Powerful Witnesses

How does the Holy Spirit’s power manifest itself through people seeking to be witnesses of Jesus in the world?  Throughout history, the Church has often used worldly power to convert people to Christianity (i.e. the Crusades, colonialism, the Doctrine of Discovery, and now, Christian Nationalism).  The Holy Spirit’s power must align with Jesus’ example as servant and peacemaker.  Three ways this power is manifested today is through courage, compassion, and creativity. 

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:  Acts 1:1-11

It’s good to be back after a great vacation that Karen and I had in Scandinavia the past two weeks.  Thank you so much to everyone who filled in for me in different ways.

It’s great seeing how so many people in our small congregation are using their gifts to serve and build up the church, the body of Christ.

On one of our days in Stockholm, Sweden, we visited what’s known as the Vasa museum.  The Vasa museum is one of the most popular museums in Sweden, it gets a lot more visitors than the Abba museum right next door. (which we went to as well!)

The Vasa museum houses a well-preserved Swedish warship that was built in the early 1600’s.   The ship was ordered to be built by King Gustavas Adolphus to help with Sweden’s expansion after the King initiated in a war with Poland-Lithuania in the 1620’s.

The Vasa was built for war.  It was armed with two rows of bronze cannons all the way around the ship.

The Vasa was also decorated with sculptures representing Roman and Greek gods, as well as some figures from the Old Testament as well.  I saw a sculpture of King David amidst all the sculptures.

These sculptures and cannons, were intended to glorify the authority and military strength of the King’s monarchy in Sweden, and they were built to taunt and intimidate the enemy.

But there was one problem.  A very major problem to be precise.  With all the cannons and sculptures lining the upper hull of the ship, the Vasa was way too top-heavy, making the ship dangerously unstable.

But the king and his advisors were so enamored with the power and glory of the ship that they overlooked that architectural flaw, and ordered it to set sail on a blustery day in August of 1628.

And sure enough, only a few minutes later, after traveling less than a mile, a strong wind came up, and the Vasa rocked back and forth, until it finally tipped over and sank to the bottom of the harbor.

And we think the Titanic didn’t make it very far!

The Vasa sat on the ocean floor for over 300 years, and was finally pulled up out of sea and towed to where the museum is today.

From the beginning of time until now, the kingdoms of this world have sought to use political and military power to expand their territory and influence.  We see the painful reality of that these days with Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And sadly, many times throughout history the Christian Church has been complicit in joining with governments to advocate the use of political and military force to spread the gospel “to the ends of the earth”.

To name a few, there were the Crusades during the Middle Ages, colonialism in Africa beginning in the late 1800’s, and the conquest of the Americas that began in the late 1400’s that was blessed through a papal document known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

The Doctrine of Discovery gave European Christians a God-given right to displace and destroy Native peoples.  They invaded the Americas with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other, forcing indigenous people to “convert” to Christianity, through coercion, threats and violence.

It was good to hear that recently, Pope Francis and the Vatican formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

But in some ways the attitudes behind the Doctrine of Discovery have carried on and manifested themselves in different ways, even today.  I read an article recently that talked about how today’s Christian Nationalism shares some of the same attitudes that were part of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The author, Andrew Whitehead, says that Christian nationalism is intimately intertwined with the belief that God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society to serve as an example to the rest of the world.”

Christian Nationalism believes that the U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation, that being Christian is an important part of being truly American, and God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

And in order for this kind of society to be realized, Whitehead says that “Christian nationalism idolizes self-interested power, fear of outsiders and violence toward those who threaten the boundaries between “us” and “them.””

The sad reality is that Christian Nationalists today, and the Church throughout the centuries could justify the use of military and political power to create a “Christian nation” based on Jesus’ words in the 1st chapter of Acts, when he says

 “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” –1:8

But I believe that their understanding of “power” and the way the Holy Spirit works is deeply flawed.

