become leaders in our own right.  Leaders who do not use power as the world uses power.  We are called to be strong in our belief that God blesses us to bless others.  That God looks down on God’s creation, and says, “It is good.”  That God sees every lost sheep, every lost coin, every lost son or daughter.  And God runs to welcome us home.  God rejoices.

        If we needed any more confirmation of what Jesus thought about power, we see it in our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Now Corinth was a very cosmopolitan place—with people from all over the known world stopping and staying.  And the Corinthians were reveling in their freedom in Christ.  In their power to dismiss all kinds of restrictions that Jewish law imposed.  And one of the most obvious of these restriction was what kind of food you could eat.



        There were the food that were forbidden, like bacon or any other pork product, like shellfish, and other scavenger fish, or mixing meat with dairy, and most especially eating any food that had been killed in the market as sacrificed to idols.  In Christ, Paul had proclaimed to the Corinthians that they were free.  Free to eat what they wanted.  Free to do as they wanted.  Freedom.  Power.  And what did they do?  They listened to Paul.  They ate everything!  And they enjoyed it.

        Paul hears about this, and writes to them, gently chiding them for not remembering that in their freedom, in their power, they can never forget others.  In talking about communion, which in Corinth became this event of feasting, with people bringing all kinds of wonderful foods, with families, or groups of friends, gathering round their huge spreads.  Paul says, “Great, I’m glad you are enjoying the blessings of God.  But remember, don’t just hog it for yourself.  Share with others.  Make sure that everyone gets filled with good things.”  In other words, look around you.  Are there those who don’t have much to eat?  Are there those who don’t have a group to belong to?  Are there those who need an invitation to come and dine at the table of the Lord?

        And in this passage, Paul is addressing that meat that is sacrificed to idols.  Do they have the power to eat such a thing?  Absolutely.  Because WE, Paul says, have the knowledge that there are no other gods (and so, this meat really isn’t sacrificed to something else), beause “for us there is one God, the Creator, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  But, Paul says, there are others who do not have this knowledge.  Who might not understand.  And so, what do we do with our power, our freedom?  “… take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”


        “Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up.”  And I think we can add, “Power as the world sees it looks strong, but Love is stronger than anything.”  Power, as Jesus sees it, is power for others, power with others, power in yourself.

        I know that not all people believe this.  I know that if the statistics are right, there are less and less of us who hold this as an important guide to our lives.  That does not change the fact that we are called to live according to our knowledge.  To live according to Jesus’ law of love.  To live using the power that we have to mold our world into a better place.

        I was so proud to read in the West Orange Chronicle that West Orange is providing ESL to hundreds of adult residents who want to learn English (free of charge).  I know that only a portion can have in person learning, and that others have to do it online—but what a help to those who are living here.  Part of my family arrived on these shores just two generations ago.  And my great-grandparents never learned to speak English.  And my grandfather pastored a church that for years had services in Italian.  So I know that learning English is one way to be a better citizen in this United States of America.  Teaching English free of charge is sharing our power with others.

        And our mission of being part of the West Orange Food Pantry is certainly another way of sharing our power with others.  For most of us, food is just there.  We don’t really think about how much we need food—for our bodies, for our minds, for our lives.  Most of us don’t have to worry when we will get our next meal, or whether there will be enough food for the whole family.  And helping those who are willing to wait in line every Tuesday, helping those who are weighed down with the costs of having young children (have you seen the price of diapers recently?), even providing a space for people to volunteer their time, is a way of using power, the little power that we have, for the purpose of love, for a step toward justice, for the building up of a more equitable beloved community.



        Think of our partnership with Java’s Compost.  Because power over isn’t just about our dealings with each other, but also our dealings with this beautiful earth.  For years we have talked about “taming the soil,” about extracting the minerals and ores and gems and anything else that could make someone or some place rich.  We are burning down the precious rainforests and kicking out thousands of species from their habitat.  We continue to buy, buy, buy (as well as drill baby drill) and then toss things away—on an ever higher garbage heap.  We are throwing things into the ocean—so that now all of us have little pieces of plastic in our bodies!  We have misused our power, our stewardship, of this planet.  So I am so proud that we try to compost, individually, and as a church.  You can see from the flyer what Java’s Compost has done in just one year!  Let’s use our power to support the earth in any way we can.

        So, what is power?  It is something we can use, for good or for ill.  It is also something that we can depend upon.  Because Jesus came to be with us, to offer to us the healing power of his presence and love, to offer to us the opportunity to step into the blessedness of using our power, our gifts, our all, in the service of others.  That is why we sing, “Jesus, Only Jesus.”  Because for us, our freedom, our power, our blessings, our gifts, come to us through the one we know.  And we are so grateful that Jesus’ authority is for us, for those who need it most, for those who can’t even imagine that they are loved, or cherished, or remembered.

        All Hail the Power of Jesus.

        All Hail the power of love and grace.

        May we breathe it into our lives, and breathe it out to our world.


May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.