Throughout March, April, and May I am preaching from the Luke’s Acts of Apostles. In fact, the church is reading selections from Acts each day, our Sunday Bible classes our studying Acts, and our CORE Groups are discussing Acts on Sunday evenings.
It’s hard to miss Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit in either his gospel or the Acts. I hope the following extended quote about the “power of the Holy Spirit” will be a help to all those who are reading, discussing, and experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit. So here’s the quote, from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson, pages 270-272.
Twice, at the end of the Gospel and at the beginning of Acts, as Jesus tells his friends that he will send the Holy Spirit to them, he also says that this coming of the Spirit will be accompanied by power: “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49); and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8).
“Power” is a critical word for understanding what we can expect as the Holy Spirit “clothes us” and “comes upon us.” But a dictionary is not a good place from which to determine its meaning. Dictionaries are wonderful tools and we would be the poorer without them, but in Gospel matters they are among the lesser helps. The reason is that everything in the Gospel is personal, relational, and embodied in particulars. There are no generalities. Every word is embedded in the Story and, in the most comprehensive sense, incarnate in Jesus, “the word made flesh.” Isolated in a dictionary a word has no context and therefore no relationship, no “flesh.” For those of us who are interested in living the truth and not just acquiring information, it is necessary to discover the meaning of a word by looking it up in the Story, not the dictionary.
The first two times that Luke employs the term “power” are instructive. The first is in Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” Here Holy Spirit power makes a woman pregnant. All five of the Holy Spirit references in Luke 1-2 are related to pregnancy and birth. This is a most interesting use of “power” and not at all the way it is conventionally used. Sexual impregnation is associated with intimacy and lovemaking, gentleness and mutuality. If the sexual act is impersonal or harsh or forced, it is understood as a violation. If we are careful to let the Story provide the meaning of “power,” it is inconceivable (literally!) to understand power as anything impersonal or imposed by force. We can footnote Gabriel with a text from the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD” (Zech. 4:6) -the kind of power that is synonymous with “might” is no part of the way the Spirit works.
The second occurrence of the term “power” by Luke is in the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted by the devil to command stones to become bread, to become the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world, and to prove his divinity by performing a spectacular circus trick by diving off the pinnacle of the temple and having an angel save him at the last minute. Each is a temptation that has to do with the exercise of power: power to impose his will on the creation, power to impose his will on nations, and power to become a talk-of-the-town celebrity. Each of these exercises of power could be, and with Jesus most certainly would be, good: feeding a lot of people, ruling the whole world justly, demonstrating the miraculous, ever-present providence of God to the people on the street. Jesus said no to each one in turn. Why? Because in each case it would have been power used impersonally, power abstracted from relationships, power without any engagement in love, power imposed from the outside. Each instance – and Jesus’ citations of sentences from the Story each time highlight this – would have been a use of power that was ripped out of the context of the Story and therefore ripped out of the participating context of people’s lives. Whatever the power of the Spirit means, bullying force isn’t part of it. It is certainly not what takes place when a fuse ignites a stick of dynamite (named after the Greek word for power, dynamis). The power of God is always exercised in personal ways, creating and saving and blessing. It is never an impersonal application of force from without.
After the three great refusals to use power to do good things in the wrong way, Luke tells us this: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee. . . . He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (4:14-15). We observe in detail as the narrative continues that as Jesus teaches, whether in word or act, he is always personal and relational. Jesus, employing the “power of the Spirit,” is set in explicit contrast to the three depersonalized, decontextualized uses of power in the wilderness: power to help the hungry, power to do justice, power to evangelize by miracle. The moment the community exercises power apart from the story of Jesus, tries to manipulate people or events in ways that short-circuit personal relationships and intimacies, we can be sure it is not the power of the Holy Spirit; it is the devil’s work. The Holy Spirit, no matter how loudly or frequently or piously invoked in such settings, is a stranger to such religious blasphemies.