Scripture - Acts 1:1-11
You will receive power. That promise hardly stirs the
blood any more. Not because we don’t believe that the promise will be kept; it’s just that most folk are not interested in power any more, not even political power. Oh, there was a time, a generation ago, even 10 years ago, when there was ambition for political power but disenchantment has set in, disenchantment by false hopes of what power can do, & disenchantment due to corrupt uses of power. And then came the apathy & the inertia. Now the promise of power brings nothing but a yawn.
There’s not even an interest in personal power. There have been times in our history when a premium was put on the power to change, power to be different from what we are & the way we are. There was preaching which stirred a divine discontent within us & the ‘ought’ of religion awoke in us our conscience. In my mind I serve God but in my members there is another force at work & I do not do what I ought. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. O wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me? This is what many people were saying, not just the Apostle Paul. How can my life become qualitatively better? How can I overcome those forces, those habits, those manners, those ways of life that hinder my being what I know I ought to be?
You will receive power. The promise was claimed by many but the promise is not interesting any more. You see the desirable word now is not power. The word is acceptance. We ought not to say “ought.” Don’t lay any guilt on me. The whole point is to accept yourself & to accept each other exactly as we are. Any program or desire to change, to be different, or to help anyone else change, is viewed as an admission that you have not accepted yourself. Nor have you accepted God’s acceptance of you. As you are, my friends, just as you are.
And so everywhere churches have been serving up small dishes of soft grace. Who needs power? Power implies that you want to be able to be different & that is not the point. What you want is to embrace what is, as it is. Drop from the vocabulary of the faith words such as ought & should. Lie back & be mellow. But for those first disciples to whom this promise was given, it was a proper word. They were a little group totally immobilized with a sense of powerlessness. They had been wrong, so totally wrong, about Jesus & the nature of his purpose & his ministry. They had 2 swords under their robes when they went up to Jerusalem with him. They were ready. They went up to Jerusalem humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Soon,” they said, “the drum will speak to the trumpet & the trumpet will speak to the cannon & the cannon will speak to the sky.” Then Jesus was arrested. Affections cooled, hopes died, & disenchantment took over. There was crucifixion. It was over.
But now God has raised Jesus from the dead. God has vindicated Jesus Christ. Something new is astir again & so they come asking: Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? “Now can we bring out the 76 trombones? Now can we raise the flag? Now can we march against Rome?” And again they are disappointed. “No, no, that’s not your business.” But you will receive power.
“Do you mean to say the Spirit of God is going to come upon us like it did upon our ancestors? As the Spirit came upon Samson & he was powerful over his enemies? As it came upon Gideon & he became the champion of the people? As the Spirit came upon Saul so that he amazed all his contemporaries with his leadership? Do you mean to say the Spirit of God will come upon us & we shall deliver our people?” No.
“Then perhaps you mean we are going to receive personal power for moral & ethical achievement. That we’re going to be better people. That there’s going to be personality development & self-assertion.”
“No. You will receive power to witness. That is to say, you shall receive power to share the message of the Christian faith.”
Now that is disappointing! Who needs power to witness? If you want to tell it, tell it. You don’t need any power from heaven, any HS to do that, do you? Well, it isn’t that simple. There is a kind of enabling, a kind of encouragement, a kind of power that is necessary. It is necessary if you are really to overcome a sense of self-disqualification. That is what hinders so many of us. We disqualify ourselves with those statements that sound, on the face of it, quite Christian. Who am I that I should be talking to other people about the faith when God knows I have so many problems of my own? I certainly am not perfect. I have enough difficulty with my own life. Who am I to speak to others? And so we spend our time getting ourselves straight first with the illusion that once we get everything straightened out about ourselves, then we will be qualified to speak to others. And so here we sit before a green light with the traffic backed up all the way to Atlanta tinkering with our own souls to get them adjusted just right so that we will be qualified to witness.
Now suppose, just suppose that the first Christians had been of this mind. Suppose they had said, “When we clean up all of our problems, then we’ll be able to speak to others.” How long would it have taken? In the membership of that first church was Judas. Don’t you imagine the church was tongue-tied about that? “Who are we to go out & talk to others? They might bring up Judas.”
