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Title: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 21 May 2023 4.00pm
On the Monday after Christmas in 2020, a Texan member of the House of Representatives called Louie Gohmert sued the then Vice-President of the United States in the District Court of East Texas. If his Wikipedia entry is correct, Gohmert has compared Barack Obama to Hitler, claimed that Hilary Clinton is ‘mentally challenged’, and asserted that homosexuality is validly compared to bestiality.
Described in a Texan newspaper as ‘a precursor to Donald Trump’s brand of populist, establishment-bucking conservatism that delights in offending progressives and makes no apologies for spreading misinformation’ Gohmert sought to persuade a federal judge that Mike Pence had the sole right to decide which electoral votes he would accept in the arcane process of the electoral college – the body which certifies the winner of a US presidential election.
Former congressman Gohmert, unsurprisingly, wanted Pence to be able to disregard votes from some states which had cast their lot for Joe Biden, and thus certify that Donald Trump had, in fact, won the 2020 US general election. According to the former Vice-President’s memoir, “So help me God”, published last November, Trump called Pence to demand that he put out a press statement in support of Gohmert’s legal challenge – a position that Pence did not want to adopt.
In the course of the phone call, Trump demanded of his Veep, “if it gives you…power, why would you oppose it?” And on the day that Pence’s autobiography was published, a political analyst at CNN seized on this question, stating:
If you had only one quote to understand Trump and how he views the world, that would be a pretty good one. The only thing that matters to Trump is power – and how to wield it. He views the world as a relentless fight for power and control. The winners are the people who seize power – no matter the cost. There is no “right” in Trump’s worldview. There’s only what you can do – and who can try to stop you.
For, as Jesus said, You will receive power […..] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…
Which, when viewed from the Trumpian lens I have just described, must have been a bit bewildering for the eleven people whose names we heard read in our first lesson. That is, if you can even remember who it is that I am talking about.
I preached my first ever sermon during my first year of theological college, almost precisely thirty years ago. The gospel for the Sunday morning in question was Matthew’s account of Jesus calling The Twelve, and I made myself rather unpopular with my fellow students, by asking as many of them as I could if they could manage to name all twelve of the apostles. Not one of them could – and I wouldn’t mind betting that, if you refrain from looking at page seven of this morning’s order of service, you might struggle to give me all the names which were just read out. And that is partly because, if we are honest, many of them are remarkably obscure.
Even though the book from which that reading was taken is called the Acts of the Apostles, eight of the eleven names we just heard are literally not mentioned again in the entire book – that was their only appearance. From this point onwards, other than non-biblical pious (but historically suspect) tradition, we know nothing more at all of Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, or Judas son of James. And nor will we hear anything more of Matthias, on whom the lot will fall in eleven verses time, when he is elected to bring the number of apostolic leaders back to that symbolic twelve. Nine people whom, according to Jesus, ‘will receive power’, but who fade into immediate obscurity after Acts chapter one, verse thireen.
Even for the ring-leaders – those whose names who are not obscure – even for Peter, James and John, the working out of this ‘power’ is curious, to put it mildly. John dies in homeless exile on a small and insignificant Greek island, while the others, so we believe, are put to death because of their faith. And before they reach the point of martyrdom, much of Acts depicts years of constant clashing with leaders, governors and rulers, as Peter and then Paul are punished, beaten and imprisoned. Their actual martyrdoms are not described, but Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, imminently expecting a trial and a capital sentence.
And yet, promises Jesus, ‘you will receiver power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. But whatever kind of power Jesus means, it is certainly not the kind of power that is compatible with Mr Trump, and his now famous boast from the 2016 election campaign, when he said that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody’ without losing any voters.
It is not the kind of power that unleashes a senseless and evil war on a neighbouring country that has now lasted 452 days. It is not the kind of power that probably attracts even more moderate and conventional political leaders to seek high office, and it is not the kind of power one expects to find being wielded in a board room of any profit-distributing company or organisation.
If you want an insight into how the story continues, the very next portion of scripture we heard, from 1 Peter, shows just how ‘powerful’ a group or groups of Christians are nearer the end of the first century, in what we would now call modern-day Turkey. The recipients of this letter traditionally ascribed to St Peter are experiencing a ‘fiery ordeal’, and being ‘reviled for the name of Christ’, and the author of the letter is reminding them that ‘your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering…’
It is, perhaps, enough to make you wonder what that community of believers, both apostles, the ‘certain women’, and Jesus’ brothers were praying for, in that ten-day period between the Ascension and the actual coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. And therefore, perhaps, this might be a wake-up call for us to work out what it is that we should be praying for – praying for at all times, and perhaps most particularly as we journey through these last days of Eastertide in the build-up to Pentecost.
That first reading from Acts gives us a clue in its opening that the apostles are not thinking along the right lines, when their final question – the last thing they ever get to say to Jesus – is a question about political power: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The fact that it is in his rebuke to this inappropriate question that Jesus talks about how they will receive power should give us the clue that Jesus means something really rather different.
But it is a difference the Church has always been so slow to understand. We would be far from honest if we failed to acknowledge how often throughout history the church has got it wrong. While, here in York, we celebrate Constantine’s accession as Roman emperor, there are some that feel that ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under that great emperor, the church’s love of power has been too cozy and too self-serving.
Major moments in history, such as the Crusades, or the slowness of the English Church to condemn slavery and push for its abolition, would suggest a love of secular power that has been unhealthy. But it is not just an historic problem. If you were listening to Radio Four earlier this very morning, you will have heard one person reflecting on the symbolism of the Coronation and the role of the Church, who said, “I did wonder if Charles III should have put the crown on Justin’s head, instead.”
If we want a clue to what Jesus means when he promises ‘power’ to his followers, we can find it in Luke’s very first use of the word, way back in the first chapter of his gospel, when the archangel Gabriel tells that frightened young woman that ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you’.
For the result of that use of divine power is to turn Mary’s life upside down, not by making her rich or powerful – her life is turned upside down by becoming an unmarried pregnant woman, who gives birth in a stable, and who has to flee to Egypt for the safety of her baby – a baby, who when he grows up himself shows an utter lack of interest in riches or political power, and dies the death of a common criminal, deserted by all his friends.
And the power of God that will come up on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost shows itself at its best as they talk ever the more persuasively of a God of forgiveness, a God of new life, a God of love. Nothing in the power of the Holy Spirit will make them rich or famous. Nothing about the power that will come upon them will make them able to send armies into battle or will elections.
For despite the sickening coziness that exists between president Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, or the reliance of the American hard right on fundamentalist evangelicals, the power which Jesus promises is not power that a Putin or a Trump can recognize or understand. And it was, perhaps, not the power for which the apostles were praying during those ten days in they spent in the upper room, as they wondered what would happen next. For it is very true that we should be careful what we pray for.
But the power Jesus offered them and offers us is the only power that will, to quote a prayer from the end of this service, ‘help us to live the good news we proclaim’ – it is the only power that can ‘strengthen [us] to proclaim the word and works of God’.
And the amazing story of the Acts of the Apostles is that those hapless peasant fishermen and their mates, those first disciples who were so slow to learn, who got it wrong so often, who fled when their leader was arrested, and whose last words to him were still misplaced…
Hopeless though they were – and hopeless as we so often are – they discovered that when they spoke of God’s Word, of God’s works and of God’s love, they could change the world – as we can we. And it simply doesn’t get any better than that! Amen.
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