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Thought for the week - 28 January 2024

By the time you get this email, I will be in the Rat Inn in Annick, about to have my Sunday Lunch. It’s a lovely place, and if you, like me, think that the top road between Carlisle and Newcastle contains so much of what it means to be joyful in this world, then you will probably know it already. Fr Lawrence is preaching today and I thought that I’d offer a few remote thoughts about power and authority, because the distance between us today makes these thoughts clearer.

Today’s Gospel is clearly about power and authority and it affects a part of our existence that we would not wish to dwell on – power and authority over what Archbishop Milingo, a one-time great exorcist before he went a bit odd, called ‘The World In-between’. Because we do not wish to dwell on matters spiritual (at least not matters demonic) it can be hard no to have a slightly juvenile concept of how God deals with them. We very easily think of God as the head person in the universe, someone like us, only more powerful and more spiritual. If we think about God like that and ask, “Why does God have authority? Why does Jesus in the Gospel today have authority over unclean spirits?” we might answer, “Because he’s more powerful than they are.” That makes the relationship between Jesus and the unclean spirits (and therefore between Jesus and us) like a contest. Both possess power, but Jesus has more, so he wins. Just like a video game.

This view of God is highly problematic and steeped in contemporary angst and experience rather than in spirituality and scripture. Would we just worship the head person in the universe, just because he’s more powerful than us? Some feminist theologians have asked why omnipotence, God’s being all-powerful, has to be thought to be a good thing in the first place. Isn’t it a very male thing to worship power? Doesn’t God being all-powerful just make him the dominant narrative and, actually, something of a bully figure – this is the argument put forward with clarity. Like most arguments that we might no agree with, it comes from a good place and contains more than a grain of truth in it, because it comes from a perspective that is overlooked – by me, at least.

All of these thoughts are in my opinion misguided, and it offers a model of God and of power which is not only unattractive, but downright oppressive as well, making God into a borderline Dictator. The answer I think is in the nature of the power that God holds and His own nature.

Power is displayed in what we do with it. We may decide to be irritating, or abusive, to be engaging or supportive and all those characteristics show us and others who we are, and what we choose to be. God’s power is most clearly shown in bringing things to life, not only in creation and the logos being made flesh, but in His bringing us to live in Him – to share His divine life, to give us all that He Himself has. That’s the way god chooses to wield His power - calling us ultimately to life with him. So God does not attract us as an all powerful bully, as some have cast Him, or as a passive creator who has no interest in what he has made, but as the ultimate desire and the ultimate goal of everything He has made.

Ok, so why does He destroy the demons then? Do they misunderstand Him? Do they see that they are in a power contest with Him which I hope I have effectively debunked? Have they just realised that they have met their match like a drunk in a bar starting a fight and so leave, afraid? Or do they just misunderstand God? There is something wrong in their reaction because they do not recognise, or they cannot hear, the call of God to bring to life that He offers each of us, they react wrongly because the new life we are offered is a new life in Christ, which they cannot or do not wish to share in, instead choosing obliteration over salvation, and that tells us about the Devil and the nature of evil itself – a choice to reject life in Christ so complete that it prefers utter death forever.

But it’s important to see that Jesus does come to destroy. He does not come to destroy people, or lives. He does not even come to destroy demons per se. He comes to destroy all that holds us back from life. And that which He destroys is that which keeps us away from Him – pride, lust, avarice, hatred – the things of the Devil. These things are destroyed because they stand in the way of love and in that love is shown the power of God.

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