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Reimagining Power – Part 1: Jesus’ pattern for power

Foot washing 1

Churches

Jesus’ pattern for power

By Melody Murton, Tearfund Content Lead

Misplaced, power can destroy. Rightly restored, it can transform. Within and beyond the church, people are wrestling with questions of power. How does Jesus give us a transformed and renewed vision for power?

The Reimaging Power: Bible study series aims to consider this topic in three different ways. Part 1: 'Jesus’ pattern for power' explores how Jesus’ life and teachings show us how to engage with power.

Read part 1 below.

Key texts: John 13:1-17, Philippians 2:1-11

Meditate:

Read Psalm 113:4-8 a few times, pausing in between readings to celebrate God’s loving power. You might like to do this silently/individually or share short prayers of praise together.

My husband and I once enjoyed a brief stint as gold-level frequent flyers. A combination of factors led to this upgrade beyond our usual standing as basic-package economy travellers, and the status shift was intoxicating. Lounge access, priority boarding, hotel rooms and restaurant vouchers when a flight was cancelled – we felt like imposters, but my goodness we enjoyed it. So much so that entitlement crept in… I remember seeing ‘lowly’ economy passengers board before us as we waited for a flight, and feeling offended at their audacity! How easily I had assumed my new (and short-lived) position of power and clung tightly to the privilege that accompanied it. It had some nice perks, but the way it set me against my fellow humans was a wake up call to the blinding effects of power, and how, if unchecked, it can quite naturally become destructive.

Discuss:

What comes to mind as you think about power – how would you describe it? Who comes to mind as being powerful? Who comes to mind as being powerless? How do you see yourself in terms of power, and where is that exhibited in your life?

Graham Hill, of the Global Church Project, says:

“For most of us, our power (or powerlessness) is found in our wealth, education, age, intellect, cultural capital, social standing, gender, profession, religious status, political access, ethnicity, and race. Power can be destructive and divisive. But it can also be healing and nurturing when it is released, and when it is used for other’s wellbeing and human flourishing.”

In this study, we are looking to the scriptures to see how Jesus engaged with power, and considering what this means for us as his followers.

When it comes to power, Jesus is a radical example:

  • He holds all authority (Matthew 28:18), yet knows complete powerlessness (Philippians 2:7)
  • All other power submits to him (Ephesians 1:19-23), yet he willingly submitted himself to the ultimate relinquishment of power: death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)
  • He didn’t shy away from his divine identity, but at the same time, didn’t fight to protect or control his reputation when it was misunderstood (John 18:28-19:16, 1 Corinthians 1:18)
  • He confidently shared his power with a bunch of arguably inexperienced representatives (John 14:12-13, John 17:6-19, Acts 1:8)

Flick through the verses referenced above. What other passages come to mind as you think about power in the Bible?

Even a brief skim through the Bible presents a view of power that stands in contrast to the world’s. What are some key differences that stand out for you?

“There is power in the gospel and in Christ, but it is a power the world does not often understand. In weakness, foolishness, and vulnerability we discover a world-transforming power. In humility and self-giving we open space for God to reveal his power. It is the power of grace and love. It is the power of the Spirit and truth. It is the power that honours and heals, forgives, and unites. It is the power of giving power away.”

(Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill, Healing Our Broken Humanity)

Read: John 13:1-17

This scene takes place between two significant events: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – a celebration of his Kingship and promised reign; and his betrayal, trial and crucifixion – signifying his being emptied of power. This intimate moment with his disciples could be seen as a turning point in the narrative of Jesus’ power. It also holds a clear invitation to follow his example.

Read verses 3-4 again and notice the little word ‘so’ that links them. Jesus’ humble service of foot washing is not contrary to his power, rather, it is prompted by his power. This move is puzzling, not least to Simon Peter, who at first rejects Jesus’ service before asking for an upgrade!

Take a moment of silence to close your eyes and imagine that Jesus kneels before you, washing your feet. What feelings come up for you? How might this reflective practice help you participate in Jesus’ ministry today (see verse 8)?

