Most of us don’t know how to get along without power. We don’t have an imagination for how to accomplish even the most religious of purposes without the right strength, competency, or level of control. (When I say, “most of us,” I mean those of us who have been nurtured within and learned to benefit from systems where conventional strengths were identified and leveraged for leadership.)
Learning to get along without power – the kind that always needs leveraging and is indicative of the status quo – however, is crucial for becoming more like Jesus and participating in God’s mission.
The earliest testimony of Christians participating in God’s mission, the Acts of the Apostles, is replete with instances of opposition toward those proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Christ. Much of the narrative tension in Acts, in fact, has to do with the direct and indirect opposition the apostles face as they go out on mission.
The implicit point is that, although the messengers of God’s salvation face opposition at every turn, God’s mission will continue to flourish because the Word, by the Spirit, is efficacious and cannot be thwarted – even and especially when his messengers are ostracized, beaten, imprisoned, or put to death.
And notice this: whenever opposition toward the apostles is expressed in speech, it usually sounds something like, “Who the heck are you to be saying and doing these things?” Behind the resistance is a question about power and authority. The apostles do not come bearing or leveraging socially recognizable forms of power. Simply, they are not in charge, and this is partly why opposition registers as opposition.
All the while the recognized civil and (especially the) religious authorities, who are often as much incredulous as they are hostile toward the apostles’ “powerless-ness,” are constantly using mechanisms of power in order to protect and defend their kingdoms. But it never works – at least in the sense that matters most.
Despite their power, the authorities are unable to inhibit the unfurling of God’s salvation in the world. Trusting this reality, when they survive threats and beatings, the apostles run triumphantly up the steps of the temple and victoriously throw their hands to the sky while Eye of the Tiger plays in the background…
…the apostles rejoice in the opportunity “to suffer dishonor” for Jesus’ sake. They embrace the loss of socially recognizable forms of honor and power and glory in their weakness. Both their missionary activity and patterns of worship reflect the reality that the way of God’s kingdom is power-in-weakness.
In this we learn that the presence of opposition, hostility, and other forms of antagonism (including more passive forms like apathy) toward people who (perceive they) are engaging in God’s mission can be an indicator of the power dynamic at work in any particular context. Increasing opposition may be a sign that we are no longer in control. Outside the sphere of socially identifiable forms and centers of power and authority, opposition begins to register as opposition because we no longer have the privilege of ignoring it that control affords.
For some this is bad news, but, increasingly, other missional practitioners are naming this shift as good news – an opportunity to inhabit a better way – a way of power-in-weakness.
I wonder, though, how do we actually learn to do this – to embody a better way?
We cannot embody a better way by accident – or by willing ourselves into – or even simply by holding more conversations (although that can be helpful in the process). It’s one thing to change our language. It’s another thing for power-in-weakness to characterize the ecosystem of our community.
One piece of the way forward lies in the inseparability of discipleship and mission. The type of people we are becoming – the training and forming involved therein – has a mutually reinforcing relationship with our way (or non-way) of mission. Our worshipping communities – including the stories, symbols, and sacred rhythms that characterize our gathering – all play a part in how we are formed for mission.
We need a space for the type of formation that inscribes power-in-weakness into our personal and communal habits – a liturgy for gathered worship and daily life centered on the reality that, in Christ, God’s power comes in and through our weakness.
When the posture of power-in-weakness becomes an intentional part of how we relate to ourselves, relate one-to-another, and relate to the world, it becomes a practice that forms/trains us for being on mission in our weakness.
This reality is on display not only in Acts but also throughout Paul’s letters. For Paul, power-in-weakness wasn’t just his tagline, it was his mode of operation. Power-in-weakness transformed the way he understood God, the way related to others and thus the way he embodied mission.For Paul, power-in-weakness wasn’t just his tagline, it was his mode of operation. Click To Tweet
Although he formerly operated in the confidence of his socio-religiously identifiable signs of status and authority, after encountering the self-giving, risen Christ, he learned to boast in his weakness as a means for ministry and mission.
Even his invitation for others to imitate his life is really an invitation for imitating his posture toward his weakness – how he learned to boast in it because that is where God’s power is made perfect. Paul sees his weakness as the starting point for the Gospel to break forth, not an unfortunate issue that must be managed.
And none of this comes out of thin air for Paul or the other apostles. It is all grounded in the reality of the crucified messiah – the Christ who emptied himself and submitted to death on a cross. In other words, they learned the way of power-in-weakness within the practices proclamations of a community shaped by the reality of God’s self-revelation in Christ on the cross.
When we seek a space for this type of formation, therefore, we come asking, What story do we rehearse, and what does that story communicate about how God reveals himself in Christ? Are we leading our community into practices characterized by power-in-weakness – practices whereby we are trained into Christ’s kenotic, cross-shaped self-giving?
Learning to get along without power, answering questions like these, will continue to be crucial as we re-imagine together the shape of discipleship and mission in the coming years.
[Photo by blacktsuba, CC via Flickr]