"The kingdom of God is not mere words, but power" (I Cor. 4:20 (paraphrased)).
I have struggled for years with this statement of Paul's. If the kingdom of God is power, where is the manifestation of that power among us? It's hard to find. Are we not in the kingdom? I read credible reports from other parts of the world that sound like the next chapter of the book of Acts. But here....
Reading the gospels, I am struck by the actions of Jesus, as he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, set free those oppressed by demons, and more. Demonstrations of power. And, significantly, he said these things were signs of the arrival of the kingdom. People knew he was legitimate and that the kingdom had come by the acts of power they saw through Jesus.
"But that was Jesus." I can hear your thoughts, even now. That was Jesus, and we most certainly are not.
That's a common response and a reasonable one. "Of course Jesus did miracles! He was Jesus, after all!" But here's the thing: Jesus said that he was sending his followers the same way the Father sent him (John 20:21). And if we are expected to do the things he did - and we are - how can we do them without something like the power that he had?
Was Jesus unique in that respect? Did he have some inherent power that we lack?
Two thoughts: First, Bible scholars generally agree that Jesus left his inherent power, prerogatives and privilege as God when he took on flesh. See Philippians 2:5-8, called the kenosis, or emptying, passage.
And second, if we are sent by God to do a job on his behalf, and we cannot do it - as opposed to will not do it - has God set us up? What sort of loving God would tell us to do something that he knew well we were incapable of doing? I don't think God does things that way.
Now, this is mind boggling for many people, and it probably should be for the rest. It's a huge responsibility and, speaking for myself, I am incapable even of accurately understanding it, much less doing it. Those who say it's too much are correct. Sort of.
So what's happening? Was Jesus just joking? Was his statement accompanied by a smile and a wink, and John overlooked it? Unlikely. We have to take John's words seriously and as an accurate account of the intent of Jesus.
So where does that leave us? Are we doomed to disobedience when we cannot obey?
After Jesus said he was sending them - and us - he did something else that we often overlook. He "breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:22).
And the implications of this action are made clear when he continued in the next verse: "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."
Wow! This is the mind-blowing part for me. If we forgive sins...? Isn't that what got Jesus in trouble? He forgave sins. And those who saw understood that forgiving sins was the exclusive prerogative of God. Only God could do what Jesus did. And now, Jesus says we will do the same things, the things that only God has the authority to do.
How do we do it? How do we not be overwhelmed to the point of inaction, or not get a head so large we are insufferably obnoxious?
The Holy Spirit. It's by the power of the forgotten member of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. The answer to the question of how Jesus did all that he did is the same as the answer to how we are equipped to do all that we are expected to do: The power of the Holy Spirit. That was the source for Jesus, and that's the source for us.
Yet, I have noticed that most Christians have no interest in this. They aren't concerned about Jesus sending us, no matter what that entails, and they certainly don't want anything to do with that Holy Spirit stuff. No speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor for me, thank you!
I think the problem is a both matter of misconception and of control. First, many of us haven't a clue what it looks like when the Spirit of God is present and at work in and through us. But we should have: We have only to look at Jesus. And second, we like to think we are in control of our lives. (A pleasant little delusion, perhaps, but deadly to faith.) And so we don't want to yield to what we think is foolishness and craziness.
So, that's it. Without the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through us, all we have to offer the world is words. Insipid, powerless words. Who wants that?