Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jesus' Kind of Power

Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:36-53

A man was remodeling his house, and he went to a big building supply warehouse to get some of the stuff he needed, and he took his eight year old son along with him. A guy on a forklift was moving pallets of boards, and other things, back and forth and, when he saw that forklift in action, the boy said, “Man, I’d love to have that thing.” His dad asked, “Why? What would you do with it?” And the boy said, “Anything I wanted!”

That is just a little bit scary, but it is (sort of) the way we all are. We do have our moments when we would love to have power at our fingertips, even if we are sure that we would use our powers only for good.

A couple things are clear about this love of power. One is that we can clearly see how this love ruins relationships: ruins marriages, and families, and communities, and organizations, and churches, and all kinds of relationships. This love of power and control tempts people to recklessness, and abuse, and trickery, and deception, and conspiracy, and fear, and anger, and conflict.

We see this dangerous love present in the church at its very start. The disciples competed for Jesus’ favor, even when they walked with Jesus on the paths of Galilee. (Matthew 20:20-28) They competed for the privilege of sitting on Jesus’ right and left, which meant heading the positions of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.

This dangerous love was present after the resurrection too, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They thought that Jesus’ resurrection was the sign of the beginning of the kingdom of God, and the beginning of a new power.

They were right, but they were wrong about the nature of the kingdom of God. They still wanted to be people of power. They wanted the power to make decisions that would affect other people’s lives. And they still could not understand the nature of Jesus’ power. They still could not understand the nature of the power of the resurrection.

The resurrection is about power, but it is about spiritual power. And even here we humans go wrong. True spiritual power is not about control or about self-elevation or self-promotion; it is about transformation and the elevation and promotion of others. The only real spiritual power is the power of sharing, in love, something that does not actually belong to you, or come from you.

The power of the kingdom of God is about God giving life to us and to all creation; and then (when we have fallen and corrupted our powers) the power of the kingdom of God is about God coming down, in Christ, into a fallen and fearful and conflicted creation; in order to recreate it and make it a new creation. God’s greatest power is to share his life with us; and to share himself with us.

The power of the resurrection is about Jesus giving us the power to share him. It is the power to be his witnesses, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples who met the risen Jesus, on the first Easter, and clung to him during the next forty days, until he rose into heaven, could be witnesses in ways that we can never be.
They had touched Jesus. They had walked beside Jesus, and eaten with him. They had watched him work, and listened to him talk. They had stood and watched from a distance when Jesus was being crucified. They had, perhaps, helped take down his body, when he had died.

They now could see his risen body. They could be in a room in a house with locked doors, and have Jesus suddenly in the room with them, seemingly out of thin air. They could touch the nail holes in his hands and feet. They could watch the risen, living Jesus eat a piece of cold, grilled fish, and see that it didn’t just fall through Jesus, through his ghostly self, to the floor.

They saw that Jesus really was solid, and real, and alive. And they would watch him as he rose, before their eyes, and was taken upward, out of sight, into the heavens.
That was the kind of witnesses that they could be. We can never be witnesses like that.

But we are called to be witnesses too, with God’s help. And just as Jesus knew that it would be impossible for his friends to be witnesses to all the great things they knew, without the power of the Holy Spirit; just so Jesus knows that we need the power of the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses in our own way.

This thing that we call Christianity, or the Christian faith, or the Christian life, or the gospel (which means the good news) is a supernatural thing. And it is based on a supernatural reality.

The reality we have found, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is that God (who is the ultimate reality beyond all things) entered human history and became a human being (named Jesus), and lived a poor and humble life, and worked with his hands, and did amazing things with those hands, and was killed by crucifixion, and rose from the dead.

As Christians, we have met this same Jesus; this God who became a man, and was killed, and rose from the dead. We have been introduced to this Jesus by our families, or by friends, or by any combination of experiences; involving any combination of things; like words spoken, or kindness shown, or something in the Bible, or in a movie, or in a song, or anyhow. We have an experience of a supernatural reality.

