You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.
In church this Sunday we’ll remember a day when the Spirit of God showed up with unmistakable power, like a mighty wind, marking a new beginning for Jesus’ followers. No longer were they frightened disciples of a crucified man. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they became the bold apostles of a resurrected Lord, proclaiming God’s mercy and forgiveness, freedom from sin and the fear of death, and the life-transforming love of Jesus.
Prior to that day, Jesus was clear that his followers were to wait until the Spirit of God came to them. On that day, he was equally clear that they were to act upon the power they had been given.
What do you do, I wonder, with the power the Holy Spirit has given you?
Our relationship to power is complicated, for there are many sources of power and countless ways we can either abuse or deny the power entrusted to us.
Like many of you, I’ve been studying the history of our country through the lenses of both race and religion. That history reveals how people of faith are capable of horribly misusing power. That same history reveals that we can be persuaded or taught that we have no power to effect the change we long for in ourselves and the world around us.
While the heinous abuses of human power are terrible to acknowledge and soul-wrenching to witness, there is as much accountability for those of us who fail to use the power we have for good. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Those who passively accept evil are as much involved in it are those who help to perpetrate it. Those who accept evil without protesting against it are really cooperating with it.”
In contrast, the Holy Spirit’s power working in and through us is always a force for good in this world. Always. It’s mysterious, in that we cannot control the Spirit. Yet sometimes we can feel it inside us, enabling us to accomplish, as St. Paul writes, “far more than we can ask for or imagine.” Others may thank us for a power that we didn’t know we had.
The Holy Spirit amplifies our own spirits, making us more, somehow, of who we already are. The Holy Spirit’s power amplifies and channels our own power, using even our sins for good. Thus it’s critically important for us to tend to our own spirits, and pay attention to the power we have, so that, as a friend of mine likes to say, “We give the Spirit more to work with.”
Thus while the Christian life does involve a lot of waiting for the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide us, it matters how we wait. Where do we show up? With whom do we interact? With what do we occupy ourselves? How are we tempted to misuse or downplay the power we already have?
In January 2012, I heard a sermon preached on the relationship between human power and God’s power that I’ve never forgotten. It was on the morning of President Obama’s second inauguration. The Obama and Biden families, and members of the President’s cabinet and their families, were gathered for prayer at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square. The preacher was Andy Stanley from Northpoint Community Church, one of the largest churches in the country.
From the pulpit Stanley looked President Obama in the eye, and then turned to the rest of us in the congregation and asked, “What do you do when you know that you’re the most powerful person in the room?”
He was speaking, of course, to the President of the United States, but also to everyone else. “We’ve all been that person,” he said, “at one time or another, though we may deny it. In relationship to our friends, coworkers, family or in casual interactions with others we might well be the most powerful person in the room.”
Stanley wanted all of us to acknowledge that God endowed us all with power, to think about how we use it, and make our power available to the Holy Spirit’s power working for good in this world. He reminded us of what Jesus did on the night of death, when he stripped to his waist, took a basin of water, and washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus–God’s Son, the most powerful man on he planet–gave his power away, in service of others.
In this season of Pentecost–the coming of the Holy Spirit–I wonder what you are doing with the power you already have? And how might the Holy Spirit work through you for good in this world?