Jesus’ last words to the apostles were:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea,
in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
This is Jesus’ last will and testament, his legacy to us.
His parting words threaten to change our lives.
Jesus hands over his mission to us.
To carry out his mission, we need his power.
That makes us distinctly uncomfortable.
No one admits to wanting power.
So what are we doing in a religion that promises power?
Talking about power conjures up images of tyrants, dictators,
political wheeler dealers, and financial robber barons.
Put it together with religion and you get one those double chinned bishops
who’s always eating turkey drumsticks in Renaissance movies.
Nice people don’t talk about power, especially in church.
What has power to do with Christianity?
As Christians we are supposed to be simpering, pusillanimous, dispensers
of charity and pious platitudes, are we not?
But is that kind of Christianity honest?
Does it have any place in the real world?
Sociologist of religion, James Davison Hunter says,
“Human relations are inherently power relations.
Power saturates all of social reality . . . .
How people engage the world is at least implicitly
a question of how they relate to power.”
To truly have nothing to do with power
is to disengage from the world.
To pretend we have nothing to do with power is
to deal with the world, and with our selves, deceitfully.
So we might start by talking about power honestly.
Jesus said, “You will receive power.”
2nd Timothy says, “God did not give us a spirit of fear,
but of power . . . .”
Ephesians says, “Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
Jesus wants to give us power for his mission.
If we don’t claim that power, we remain spiritual parasites,
not partners with Christ in mission.
So what is this spiritual power Christ offers?
Is it something we might dare claim for ourselves
and put to use in his mission?
First, forget what you know about worldly power.
This is another thing altogether.
Spiritual power is not dominating power.
Jesus always resisted dominating power.
Spiritual power is relational.
It is the ability to influence others
out of something deep and authentic.
If you are a stranger to me, then you cannot influence me.
If you are a fool, you cannot influence me
unless I’m a bigger fool than you are.
But suppose we get to know each other.
Suppose I come to trust that you mean me well.
And suppose I believe you know something worth knowing.
Suppose I experience you as sane, wise, honest, and decent.
Then I will believe in you and what you say.
Then you can influence me for good.
Worldly power, dominating power is one person
diminishing the power of another person
– trying to make himself more by making someone else less.
Spiritual power is energy.
It flows between people to make them both stronger.
Relational power, spiritual power, can heal, encourage, inspire.
Look at any interpersonal transaction, be it in Scripture, current events,
or your personal life, and check the power dynamics.
Does one person exert power to diminish someone else?
Or does one person share power, empower the other person?
That’s how we distinguish the world’s power from the Jesus power.
We cannot empower others
unless we claim and cultivate our own spiritual power first.
There are three ways to receive the spiritual power Christ offers.
First, it takes prayer.
After Jesus told the apostles they were to receive power for the mission,
the Bible says, they constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
Prayer connects the circuit for Christ’s power to flow through us.
Second it takes study.
Remember that you gain the power to influence me
only if two thing come together.
One, I can tell you mean me well.
Two, I can tell you know something.
2nd Peter says, “His divine power has given us
everything we need for life and godliness.
This power was given to us through knowledge. . . .”
Proverbs 24 verse 5:
“A person of knowledge increases power.”
We do not grow in spiritual power unless we value our faith
seriously enough to study it.
Finally, spiritual power is relational.
Its roots are in Christ-centered relationships with each other.
Spiritual power grows through the intentional discipline
of paying attention to each other, caring for each other,
and finding things to appreciate in each other.
We grow in spiritual power when we do three things:
Pray, study, and befriend each other in Christ.
When we do that, we cease to be spiritual parasites
and become partners -- powerful agents for the kingdom.
But do we dare to claim the power Christ wants to give us?
I see several signs that make me wonder if we are that bold.
Some are a bit delicate.
The least sensitive examples are in our music.
The basic hymn for ordinations in the Episcopal Church
is the old Celtic song, St. Patrick’s Breastplate.
It’s so normative for ordinations and common for confirmations
that most bishops have heard enough of it for a lifetime.
It’s the basic strap on your gun belt song from every Western movie.
The words are an incantation St. Patrick prayed on the plain of Tara
before doing battle with the army of wizards of King Laoghaire.
“I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity . . . .
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim . . . .
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay . . . .”
It’s what we sing at confirmations before the bishop prays,
“Strengthen O Lord your servant. . . .”
My question is: why have I never once in our diocese,
in any church large or small, high or low, traditional or hip,
not once anywhere in our diocese ever heard that song?[i]
Three of Nevada’s last 4 bishops all attended the same seminary.
That seminary has a theme song, a bit of a fight song actually.
It’s called Chelsea Square named for the seminary’s location
in New York City.
It’s a vigorous song, a marching into mission song.
The opening lines are:
“Put forth O God thy Spirit’s might
And bid thy church increase. . . .”
You can guess my question.
Why have I never heard it in Nevada?
I am not really worried about holes in our musical repertoire per se.
I am wondering what this might say about our gumption
– our willingness to be strong in faith, powerful in mission.
Eucharistic Prayer C says,
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table
for solace only and not for strength.”
Is strength part of what we mean by the word Christian?
Are we willing as Christians to claim and exercise spiritual power?
If not, why am I about to pray for the confirmands
“empower them for your service”?
The Body of Christ needs a backbone.
The Body of Christ needs some fire in its belly.
The Body of Christ needs a steady eye, a firm hand,
and strong right arm.
We need Christians who pray until they radiate spirit,
who study their way into holy wisdom,
who have the relational power to hold fast to a friend
in the strongest storms of life.
When we have that kind of religion, brothers and sisters,
we’ll have the faith of the apostles.
When we have that kind of religion,
our faith will not be an aid to ordinary life
lived in an ordinary environment.
It will be the driving force of extraordinary life
that transforms our environment with justice and mercy.
We will be change agents for the kingdom of God.
When we have that kind of religion,
we will have been baptized with fire as the Bible promises
and the world will feel our transforming energy.
[i] Sicne I delivered this sermon in 2011 (this is a reprint as I did not preach on the Ascension this year), one of our congregations actually played St. Patrick’s Breastplate once. I believe it was St. John’s, Glenbrook.