Monday, May 29, 2017

I've Got The Power

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Acts 1:1-14:

I want you to imagine that you have found a ring that makes you invisible, no one can see you when you have it on. What would you do if you had such a ring? Think about that for a moment and then share with the person sitting next to you what you think you would do….  Now, that scenario is known as the Ring of Gyges, which comes to us from Plato’s Republic, in which a tale is told by Plato’s brother, Glaucon, of whether someone could actually be so virtuous as to not do something even if they knew they could get away with it. He argues that if we had the power of this ring that we would use it for our own benefit, just as the shepherd boy in the story who has found the ring does; using it to seduce the queen, kill the king and become king himself. If you have the power of the ring how could you not use it for your own benefit, or how could you not exercise the power that you have? I was a political science major in college, and I remember the first time encountering this story in a political philosophy class, but before we had read the Republic, the professor asked the same question I asked you. If you had the power of this ring, what would you do with it? My answer was that I would use it to travel the world without having to pay for it, not exactly honorable, but better than some of the other answers, but I still remember one of the women in the class who said that she would refuse to use the ring. She would not trust herself with it and so therefore wouldn’t give in to the temptations of its power. I remember being amazed at that answer, and perhaps she had already read the Republic, because that’s similar to what Socrates eventually says, which is that the person who uses the ring becomes not its master but its slave because they become entrapped by their own passions and appetites in the use of the ring, whereas the person who refuses to use the ring remains in control over their own lives, they retain their own power, and thus remain happy.

But is that our understanding of power? What does it mean to have power or to be powerful? One definition of power is the act of being able to do something, such as having the power of speech. A second definition, and one that is very important, is the ability to get extra base hits, that is the Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge hits for power. Third definition is the one most of us think of, and that is having the power, control or authority, and those are not the same things, over another in order to direct, coerce, influence or use force to get them to do something that you want or need them to do. But, there is another corollary to that, and that is having power not to be forced by another. So, for example, I have the power to tell members of the staff that they need to be at worship, and I have the power to enforce that statement. But while I may have the authority to say to all of you, you need to be at worship, I don’t have the power to enforce it, because you have the power to say “no” to me. So, we now have some understanding of what it means to have power, but what does it mean when we are told that when we receive the Holy Spirit that we will receive… power. Unfortunately, I can unequivocally say that that power is not the ability to get extra base hits, but what does that power actually look like in our lives? Is our power as Christians different from the power of the world? What does it mean to say we have the power of the Holy Spirit?

The passage we heard from Acts this morning tells us the story of Jesus ascension into heaven, which in this account of it in Acts happens on the 40th day after the resurrection, which was Thursday of this past week, which coincidentally was also the 40th anniversary of the original release of Star Wars, and sort of serve as a precursor to the events of Pentecost next Sunday. That is the ascension serves as the precursor, not Star Wars.  The passage begins with an introduction that says, “In the first book Theopholis, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven.” The first book being referred to here is the Gospel of Luke, which also begins with an introduction to Theopholis, so both Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are by the same author. We don’t know anything about who Theopholis is or what he did. The Greek word used here is both a common name and also an honorary title, and we don’t know how it is being used here. It could also be that it is being addressed to him because he was a patron of Luke’s, that is paying him to write these accounts, or someone that Luke is hoping to sway into hearing, knowing and accepting this account about Jesus. But we do have a difference between what is recorded at the end of Luke and at the beginning of Acts, even though written by the same person, about what happens after the resurrection.

In the final chapter of Luke, it appears that the timeline of the ascension takes place on Easter, as if there is any accumulated time it is not address, as Jesus leads them out to Bethany, a city to the east of Jerusalem, and then is carried up to heaven. In Acts, however, we are told that this happens 40 days after Easter, during which time Jesus has continued instructing the disciples and other followers about the Kingdom of God, and telling them what to do, and then Jesus is lifted up to heaven and they return to Jerusalem from Mount Olivet. So, we have the ascension potentially taking place in two different places and at two different times, as well as what the disciples are doing, that is are they praying together in the Temple or are they praying together in the upper room. But Luke does emphasize the important of this event because he is the only one to make a big deal about it by even mentioning the ascension at all. There is a brief mention of the ascension in the longer ending of the gospel of Mark, but that is not original to the gospel itself, and probably got added based upon this mention in Luke. But there are two pieces that are found in both accounts. The first is that the disciples and followers were spending their time in prayer, and the second is that they were supposed to be witnesses for Christ and that to help them they would be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, which gives them what? Power. which is the point of today’s message.

