Sunday, June 8, 2014

Phil Kniss: Power: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Pentecost: Alleluia! Praise the God of Power!
Acts 2:1-21

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I am a powerful person.
That is not an opinion.
It is a plain statement of fact.
I’m a powerful person.
You could call it a boast, if you wanted to.
I prefer you call it a confession.
But either way, it’s completely true.

I am a powerful person,
and therefore, I better fully own up to it,
Because it’s a dangerous thing to possess power,
and not admit it, own it,
and take full responsibility for how we use it.

There was a time earlier in my life,
I probably wouldn’t have wanted to publicly say I was powerful.
Or if I did, I would have said it quietly and apologetically.
Because, after all, I’m a humble Mennonite minister.
A pastor in one of the smallest denominations.
A denomination that seeks to identify with the powerless.
A denomination that doesn’t usually give its pastors
lots of power to do things on their own,
that shuns using titles like reverend.
We’re a priesthood of believers, after all.

So there was a time, I simply wouldn’t have so boldly owned my power.
I would have rather simply said,
“I am only a humble servant of the church.”
And left it at that.

Well, I do hope to always remember I’m a humble servant of the church.
And a humble servant of Jesus Christ.
And I do hope, as much as possible, to act like a humble servant.
Because that is truly what I am.
But I am also a powerful person.

I could say the same about every other person sitting here this morning.
We could, if we chose to do so,
with only our words,
virtually destroy some people’s lives.

We could use the power of our position, and the power of our person,
to injure people, or to help them heal,
to strengthen people’s relationships, or to ruin them,
to nurture life, or to destroy it.

Sometimes we look askance at people who seek power.
We assume that having the ambition to sit in some seat of power,
is morally suspect, by definition.
We tend to think that aspiring to some high office,
or climbing the vocational ladder,
is evidence of the sin of pride, or greed, or both.

That’s simply wrong-headed to think that way.
Seeking power is normal and good.
We need power . . . to live.
We need power . . . to exercise our full humanity.
To make choices.
To create.
To build relationships
To help other human beings.
To do good in this world.

When God gave us human beings the gift of free will,
God was giving us power—
the power to decide, to act, the power to change things.
So at its best, power is a beautiful gift of a creator God
that helps us carry on God’s work of creating life.
At its worst, power can be drug
that intoxicates, corrupts, violates, and destroys life.

Wisdom is knowing the difference.
Morality is choosing to use power for life,
even when strongly tempted otherwise.

You see, when we realize we possess God-given power,
when we respect and treasure the power we have,
when we exercise our power for the good our Creator intended,
when we voluntarily place limits on our power, just like God did,
then the power we hold is sacred,
a thing of great beauty, great goodness.
It is the expression of the good humanity God desires for us all.
Then, power is grace.

Unfortunately, the abuse of our power
is a constant, and insidious 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 affects 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.

May God help us, and protect us from that.
Or, as Jesus taught us to pray,
“Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”

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
that they became 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 it has been given.
Sometimes it has done it amazingly well.
Often, it has not.

So what shall we say about the church and power?
What, exactly, do we mean,
when we speak of 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 this morning’s reading from Acts 2,
the story of Pentecost and its aftermath.

First off, early in chapter 2,
the Holy 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.

Then, the Holy Spirit gave them power to see clearly,
what had been hidden.
They quote prophet Joel in v. 17.
And with the Spirit’s power,
those old words took on 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.”
They attach new meaning to Jesus’ words and deeds,
that they hadn’t seen before.

The Holy Spirit also 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.
The power to share possessions without loss of personal dignity.
The power to proclaim and demonstrate such a winsome faith,
that others clamor to get on board with this movement.
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 the more you dwell in these stories of the church,
empowered by the Holy Spirit,
the more you come to realize that the character of this power,
being let loose in the church in Acts,
feels a lot different than the kind of power
being sought after today, in the world of politics,
it the marketplace,
and . . . in the church.

We live in a time when people are motivated
more by the power of ideology
than by the power of relationships.

We are more prone to use our personal and collective power
in calculating ways
to exert pressure on others to get the outcome we want,
whether that’s individually,
through personal intimidation, or emotional manipulation,
or whether that’s collectively,
through political and social pressure,
or the latest persuasive technique.

And we are less prone to draw on the power of relationships,
or the power of deep listening with deep compassion,
or the power of voluntary submission,
or the power of vulnerability,
or the power of sacrificial love.

It’s true in partisan politics,
it’s true in the culture wars,
and sadly, it’s even true in the church.

Whatever the issue is over which we struggle—
immigration policy,
gun laws,
same-sex marriage,
criminal justice,
government healthcare,
climate change,
or some other issue over which there is sharp disagreement
the way in which we use our power,
is very telling.

