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Jesus, the Spirit, and Empowerment

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It is impossible to speak of the Holy Spirit without also speaking of power. This is no doubt due in part to Jesus’ departing words to his disciples, “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,” (Acts 1:8 NRSV).

The Holy Spirit empowers the church for mission. And while this is true, it is not a carte blanche statement regarding the meaning of empowerment. Sadly, most of the church has accepted a definition of power that looks more like the empire of Caesar than the kingdom of God. The result is that we associate the meaning of power with might and strength, the ability to impose one’s will through force.

According to empire-power, the church “appeared” powerless until the “conversion” of Constantine. The rise of Christendom meant a shift in power. The church, once marginalized and oppressed, now stood at the center, holding the power that once belonged to the oppressors—the power of empire.

The church could now impose its will through force.

But is this what Jesus had in mind when he said the church would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come?

I contend that the church has a long history of separating Jesus from most of what we do, while at the same time insisting that we do everything in the name of Jesus. The result is that we exercise power in the name of Jesus while separating Jesus from our understanding of power.

How is this possible?

This is possible because the rise of Christendom was about the church moving from the margins to the center and in doing so pushing Jesus from the center to the margins.

To this day, Jesus remains marginalized. He is marginalized in how we understand God, in how we do ministry, in how we define success, and in how we exercise power. The collapse of Christendom may mean the church is no longer at the center, but it means absolutely nothing if does not also mean a return of Jesus to the center.

Therefore, a conversation on the Holy Spirit and power must be a conversation with Jesus at the center.

So what sort of power did Jesus have in mind when he said the church would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come?

I believe that the power Jesus spoke of was power consistent with both his life and his death. It was the power of his kingdom, not Caesar’s empire. It was the power of the crucified, not the crucifier.

The Spirit’s empowerment of believers will always be empowerment in the pattern of the crucified Messiah.

While speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you,” (John 14:26 NRSV).

The Spirit not only empowers the church, but also reminds the church of the nature of its power by reminding the church of all that Jesus said. Surely we don’t believe that the Spirit is busy reminding us what Jesus said, while at the same time empowering us in a way that is completely opposed to what Jesus said?

Is the Spirit busy reminding us that Jesus said, “do not resist an evildoer,” while at the same time the Spirit is empowering us to resist evildoers?

Is the Spirit busy reminding us that Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth,” while at the same time the Spirit is empowering us to store up treasures on earth?

Is the Spirit busy reminding us that Jesus said, “if any want to become my followers they must deny themselves and take up their cross,” while at the same time the Spirit is empowering us to build up ourselves and avoid our cross?

No! No! No!

The Holy Spirit is both reminding the church of what Jesus said and empowering the church to live what Jesus said. I say again, the Spirit’s empowerment of believers will always be empowerment in the pattern of the crucified Messiah. The reason for this is simple—the crucified Messiah is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23- 24).

Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians?

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NRSV)

Paul could say that he was with them in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, but at the same time with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. This is empowerment in the pattern of the crucified Messiah. Jesus hung on the cross in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, while at the same time with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Weakness, fear, and trembling cause one to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A demonstration of the Spirit and of power cause that same person to call out, in spite of weakness, fear, and trembling, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The church has been given the Holy Spirit in order to be empowered as witnesses to the crucified Messiah. Our empowerment will likewise resemble the crucified Messiah, and not the one who crucified the Messiah. It is power that resembles the kingdom of God, not power that resembles the empire of Caesar.

Yes, the resurrection and the ascension mean that Jesus has been exalted above Caesar, but he has been exalted as the crucified Christ; he is the resurrected king. We must never assume that the Holy Spirit empowers us with empire-power to be mini-Caesars.

We are empowered with kingdom-power to be mini-Christs.

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