This is not normal. Do you realize that this is not normal! It doesn’t just happen. And it doesn’t seem to happen to everyone. It doesn’t happen to us because we are good, or talented, or strong, or attractive. It doesn’t even happen to us because we are spiritual by nature. It isn’t something we can prove. It isn’t something that is easy to explain.

But it is real. This supernatural reality of Jesus is part of the story of our life. In Jesus, the God of the Bible has shared himself with us, and we would lose an essential part of ourselves if we lost our life with Jesus.

The reality that God would become a human being, and take part in human history, reveals the personal nature of God. In our personal relationship with this personal God we grow in that relationship. God speaks and we don’t always respond. We speak and God doesn’t always agree with us. We learn, and we grow in our understanding of God and our relationship with him; and we are witnesses of this great thing.

Even though a child asks his or her parents for many things, and does not get most of them; that child still lives surrounded by the environment of the parents’ love. So we want and ask for many things, and yet live in that environment of love. And sometimes God gives such a gift, in such a way, as to be so perfectly given that we know it was not an accidental gift. And even when we break a gift so perfectly given, as any child may do, we do not doubt that God’s love continues. And we are witnesses of all these things.

We become aware of our need, our embarrassment, our failure, our emptiness, our bitterness, our fear, our sin. Jesus shows us how that need is answered, and forgiven, and healed, and transformed by his suffering and death on the cross. We become witnesses of this.

We become aware of our frailty, and our insecurity, and our inability to make things happen, and our impermanence and our mortality. Jesus shows us how his resurrection will take care of us. Jesus shows us that his resurrection is our real hope. We become witnesses of this.

We become aware of the needs of the world around us: the violence, the injustice, the suffering, and the blindness of this world. Jesus shows us his own indignation, his servanthood, and his unconditional persistence, as he lived it in history. And Jesus shows us that he continues to be just the same; yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) We become witnesses of this.

Jesus makes us witnesses of all these things. They become part of our life.
Jesus said to his disciples: “You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised, but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:48-49) This is an eloquent way of saying that they needed Jesus to send them the presence of the Holy Spirit.

They needed power to be his witnesses. They needed the power of the Holy Spirit to share who Jesus is, and what Jesus has done (that is; who God is, and what God has done in Jesus).

They needed the Spirit’s power because it is not easy to be a witness. If it were easy to be a witness we would have nothing worth saying or hearing. The times when a person’s witness has the most authority are the times when the witnesses themselves are on trial, and things are hard, and life is not going well, and the world seems to be against them.

Even the witness of showing the love of Christ to others is not easy. Love only proves itself when loving is hard, when loving others seems impossible. The love of Jesus, after all, is a love that is faithful unto death, even death on the cross.
The first disciples needed that power, and so do we. Otherwise we will never succeed as witnesses, or as Christians.

Nothing is what it seems. Everything about our calling, everything about the Christian life and the church, is supernatural. But to anyone looking on, we could just be playacting. And there may be people who come among us, or even people who have been raised among us, who only know that we have a building, and we have by-laws, and we have meetings, and we talk, and we listen, and we sing songs, and we have a budget.

Even if we have the power of the Spirit to be the witnesses of Jesus, some people may not have the power of the Spirit in themselves to be aware of something supernatural that is a part of our lives. They may not have the power of the Spirit to be aware that we are the body of Christ who has died for the sins of the world and risen from the dead.

Or we may not have the power of the Holy Spirit to get it through our heads that we truly do need to open our own lives to the real power of God. We just meet, and we sing, and we talk, and we listen, and we do not hear what the Lord is telling us.
The question is: are we aware of this? Are we living in that power and in that reality? We cannot take the presence of the power of God for granted.

Jesus said, “Stay in the city.” For them, that meant Jerusalem. For us, it means, wherever we are. We are called to live in an attitude of continual watchfulness, and openness, and prayerfulness to the Holy Spirit as God’s presence of gracious power. Then, just as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead shows us: anything can happen. And, if anything can happen, then we can be his witnesses.

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