Listen to the sermon here:
Scripture – Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10; 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
Power! What does that word bring to mind? Power! It seems it should always be spoken loudly. Is power always loud? I think not. If I think about it, I have known power that worked softly or even silently. This is a manipulation usually. A clandestine operation. Evil intention.
Then there is the power that thunders! It shakes us to our very bones. We automatically cover ourselves with fear and shake in our skin. Every nerve in our body is stretched tightly, to the point of snapping. Nerves stretched as such do not allow the body and mind to function well or at all. Everything becomes automatic.
Also with the clandestine type of power. We may or may not sense it coming toward us – either as an individual focus or a group being focused by the evil intention. What is our defense? Jesus Christ is our sure defense! Cradled in the arms of Jesus, we find relief. This is not just a saying or wishful thinking. This is real. Cradled in the arms of Jesus. How do we do that? We don’t. Jesus is the one whose arms are ready to wrap themselves around us just when we think the power of evil is overcoming us. “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.” (Psalm 23 CEV).
Many theologians dwell on this subject: the power of power and what it does to society. I am thinking of a theologian named Walter Wink. One of his books is called The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium.1” This book is a condensation of three books which Wink wrote on the subject of power. I want to share with you the first paragraph of the introduction section of the book (page 1).
“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them. Who wants to do without timely mail delivery or well-maintained roads? But the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.”
Were we to endeavor to search the whole of scripture, how many evil powers would we find? Enough to have us crawling in haste under our beds or to those bomb shelters which were created in our basements or under our yards during the Cold War or, yes, finding the nearest counselor – Christian or otherwise.
But as Walter Wink says, some power structures and institutions are necessary. I am wondering how long a list we could develop naming the good powers in the world. The problem is that rarely would we find an institution whether government or religious or family that is all good or all evil. It is the recognition and the sorting to learn the difference that is key. It is the remedy for, or the demolition of, the harmful powers that is challenging but necessary. How will that work? How can we possibly come from underneath?
Wink explains the domination system that has been in existence for 5000 years – that would take us backward to 3000 B.C. at the time of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia. An example of a domination system would be the South African system of apartheid. “It was a total system, extending into the gobal economy and world political system. This overarching network of Powers is what we are calling the Domination System. It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years …”1 (p. 59)
Being curious about Pax Romana (mostly the pronunciation which I did not find, so you may want to correct my pronunciation), I researched the subject at Wikipedia, on the internet. I found this explanation which will lead us to the role that Jesus played in the “power” realm.
Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman peace”) was the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Since it was established by Augustus, it is sometimes called Pax Augusta. Its span was approximately 206 years (27 BC to 180 AD). The Pax Romana is said to be a “miracle” because prior to it there had never been peace for that many centuries in a given area of human history.
The political technique of Augustus is given credit in this explanation. However, you and I know that this period of time includes the years that Jesus was sent by the Father to teach the world reverse psychology. 1) If someone slaps you on your cheek, turn the other cheek for the person in power to hit it also. 2) The meek shall inherit the earth. 3) The first shall be last and the last shall be first. 4) Sit at the foot of the table so that you may be asked to come to the head of the table.
From Wink, “In his beatitudes, his healings, and his table fellowship with outcasts and sinners, Jesus declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.” Wink also explains, “The words and deeds of Jesus reveal that he is not a minor reformer but an egalitarian prophet who repudiated the very premises of the Domination System: the right of some to lord it over others by means of power, wealth, shaming, or titles. Almost every sentence Jesus uttered was an indictment of the Domination System or the disclosure of an alternative to it.”1 (p. 65)
In Luke 22:24-27, Luke writes, “A dispute also arose among [the disciples] as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Jesus taught non-violence. He promoted, and was the epitome of, domination-free order. Jesus is living and talking the kingdom of God, partially with us already, some day to come fully. When the kingdom of God exists fully with us, there will be no domination order other than God and God is egalitarian – God’s loves everyone equally. Our belief is that God created each person and wants us to be the best (including kindest) person we can be.
In our Acts passage today – Acts 1:6-14, Jesus is still with the disciples, now mostly called apostles. Disciples are mainly followers, while apostles “go” as in “go tell and baptize,” as in “become leaders.” This is after the resurrection, almost the time of the Ascension. Jesus is preparing the disciples/apostles for their mission when he is lifted to the Father in the place we call heaven. In the three years prior to the death and resurrection, Jesus led these followers in the way of domination-free living as children of God. Jesus coached and lived humility. He, Jesus, is the way, the truth and the life. Not kings, not principalities, not institutions – just Jesus.
Now, the funny thing is happening. Jesus is saying as a way of farewell, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, right then, the scriptures says, Jesus is lifted and a cloud took him our of their sight. This power that Jesus sent to his followers was the Holy Spirit. Ten days after this ascension we have the day we call Pentecost because it happened 50 days after the resurrection. The Holy Spirit came as little flames that danced on the people’s shoulders and heads and on this day these people from many places could understand each other.
Between the Ascension and Pentecost these followers-becoming-leaders did what they had done in times of stress from the day of death – they went to a room set apart to be in solitude with each other; to discuss what the future held; and to wait. The disciples are listed by name in this passage. These men had the privilege of being with Jesus during the forty days in which he stayed on earth after the resurrection to prove that it was really he, that the power of resurrection was real; that the power of God omnipotent (all powerful) can and does supercede the evil powers of the world.
Peter says in 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” God’s power produces upside-down and inside-out results. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The working elements of this process are humility, love, respect, kindness. God’s power within us transforms us as persons, as community, and as a world in which peace reigns – the kingdom of God now but not yet fully.
Oh, Lord of love – powerful love – we know you are the true redeemer from the evil powers. Restrain us from violent retaliation. Help us to use your power to establish peace and live by peaceful attitude, manner, and action. For the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, who died and rose in defiance of the powers that be, by the power of Almighty God. Amen
1Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium (New York, New York: Galilee/Doubleday/Random House, Inc., 1998)