Afterwards, Jesus asks his friends, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (verse 12). It’s a good question for us to consider too. Are there any ways that you need to ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand Jesus’ approach to power?

Finally, Jesus instructs the disciples to follow suit and wash each other’s feet. He emphasises three times (verses 14, 15 and 17) that his example is to be followed. In Philippians 2:5, the Apostle Paul calls us again to follow Jesus’ example of emptying oneself for the sake of others.

Read: Philippians 2:1-11

Discuss:

  • Put Philippians 2:1 into your own words – what is the foundation for following Jesus’ pattern for power?
  • What are some practical and prayerful ways that you can follow Jesus’ example set out in John 13 and Philippians 2 – in your home, church, neighbourhood?

Author and minister Dominique Gilliard says, “Jesus emptied himself by choosing not to exploit his status as fully God and fully man to avoid discrimination, persecution, and suffering for inaugurating the kingdom amid an oppressive empire with other values.”

There will be times in our lives when we can make the most of our power or privilege, avoiding suffering or discomfort that others are subject to. On the flip side, following Jesus’ example of loving relinquishment means that we can stand with the marginalised, and in so doing, move the margins to a welcoming centre.

Discuss:

Using the following themes as a guide, what are some practical ways you can practice relinquishment?

  • Engaging with issues of injustice, even when they do not directly impact us
  • Giving up an opportunity so that others can be heard or take the lead
  • Making a less convenient or familiar choice to honour those on the margins

It’s important to remember that Jesus isn’t anti-power. He doesn’t just exemplify the relinquishment of power, he totally reframes our understanding of it. In the gospels we see Jesus empowering his disciples, urging them to join him in ministering to others with the transforming power of the Father (John 14:9-14). Throughout the New Testament, believers are encouraged to live in the power of the risen Christ.

Flick through the following verses. What do they reveal about what Jesus’ power, at work through his followers, is for?

  • Luke 9:1-2
  • Ephesians 3:14-21
  • Colossians 1:10-12

When God’s people are agents of God’s power, those who are oppressed, isolated, discouraged and rejected are released from what keeps them powerless to enjoy the fullness of belonging and the richness of Christ’s love, able to joyfully endure trials and live fruitfully in community.

This is what motivates so many of Tearfund’s partners, who faithfully work to see communities empowered to enjoy the fullness of life that God desires for them.

Pray together

  • Praise God for his authority and power at work in the world today. Ask that God would lead the church in being stewards of the loving power of Christ.
  • Confess and repent for where you have exploited or passively benefited from privilege, and praise God for his grace in revealing how that privilege can be acknowledged and stewarded to further the kingdom and love your neighbour.
  • Pray for regions where the unequal distribution of power is especially entrenched. Pray for Tearfund, our partners and the communities they work with, and our supporters, that together we can participate in the empowerment of our brothers and sisters around the world.

Want to go deeper?

Read:

  • Subversive Witness: Scripture’s call to leverage privilege by Dominique Dubois Gilliard. Dominique illustrates how the faithful witness of biblical figures, from Esther to Zacchaeus, provides a blueprint for modern believers who desire to wield their privilege subversively as an instrument to advance the kingdom. Includes reflection questions.
  • Healing our Broken Humanity: Practices for revitalising the church and renewing the world by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill. The authors unpack a number of practices that enable Christians to help transform society, from lament and repentance to relinquishing power and reinforcing agency. Includes plenty of practical actions and group discussion questions.

Listen:

Right Side Up podcast with Danielle Strickland. The Power Shift Edition is a sub-series of Danielle’s podcast, and features excellent interviews with Christian leaders speaking into the topic of power and poverty.

Explore:

Take a “Power Audit” as a group, using this resource by Mandy Marshall, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Restored, an organisation working to end violence against women. The Power Audit is designed to enable people to realise the different types of power they have, and how that power can be given away and/or used to confront injustice.