Sunday, May 08, 2016

Clothed with Power from on High

My original title was “The Christians’ New Clothes”, which I changed to “Clothed With Power From On High”. I thought of the first title because of a practice I learned about some years ago. Among the Nisga’a, Gitsan, and Tsimshian nations there is a cleansing ritual when someone has sinned against his/her family and the community. For example, if a man commits adultery and later wants to be fully reintegrated into the community, he undergoes this cleansing ritual. (Described for me at a NAIITS conference at , September 2004, by Joe, a native of the Tsimshian First Nation living among the Gitsan people.) Here is the ritual:
  • Confession to elder in the family and to the chief of the tribe – public ceremony in which his close relatives circle him – conversation with the aunties and uncles who tell him what he did while his old clothes are taken off – a new set of clothes, purchased by the family put on him – accepted back into the community as a new person – the offence may never be referred to again – ceremony paid for by the family – all present throw money into a basket to help out with the ceremony.

I describe this ritual to set the stage for our texts. We are people who have confessed our rebellion and God wants to dress us with new clothes: power from on high.

Ascension Sunday serves as the first church’s introduction to the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus stopped appearing to the disciples after his resurrection—and we call this stopping the ascension—the Holy Spirit came to continue his presence with the church. Now it’s a curious thing that the ascension of Jesus is recorded only in Luke’s writing. I don’t know why Matthew and John do not refer to it. Mark ends his story with the resurrection itself, but Matthew and John could have referred to it, and don’t. The longer ending of Mark refers to it, but this is Luke’s story, so this morning we heard passages from Luke 24 and Acts 1.

In these two chapters I observe three basic ideas:
1. Walk: Jesus walked through the Scriptures with the disciples. We study the Bible together.
2. Wait: Jesus told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit. We wait for God’s presence together.
3. Witness: Jesus told the disciples that the Spirit would make them witnesses. We witness to God’s Spirit together.
These three themes together describe who we are when we are “clothed with power from on high.”

Walk Through the Bible
On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13 to 35), we read: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” As Jesus walked with the two disciples, he walked them through their Scriptures—our Old Testament. In Luke 24: 44-45 we read: “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” In Acts 1 Luke covers the same time period. Observe the action there. Verse 3 reads: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” We can take it that this instruction was expanding their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The disciples knew their Scriptures well, but they had not thought through what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. After the resurrection, Jesus took them back through their Scriptures, rereading the Hebrew Bible with this new information—that the whole book was fulfilled in him. Paul went through a similar process when he was converted. In Galatians 1 Paul says,
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

The highlighted section gives a period of three years during which Paul was doing something. Arabia (verse 17) probably means what we call Saudi Arabia—desert. What was Paul doing for these three years, a part of it in the desert? I think he was re-evaluating his life. He had defended the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions against all comers, but now he had to re-interpret them. He fought against Jesus and the disciples because he thought they blasphemed against God, but once he accepted Jesus as divine, he had to find out how the Hebrew Scriptures foretold him. In short, he was doing what the disciples were doing with Jesus in Luke 24 and Acts 1. Study the Scriptures to find Jesus and know Jesus better. Walk through the Bible with God and with each other.

Wait for the Spirit
In both Luke 24 and Acts 1 Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit.
Luke 24: 49, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The promise of course is the Holy Spirit. The city is Jerusalem. The  command is, “Wait in the city.”
Acts 1: 4 and 5, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Again, the gift is the Spirit. The city is Jerusalem. The command is, “Wait for the gift.”

Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem. Jerusalem as the city of God represents the place where we meet God. As we walk through the Bible together, we wait in God’s presence for God’s Spirit. We don’t read in order to go out and do something dramatic. We don’t worship here together on Sundays and meet at other times in order to do something dramatic. We read and sing and pray and worship is how we wait for God’s Spirit.

Sometimes people try to turn this waiting for the Spirit into a system—whether the Keswick view of the higher life or a more extreme view of perfectionism as developed in some Wesleyan circles. Hear me carefully, you cannot put the Holy Spirit into a box and control the moving of the Spirit. Rather we wait for the Spirit to move, and then we follow. An old hymn says it:

Hover o’er me, Holy Spirit, Bathe my trembling heart and brow;
Fill me with Thy hallowed presence, Come, O come and fill me now.
Fill me now, fill me now, Jesus, come and fill me now;
Fill me with Thy hallowed presence, Come, O come, and fill me now.

I am weakness, full of weakness, At Thy sacred feet I bow;
Blest, divine, eternal Spirit, Fill with power and fill me now.

It’s an old campground hymn, and easily becomes emotional and sentimental, but the idea is right. When we focus on action and results, rather than waiting in God’s presence for God’s Spirit, we lose the power of resurrection joy, which God wants to give to us. Instead, waiting and doing go together. We wait for God while we do the work of each day. Waiting is the condition of our lives, the space within which we anticipate God’s renewed coming into our lives repeatedly.

