Sunday, May 11, 2008

(Pentecost) The holy and unholy quest for power

Acts 2:1-21

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It’s a universal quest. Common to every human being.
We all need it. We all desire it. We all want more of it.
It’s why people run for president, or senator,
or city school board, or class treasurer.
It’s why entrepreneurs go into business.
It’s why artists paint and sculpt.
It’s why musicians play.
It’s why authors write...
It’s why nations go to war.
It’s why an abuser beats a spouse or child.
It’s why churches split...
It’s why churches are started.
It’s why I am a pastor.

We are searching for power.
Seeking power is a good thing.
We need live.
We need exercise our full humanity.
To make choices.
To create.
To build relationships
To help other human beings.
To do good in this world.

At its best, power is a beautiful gift of God
that helps us carry on God’s work of creating life.
At its worst, power is a drug
that intoxicates, corrupts, violates, and destroys life.

When we realize we possess God-given power,
and respect and treasure the power we have,
and exercise our power for the good that our Creator intended,
and use it for the benefit of life in this world God loves,
and voluntarily place limits on our power,
then the power we hold is a thing of
great beauty, great holiness.
It is the expression of the good humanity God desires for us all.
It is the grace of God at work through us.

But there is a strong and constant temptation.
Once we taste the emotional rush of having power,
once we flex our muscles,
and see that we can make things happen that
give us a personal advantage,
that benefit our own felt needs and desires,
we are tempted to let that power run its course,
and not notice how it effects others
who happen to be in its wake.

When we direct our power toward our own selfish desires—
be they physical desires,
or emotional, or sexual, or financial, or material desires—
that power is likely to be addictive.
If left unchecked,
it becomes destructive, violent, and even deadly.

So today, on Pentecost Sunday, we praise the God of power.
We celebrate the day when, as Jesus promised,
power was poured out on the church.
After Easter, Jesus’ disciples
who were stunned into silence by all that happened,
who were tentative, confused, paranoid,
and huddling together behind locked doors,
suddenly found they had power.
They acted with power.
They spoke with power.
Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was so authoritative,
that afterward the crowd begged him,
“Tell us what we should do!”
How’s that for having power?
They demonstrated such power to the world around them,
that they became a sensation, an unstoppable movement.
That day 3,000 persons were baptized and joined the movement.

And ever since, the church of Jesus Christ has been trying to figure out
how to handle this power they’ve been given.
Sometimes they’ve done it amazingly well... Often, not.

So how shall we talk today about the church and power?
And how to access and use the Holy Spirit power we have?
And what, exactly, do we mean,
when we talk about the power of the Holy Spirit?
What does the Spirit empower us to do?
What does the Spirit not empower us to do?

There are clues in Acts 2 and beyond,
in the story of that Pentecost day and its aftermath.

For one thing, in the early part of that chapter,
the coming of the Spirit gave them power to let go of their fear.
They came out of the room where they were hiding,
and began proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
They were courageous in the face of their adversaries.

Also, the Holy Spirit empowered them to see clearly,
what had been hidden.
They quote the prophet Joel in v. 17 and following.
And under the Spirit’s power,
the words take on a whole new meaning:
“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh...
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.”
And they attach new meaning to Jesus’ words and deeds,
that they hadn’t seen before.

And the Holy Spirit gave them the power
to clearly communicate this meaning,
even across language barriers, v. 6.
And the Spirit gave them power to form a new community, vv. 42ff.
And you can read on and on in the book of Acts.
In story after story we find more expressions of the power of God
demonstrated through the people of God, the church.

But I have to say,
the power we find in the pages of Acts is a little different,
than the kind of power so many people seek today.

In the midst of a season of presidential politics,
the contrast is obvious.
In our current state of affairs,
as a society polarized over a war,
and over many other social issues,
people grab whatever power is available to them,
and use it to gain the upper hand.

There is power in
the rhetoric of a politician,
the pulpit of a charismatic preacher,
the pen of a newspaper editor,
the brush or knife of an artist,
the checkbook of a philanthropist,
the song of a musician,
the phone call or letter of an ordinary citizen.

We are all familiar with the kind of power
that tries to influence others around us,
to change others’ beliefs or behaviors.
And there is nothing wrong with using that kind of power,
when we use it wisely, and with human kindness,
and with spiritual discernment,
with a commitment to the common good.
We might even say God can sometimes
bless our efforts in those arenas.

But the power this world has come to believe in so fervently,
is ultimately rather anti-Gospel.
It’s based on our culture’s supreme faith
in the power of the individual
to do, to be, and to get,
whatever he or she most desires.

The dominant culture we live in these days is driven
by the belief that I, individually, and single-handedly,
have the power to make my life better.
There is an undying belief that all of us have the power to achieve
health and wealth and prosperity,
if we want to badly enough.
Our culture’s version of the Gospel,
has no room for submitting our will to One who is greater.
Instead, the Good News is “You have the power.”

Right now, in bookstores, you can buy the following current books:
You Have the Power: How to Tap into Your Inner Strength and Find Your Power to Live a Successful Life...and
30 Power Principles: You Have the Power to Win...and
Trust Yourself: You Have the Power...and
Think It, Do It, YOU Have the Power...and
You Have the Power to Change Your Life...and
You Have the Power to Achieve and Be Anything You Wish.