More often than not, our view of power, and how we tend to use it,
is based on our culture’s worship of the power of the individual
to do, to be, and to get,
whatever he or she most desires.

This kind of individual and collective hunger
for power to get our way,
often causes us to behave in ways that don’t look like Jesus.
Not only that, it completely disregards and dismisses
the upside-down-gospel-shaped power of Jesus himself,
and the power of the Spirit of Jesus
to bring about the will of God today,
as it did when Jesus walked among us.

Using power to impose our will on others,
is actually rather anti-Gospel.
It devalues the way of Jesus . . .
who always, and repeatedly,
submitted his will to his heavenly Father . . .
who taught his disciples to lay down their lives for others . . .
who demonstrated a way of listening to and asking questions of,
or telling stories to,
those he was trying to influence,
rather than relying on violence, manipulation,
or coercion of any kind . . .
who invited followers into the kingdom,
allowing them to say no,
even while calling for a yes . . .
who, when he wanted to make a Gospel point of some kind,
seemed to show a distinct preference to work with those
of lowest degree, and lowest political influence,
who would be least likely to exert their power on anyone:
lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Galileans, Samaritans.

Would anyone the least bit familiar with the story of Jesus,
ever say that Jesus was a weak and powerless person?
No, Jesus’ power, at least looking back on it, was never in doubt.
He had the power, and used it,
to influence change in other individuals,
to influence change in society,
to tear down social barriers,
to unmask the corrupt systems of political and religious power,
and render them powerless,
even while he chose a path of vulnerability,
of compassion,
of truth paired with grace,
of sacrificial love.
Even without the kind of power the world around him knew,
Jesus’ power was made manifest.
And it changed the world.

Now, that same power, with that same character,
is made available to us,
who have been given the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Breath of God.
The Spirit of Jesus himself, the Spirit of the Christ
has been breathed on me, and you
(“Peace be with you”).
And we today, the church, the Body of Christ,
are called and empowered by the Spirit
to continue the work of Jesus,
to continue to exercise power as he did.

In one way of looking at it, I am not powerful at all, in myself.
Any good I am able to do is God working in me.
It is an expression of God’s grace.
I am an utterly dependent being.
I am beholden to One greater than I.
I have to answer to One who has a claim on my life.
I do not and cannot manipulate God
into making happen anything I want to happen.

In that sense, I am not powerful.
But, the fact that I am a human being,
created by God with free will,
and given a life to live in this world,
and gifted with personhood,
and a complex and capable intellect,
and a body that can do amazing things,
all point to the reality that I am indeed a powerful person.

And with the power, comes responsibility.
I have available to me, thanks to the God of Pentecost,
the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit.
But the power of the Holy Spirit,
is not the power to exert my will upon others,
nor to have health, wealth, and success always come my way,
nor 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,
in ways I could not do on my own,
the power to lay down my own interests for the sake of others,
without losing myself,
the power to absorb suffering, without giving in to evil,
the power to possess material things, without them possessing me,
the power to choose to carry my cross, without losing my joy in life,
the power to face fear, without paralysis,
the power to be honest about my failures,
and freely admit that I need God to save me,
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,
the power to see what others cannot, or will not, see.

When the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in Jerusalem
on the Day of Pentecost,
that spirit came in power, and came in the way of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit must surely be grieved
when Christians see the Holy Spirit’s power as a pathway
to living a self-oriented life, materialistic life,
or as an excuse to claim the moral high ground,
while beating down anyone who threatens it.

Is the Holy Spirit we have been given, the Spirit of Jesus, or not?
Then why would we ever think it right to use our power
in ways that do not resemble Jesus?

Is the Holy Spirit we have been given, a Spirit of Power, or not?
Then why do encounters with adversaries, or opponents,
often bring out the worst of our anxiety and fears
and defensiveness?

When it comes down to it,
the power of the Holy Spirit is the power to live like Jesus.
It is the power to be a disciple,
to follow, to emulate, to be Christ-like.
We cannot be a true disciple of Jesus,
without the Spirit and Power of Jesus at work in us.

So let us seek that power, and seek it persistently.
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! . . . breathe into our aching night.
We expect you this glad hour, waiting for your strength and light.
We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.
Break upon your congregation; give us vigor, life anew.

Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with Your presence new.
Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to You.
Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with Your love.
Burst upon Your congregation, give us gladness from above.

Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each Word anew
deep into our tired living ’till we strive Your work to do.
Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.
Breathe upon Your congregation, and inspire us with Your Word.

Let’s sing together, from the blue hymnal, #26.

—Phil Kniss, June 8, 2014

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