The disciples misunderstood the point of waiting for the Spirit. They immediately jumped back into ideas that Jesus had worked so hard for three years to remove. They thought the gift of the Spirit meant that now the kingdom would come in power and Jesus would reign with them forever. Jesus rebuked them—again—and gave them the real purpose of waiting for the Spirit: Witness!

Think of what a witness is. Imagine that as one of you was walking up to the church today you saw an accident. Two cars driving down Oakwood got too close when passing so that they hit each other. It looks like a pretty bad accident.  Imagine that I was sitting in the office going over my sermon to be ready to preach. You come in to the office and tell me what happened and then call the ambulance and the police. When the police come, who will they want to talk to? They might ask me, “What happened?” I reply, “So-and-so came in and told me that two cars hit each other.” Immediately they want to talk to the person who saw the accident. I am not a witness. I only heard about it.

That’s what’s going on here. The disciples were witnesses to Jesus’ earthly life, as well as to his death and resurrection, but God wanted something more. God wanted to make them witnesses to the continued presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended into heaven. They could not witness to this reality until they experienced it. That is why they had to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit. Only then could they say, “We have something to tell you!” In chapter 2, that is exactly what happened.

Is any of this for us?
A fair question asks if any of this applies to us, or if this just tells what happened to the first disciples. This is where Ephesians 1 comes in. here the text again:
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Paul wants the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit, just like the first church. Paul himself did not see Jesus in his earthly life. He came on the scene just after the resurrection, and met Jesus on the road to Damascus. If walk—wait—witness applied only to the first disciples, then it did not apply to Paul. But clearly Paul sees this response to Jesus’ resurrection to include him, and in Ephesians 1 he applies the same filling of the Spirit to the new Christians in Ephesus. Is this pattern for us? Short answer: You bet it is!

Clothed With Power from On High
When we walk in the Scriptures together, when we wait in God’s presence together, we become God’s witnesses together, “clothed with power from on high.” Different theologians have used a similar set of terms to say what we would look like. John Stott has a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, which he refers to as God’s way for the counter-culture of the church. Larry Miller (of MWC) refers to the church as the microsociety in the macrosociety, showing what God’s reign looks like. Michael Goheen (who used to be theologian at Trinity Western) calls the church a contrast society that lives in contrast with the world around us.

You see, Jesus is the incarnation of God. Jesus shows us what God looks like in human flesh. The church is the incarnation of God’s reign, as in Ephesians 1:22-23, where we are called “the body of Christ.” Our job is to show the world what God’s reign look like in human flesh. When we are clothed with power from on High, when we are filled with the Spirit, we become God’s people, making God’s reign visible in our lives.

I think of the church that I come from, the Brethren in Christ. In Ontario we were called Tunkers (from the practice of baptizing by trine immersion), or sometimes just “plain people.” I read somewhere about the attitude of their neighbours in the Niagara Peninsula. Someone was talking to the customs and immigration official at Niagara Falls about the Tunkers, and the customs officials said something like, “Oh we never worry about the plain people. Every year at their Love Feast, they come to make right anything they brought over the border in the previous year.”

What happened was this. Someone might bring something in from New York State without declaring it properly, but every year at Love Feast the brothers and sisters examined their consciences. Then they went to the customs officials to pay duty on everything they might not have declared. Their behaviour might cause a certain amount of laughter among more sophisticated folk, but they were clothed with God’s Holy Spirit, and they knew what God wanted them to do.

That’s what the first church was like too. Acts 1 to 4 tell us that they cared for all their poor people, because they were “clothed with power from on high.” A famous quote from Julian, a Roman ruler from the fourth century states: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.” After warning us not to idealize the first Christians, Stephen Neill describes them like this:
In those days to be a Christian meant something. Doubtless among the pagans there were many who lived upright and even noble lives. Yet all our evidence goes to show that in that decaying world sexual laxity had gone almost to the limits of the possible, and that slavery had brought with it the inevitable accompaniments of cruelty and the cheapening of the value of human life. Christians were taught to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The Church did not attempt to forbid or abolish slavery; it drew the sting of it by reminding masters and slaves alike that they had a common Master...and that they were brothers in the faith. (A History of Christian Missions, page 41.)

This was the period in which Christianity conquered the Roman world through love. That conquest led to major problems, most notably the way that true Christian faith became a political matter rather than a relationship with God. But it shows also how thoroughly the church can influence our world—this counter-cultural microsociety living in contrast with the world around us. Like the first disciples, we walk with each other in God’s Written Word, we wait with each other in God’s presence, and we witness the reality of God’s reign in our lives. We are clothed with power from on high.

8 May 2016: Ascension Sunday
Grace Bible Church
Texts: Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

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