Now in Greek the word power is dynamos, from which we get words like dynamite or dynamic, so this is not just a static power, but active. While power is used in the New Testament is relation to being able to control other entities or forces, this usually refers to people like Pontius Pilate, who says “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?” (John 19:10) That is he can use force to make people do what he wants them to do, he can influence and control other people. But that is not normally how the term power is used. It is occasionally used in relation to God, with the understanding that God has ultimate power, but God doesn’t force people to do what God wants them to do. And so, one of the senses of power that we receive is the power to do God’s will, think of what Moses does before the pharaoh in matching the court magicians. But normally the power is the power to heal, and we have Jesus remarking when the woman with the issue of blood just touches the hem of Jesus’ robe and is healed, and Jesus says, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” (Luke 8:46) This is also power that Jesus gives to the disciples so that they too may heal others, and as will happen later in Acts, even allow Peter and Paul to raise people from the dead. The manifestation of Jesus’ power is also seen in the calming of storms, walking on water, the multiplication of meals, and what these displays of power show is a life-giving force and an overcoming of chaos. So, this is not power for powers sake, in order to control others, this is power to make people better, to heal, to calm fears, to feed. That is what the power of the Holy Spirit looks like, and so when we think of what power holds for us and how we might see or use the power of the Holy Spirit it begins with changing our understanding of what power is for us as followers of Christ, and that begins with the understanding of God’s power.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about what he calls a thorn in his side and that three times he asked Jesus to remove it, and the response was “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) Power is made perfect in weakness. Power is not made perfect in the exercise of what we think of as being power, but it’s made perfect in weakness. Which means accepting and moving into the position of weakness, or we might say a position of humility. It’s not forcing people to do your will, but instead power is found in kneeling down and washing their feet. It’s about laying down your life for others. It’s about humbling yourself, just as Christ did when he took human form and went to the cross, which is foolishness, but, as Paul says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25) Power is not about exerting your will, it’s about forgiving others. It’s not about using force, it’s about being a peacemaker. It’s not about reigning over others, it’s about bringing healing and calm out of chaos. Which is also exactly what we hear about as the gifts, or fruits, of the spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness." (Gal. 5:22-23) What would we think if a politician or a CEO ran on that as their platform, and said they would exert the power of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  I doubt they’d win, especially in our current political climate, but I’d much rather follow or work for someone who did those things, and thought that’s how power should be exercised, and what we as Christians are called to do. If they are the gifts of the spirit, and the spirit gives us what… power, then this is what power looks like for Christians.

And notice the key attribute about these things is that they are not individual gifts, they are community gifts. They are things done in relation with others. Even self-control, because keeping ourselves under control impacts what we do and say with others. And the other piece we have to keep in mind is that all of these are active, not passive, things. These are not sit back and wait for them to happen, this calls for our involvement. Even love is not the feeling we have for another, but the actions that we do in the world. There are some who argue that in most places love should actually be translated as charity, that is something we do for someone else. And so that leads us back to definitions again. Rather than looking at power from a political or leadership, or even baseball perspective, instead to look at it from a definition of power from physics.  Can anyone tell me the difference between work and energy? Work is energy that is expended in a direction. Which means we can expend energy without doing actual work, something important to keep in mind, but power is the energy expended in work, which means that power has not only direction but also work being done. It is active. It is vigorous. It is full of life. It is dynamic.

When we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive what? Power. Power that is set up not for us or our own interests. It’s not about getting others to do what we want them to do, and it’s definitely not about forcing others to do what we want them to do. Instead, to have the power of the Holy Spirit is to work for others, not to be a leader who serves, but to be a servant who leads. And it’s also about claiming and holding power for yourself. There are lots of people who want to take power from you, who want to take agency away from, who want to use their power to demean and even sometimes dehumanize you, to use the power of violence and fear to get their way, but we don’t have to let them. That was what Pilate was intending to do when he ordered Jesus to be crucified, he was using his power not only to kill Jesus but to make an example of him, but Jesus didn’t allow that to change who he was. He retained his power by practicing “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." He did not allow the power plays of others to change who he was, what he did, or how he lived, and so he says from the cross “forgive them for they know not what they do,” and he says to one of the criminals “today you will be with me in paradise.” His mission to heal and save people didn’t stop through the violence of his execution, it continued, he remained the same, and what he told us is that we would be known as his disciples by the love that we showed to the world, by how we were messengers of the good news to the world.

Because what Jesus says is that we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and then will be witnesses to the world. We too often think that means going out to tell people about Jesus, but I think a better way is to remember that everything we do is a witness to our faith, or as St. Francis is reported to have said “preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” And we are to witness it in Jerusalem, the city in which we live, in all Judea, the area in which we live, in Samaria, which means witnessing to our enemies, and to all the ends of the earth. And here is the really good news. We believe that we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, but even more importantly Jesus tells us that we receive the Holy Spirit every time that we pray, that’s why the disciples being in prayer was so important to this story. So, pray for the Spirit and claim its power, the power of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That claim power and use that power no matter what is going on in the world, no matter what people are doing are saying to you. We have the power to control our lives. We have the power to make the world better. We have the power to be witnesses to Jesus in all that we say and all that we do. We have the power, so claim it and live it. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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