“Who are you to be talking to us with a Judas in your group?”
And Simon Peter, who cursed & swore that he never knew Jesus, 3 times denying him. Can a church headed up by Simon Peter really witness? Or, for that matter, look at all the 12. Mark says they all forsook Jesus & fled in the hour of crisis. Are they now going to witness? Then there’s the leading missionary among them, Paul, his hands dipped to the elbows in the blood of the church. It was he who tried to stab that church in its cradle & kill all the Christians. And he is a witness? Do you mean to say that a church that was made up of grumbling widows, claiming they didn’t get their share of the blankets & the food, a church that had several of its leaders in jail most of the time, a church that had members like Ananias & Sapphira who lied about their offering, do you mean to say that church is going to witness?
Yes, because witnessing is not talking about one’s self. You don’t take the stand in the courtroom to explain to the judge & jury how you happen to feel about the accused or how you happen to feel about the whole case. You sit there to tell what you know, what you have witnessed. Personally, I think we are all beginning to get a little weary of this kind of witnessing in our time that has become subjective, so captive to itself, spending its Sundays & some of its weekdays taking trips through its own psyche while the world is essentially unaddressed on the grave issues that face the human race.
You will receive power to witness. Of course we need it. We need power if we are going to overcome our hesitation to speak at all. Most Christians are not glib, & thank goodness for that. We pause before the task of finding the appropriate word to say about God or about the Christian faith. We hide from that assignment; we hide in statements like: “It’s the life you live that really counts. It doesn’t really matter if you say anything.” We hide behind a preferred busyness. “I’d rather paint the sanctuary again than go out & say anything to anybody.” Of course we would rather not speak because that is the most difficult assignment of all. Beware of anyone who talks easily & freely & painlessly about intimate & important things. Of course it is difficult; that’s why the promise: You will receive power. You will be enabled; you will be emboldened to speak.
You will receive power to witness. Of course we need power to witness because witnessing means one has to overcome prejudice against a large number of people to whom we do not speak at all, much less about the Christian faith. Those to whom Jesus addressed the promise of power to witness were Jews of Palestine, primarily from Galilee. And the assignment he gave them was to witness in Jerusalem. Now that is a toughie. Jerusalem was where Jesus was arrested, where he was killed. But perhaps they are thinking, “We’re courageous; we’ll be a little scared but we can witness in Jerusalem.”
And you will be my witnesses in all Judea. “Well that’s a little bigger territory but we can handle that. In fact we have a large number of friends in Judea. We know those people, we speak the same language. Yes, we can do that.”
And you will be my witnesses in Samaria. “What?” In Samaria. “But Samaria is where those people live who are, you know, half-breeds. They speak with an accent, have different political views, a different religion, & only part of the Bible. Are you sure you mean Samaria?”
And to the end of the earth. “You mean among the Gentiles?” Yes. “We are to witness to Gentiles?” Yes.
Now are you beginning to sense the need for power? At each step of the way, barriers were there. The barriers were real & they did not come down easily. At first the members of the church were Jews, comfortable with each other. Then some began to admit into the church those who were called Greek Jews. They spoke Greek; they were more liberal, having accommodated themselves to Gentile lifestyles. Tensions & quarrels developed. Next we read that one missionary baptized & brought into the church some Samarians. What is happening to our church? And then an Ethiopian eunuch. Can you imagine bringing in an Ethiopian eunuch into the membership of Shiloh? Ethiopian is bad enough, but a eunuch? And then Gentiles, & here they come: Italians, Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, all of them. What is happening to our church?
At every step of the way, the prejudices were strong, the tensions were deep, & the arguments were heated. The first conference of the church was held to discuss the whole issue. Are we going to continue to bring into the church all these different kinds of people & regard them as equals? Seemingly immovable stood the ancient walls of language, custom, dress, food, social, & economic factors.
You will receive power. And when the book of Acts ends, the church has moved all the way from Jerusalem to Rome. All the barriers that were there are still there. Rich & poor, black & white, male & female, young & old, liberal & conservative, Republican & Democrat. The barriers are still there. But so is the promise. The promise is still there too. You will receive power. That promise lies there, too often unclaimed, but still available for those who would receive it. Are you interested?