Friday, May 26, 2017

Ascension Day: Power from on High

According to St. Luke, in his Gospel account of Jesus' ascension into heaven, the last words of Jesus to his disciples is, "And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

The four words that stand out for me in this declaration are "promised," "stay," "clothed," and "power." To attempt to put Jesus' words into my own interpretive sense, I connect these words thus:

I am going away, but you will receive what has been promised if you stay in the place of risk. In that place you will receive a share in the power of God that will so change you it will feel like being clothed with something not your own. 

"The city" of which Jesus speaks is, of course, Jerusalem. It is the place of fear. The other Gospel writers all have Jesus last experiences with his disciples in Galilee, their home country, a safe place. Luke is a man of the Empire, and knows intuitively that the world will not offer safety for the followers of Jesus.  All of the Gospel writers have the disciples-turned-apostles sent into the world with the message, but there is a difference in being sent from a safe place than being sent from a risky one. Luke wants to make it very clear that followers of Jesus must learn to live at risk ( or even in danger), so the risky, dangerous place, for him, is the only logical place to receive the promised power.

What is this "power from on high?"  "The Holy Spirit," is the obvious answer, but, really, a rather vague one. Saying that the followers of Jesus will receive power from on high begs the question, what kind of power with which do to what?

There is a kind of "power paradigm" that surrounds us.  Power is the smarts, the cleverness, the ability to project fear, the skill and strength to win. In current vernacular, power is whatever it takes to be a winner; lack of power, defined as weakness or lack of talent, or even laziness, inevitably leads to loss, to be a "loser."

The biblical sense of "power from on high" are characteristics like courage, resilience, graciousness and, above all, love.  Another list is Paul's "Fruits of the Spirit" from Galatians 5:22-23.

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

None of these has anything to do with winning or gaining power over others.  They are not so much about "end results" as they are "ways of being," and that is perhaps the most important distinction between "power" as we tend to conceive it, and biblical "power."

The other important distinction is that "power from on high" is just that, from elsewhere. It is a gift. In biblical terms, it is grace, and so it is not something which we must conjure up in ourselves but something which we must be ready to receive and exercise sometimes despite our inclinations.

Which is to say, power from on high is a promise, something with which we are clothed.

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