“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be witnesses….” Acts 1:8a
What makes someone powerful in the kingdom of God?
Is it being a pastor of a huge church or the head of a large denomination or institution?
Does being powerful in the kingdom of God mean achieving a large enough measure of influence that we sway thousands with our views on a particular matter when we open our mouths or compose our latest message?
Or does power entail using our money and/or influence to lobby, bully, or manipulate a person, church, institution, or ministry to advance our ideologies or serve our agendas? (How interesting it is to observe that we often equate our ideologies and agendas with God’s will. Tragically, we regard challenges to the former to be challenges to the latter.)
Leaders are silent when pastors sexually abuse children. Apparently, they care more about maintaining their power and their ministry’s reputation than the abused. I’ve heard leaders vigorously defend driving out Christ-loving and Christ-following employees by announcing piously that the interests of the institution are far weightier than the interests of the disposed and despondent employees (and their families and communities). I’ve witnessed leaders claim to be “biblical and gospel-centered” in public while terribly mistreating their colleagues and then publicly lying about, covering up, and spinning their wicked behavior. I’ve also seen them use whatever means necessary to silence those who dared to call them to account for their behavior. We have our ways of resorting to respectable violence in the form of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering and social media slander to achieve our supposedly Christian ends. And we call it “standing up for what is right—standing up for the gospel—standing up for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ!”
I find myself often wondering how these fellow believers could possibly claim to be full of integrity and claim to be such staunch gatekeepers of the Jesus way. After all, they do tremendous harm to their closest neighbors, thereby failing to love them as they love themselves. According to the Apostle Paul, this constitutes a violation of the one command that summarizes the entire law of God (Romans 13:8-10). According to Jesus, it is a violation of the second greatest commandment.
Maybe they are under the impression that mouthing what they believe to be right doctrine and publicly, and if necessary, viciously, maligning those who disagree with them on a host of issues, makes them righteous. But of course, theology is not a litmus test for neighborly love. Jesus did not say, ‘Love only those neighbors with whom you agree theologically.’
Love is much more than words. In fact, the Apostle Paul writes, “For the kingdom of God is not of talk but of power.” There’s lots of Christian talk these days with seemingly God-less ways of relating to others. Christian talk combined with God-less ways of being render our testimony power-less.
A measure of my Christianity, of my faith in Jesus, is how I practically, not just theoretically, love those closest to me, my family and friends, and the body of believers. On a whole, they can tell whether or not I am living like Jesus. Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35). And of course, that love for Jesus and my fellow believers will naturally drive me to treat unbelievers as Jesus would—just as the despised Samaritan lavishly attended to the stranger left for dead by religious gatekeepers by the side of the road to Jericho. That practical love for my unbelieving neighbors is another measure of my Christianity, of my faith in Jesus. And this all-encompassing love of neighbor is a powerful witness. It produces humble, prayerfully active, others-referenced, and service oriented lives. St. Luke (Acts 2:47) tells us that when the early believers lived in such a way, they “enjoyed the favor of all people.”
So many of us know what the right answer is when it comes to power in the kingdom of God. Love is what fuels power. We know Jesus told his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of all (Mk 10: 42-45). But too often our ways of being and our use of power do not match the way of Jesus. Orthopraxy does not follow immediately from orthodoxy—we can have right doctrine and live like devils. Sadly, this point is all too evident to those who are paying attention.
When the Corinthians were divisive, tribal-like, quarreling and full of jealousy, they quenched the power of the Holy Spirit. Some were claiming to follow Peter, others claiming to follow Paul, others claiming to follow Apollos, and still others (self-righteously, no doubt) claiming to follow Jesus. Paul deemed them “worldly,” “infants,” and “mere humans” (I Cor. 1:12; 3). And in another letter, Paul asserts that in the last days we will have a form of godliness but deny its power when:
…men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God….
We are mistaken if we believe that these words in II Tim. 3:1-5 describe only those outside of the church or outside of our particular Christian tribe. These verses describe our collective witness in this time. They describe us today, if we are part of the body of Christ.
This grieves me deeply. My desire is that each one us would examine ourselves, our ministries, and our Christian workplaces to see where we may be failing to love one another as Jesus has loved us and where we may be abusing our power by abusing others or exploiting our neighbors to retain our power. Then we must repent—some of us publicly. That turning from sin and to the practice of greater love will allow the Spirit to fill us more fully. We’ll have greater power and maybe less talk.
We will become more powerful witnesses in Jesus’s name—and live in the Spirit of Pentecost.