The unmistakable message of the gospel of our culture,
is that if you don’t achieve what you desire,
you clearly aren’t using the power you have.
You must not want it bad enough.
If you can think it, you can do it.

Of course, having guts and determination is a good thing.
And using them will usually get more results than being lazy.
But it’s simply not true for everyone that “You have the power!”

Tell that to Thein Myint, the 68-year-old fisherman
in a village in Burma, or Myanmar,
who last week lost all 28 members of his family in the cyclone,
wife, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters,
nieces and nephews.
He was the only survivor.
Tell him, “You have the power to be whoever you want to be!”

Or tell it to the young woman trying to overcome years
of physical and sexual violence committed against her as a child,
and who has now completely lost a sense of self,
that she has any worth whatsoever.
Tell her “You have the power, if you choose to happy and successful.”

Tell it to one of our homeless neighbors in this city,
who has been unable to break his decades-long addiction to alcohol.
Tell it to the new immigrant just laid off from the poultry plant.
Tell it to the refugees living in Darfur.

Tell it to anyone: “You have the power!”
Tell it to a professional accomplished in her field.
Tell it to a successful entrepreneur.
Tell it to me.
And I would have to reply, “Yes, but.”

I am not an independent, self-made person.
Yes, I have power.
But the source of that power is not in me.
The power comes from God, and still belongs to God,
who entrusted it to me when God created me.

Any good I am able to do is God working in me.
It is an expression of God’s grace.
And I cannot presume to dictate to God how to show his power.
I am an utterly dependent being.
I am beholden to another greater than I.
I have to answer to the one who has a claim on my life.
I do not and cannot manipulate God
into making happen anything I want to happen.

But do I have available to me the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit?
Yes, indeed.

Because the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost,
and because I am part of that new community of the Spirit,
the power of the Spirit is available to me.

But the power of the Holy Spirit,
is not the power to get what I want,
or to have health, wealth, and success come my way,
or the power to avoid pain or suffering or death.

The power of the Holy Spirit is
the power to say yes to God’s offer of grace when I don’t deserve it,
the power to let my life be transformed by God,
the power to have my life reflect God’s character,
the power to lay down my own interests for the needs of others,
the power to accept suffering,
the power to say no to finding security in material things,
the power to choose the narrow gate and hard road that leads to life,
the power to carry my cross,
the power to find fullness and joy in life, even in the wilderness,
the power to live above the anxiety and fears of the world,
the power to joyfully admit that I need God to save me,
in a world obsessed with self-help,
the power to witness against the evils in this world,
even when the forces of evil push back,
the power to cross barriers of language, culture, and social status
to form a genuine community of opposites,
the power to live in community with others,
even when community gets messy, and I need to deny myself,
the power to see what others cannot, or will not, see.

I think there are two different ways that Christians often go wrong,
when it comes to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some Christians simply let the power of the Holy Spirit
be highjacked by our selfish nature.
So many of us Christians
live a basically self-oriented life with a thin Christian overlay.
So when we seek the power of the Holy Spirit,
we’re really looking for
the power to do what we already want to do, only more efficiently,
and the power to get what we already want, only more of it.
We make the Holy Spirit into a generic power source,
an add-on powerpack,
a trump card,
a way to, in a manner of speaking,
live a self-oriented life, on steroids.

And some of us Christians go wrong in the other direction.
We take on all the right ideals as Jesus’ disciples—
we desire to live life simply, peacefully, generously,
inclusively, sacrificially, counter-culturally,
so we attempt to do it by sheer determination and will-power.
And many of us seem to do it quite admirably.
But we forget that any power we have to make these choices,
comes from God, and is a gift of God’s grace.
So we fail to undergird our lives
with a constant dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
We attempt to do the right things,
without immersing ourselves in a life of spiritual disciplines,
without being grounded in prayer, in scripture, in worship,
in body life, in the life and mission of the church.

The Holy Spirit must surely be grieved either way—
when Christians call on the Spirit’s power as an excuse
to live a self-oriented and materialistic life,
or when they try to live sacrificially
but don’t recognize their need for the Spirit’s power.

It must surely grieve the Spirit,
who came to the disciples at Pentecost
to be the continuing presence of Jesus,
to help them carry on the work of Jesus.
Scripture often calls the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of Jesus.”
It’s Jesus with us.
Jesus the itinerant prophet and teacher,
who sometimes had no place to lay his head,
who asked his followers to deny themselves
and carry their cross,
to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel,
to not worry about what they would eat or drink or wear—
the Jesus who confronted the powers,
who laughed and played with children,
who showed kindness and accepted the kindness of others.

When it comes down to basics,
the power of the Holy Spirit is the power to live like Jesus would.
It is the power to be a disciple,
to follow, to emulate, to be Christ-like.
We cannot be a disciple without it.

So let us seek that power.
Let us engage in this holy quest for the Holy Spirit’s power.
Let us pray always for the power of the Spirit of Jesus
to fill our lives, and to fill the church.
Holy Spirit, come...with power!

—Phil Kniss, May 11, 2008

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