Some of the psalms in the Old Testament speak of the folly and danger of trusting in worldly powers instead of in God.  I’ve been going through the psalms in my daily devotional times this year, and I’ve been using this book by Tim Keller as a guide, “The Songs of Jesus”.

Just a couple of days ago, Tim Keller passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was a longtime pastor and author of many books, well-respected by so many in the Church and outside the Church.

One Psalm I read a while back was Psalm 33, which contrasts military and political power with the power of God.  It says “the Lord foils the plans of the nations; …No King is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.  A war horse is a vain hope for deliverance.”

In Keller’s reflection on the Psalm he says, “God works out his plans to save us unaltered by the rise and fall of civilizations, nations, and powers…In God we trust, not social power, political maneuvers, or economic clout.”

Now I will say that God can use political power and economic wealth to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.  But it seems to me that they must line up with the values of God’s Kingdom, like caring for those who are poor and vulnerable, working for peace, and serving the common good.

When I was at the Student Peace Awards ceremony a couple of months ago, our congressman Gerry Connelly spoke, and it seemed clear to me that in many ways he was using his position in politics to work for peace and the common good of all people.

The ways that Jesus used his power to communicate the message of the kingdom of God was never through the mediums or methods of manipulation or force, or violence, even though Christians have often resorted to these tactics to get people saved and into the Church.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit and presence of Jesus himself, and so it manifests power through Christians and the Church in the same ways that Jesus understood and used power.  It’s like that phrase, “the medium is the message” that was coined by Marshall McLuhen back in the 1960’s.   

For example, if God is love, then methods to share the good news of Jesus must be rooted in love.  If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, then methods to lead people to him must be peaceful, not violent or manipulative.

So what mediums and methods does the Holy Spirit use in the lives of people who seek to be witnesses of the Good News of Jesus and his kingdom?  What does the Holy Spirit’s power look like, and how is it fleshed out everyday life?

As I thought about this, three words came to my mind.  And they all start with the letter “C”.  I love it when alliteration works in putting together a message!

Now these words came to my mind at about 4 am a couple of days ago while I was having trouble sleeping, so take them as you will.  The words are courage, compassion, and creativity.

Courage, compassion and creativity are some ways that I believe the power of the Holy Spirit expresses itself in our witness for Jesus to the world around us.  Here are a few examples:

Courage is the power that people need to confront the injustice of racism in our in our world and bear witness to the God of justice, the God who has created each person in his image and likeness.

The power of Courage is what victims of abuse need to find their voice to speak up when more powerful people around them are using intimidation and threats to silence them.

The power of Compassion is what we need in a world where there is so much pain and suffering and violence that we are tempted to become numb to it because it can get overwhelming and it can hurt too much to care.

The power of Compassion is needed to confront and counteract the hatred and judgmentalism that seems to be infiltrating many sectors of the Church in our country today.

The power of Creativity is needed to seek new ways to be witnesses for Jesus that speak to the questions and longings of younger generations, like Generation Z and now Generation Alpha, who are people born after 2012.

And when I think of creativity, I think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the abilities, passions, and personalities that God has created each one of us with, to be witnesses in our own unique ways.  We can be powerful witnesses for Jesus when we live into the person who God has created us to be.

Courage. Compassion. Creativity.  Maybe you can think of other ways that the Holy Spirit manifests its power for people and churches to be faithful witnesses to the good news of Jesus.  You can share them during the response time if you’d like.

I want to end with the story of someone who was a powerful witness of Jesus, showing the Holy Spirit’s power of courage, compassion, creativity and many other ways during her lifetime.

It’s actually someone who is mentioned as part of a cloud of female witnesses in Medieval times in The Making of Biblical Womanhood book.  Like many women throughout church history, her story was virtually buried for centuries.

Her name is Hildegard of Bingen, and she was the head of a convent of nuns in Germany in the 12th century.  You want to know something cool?

Last Sunday when we were in Sweden, we went to this outdoor festival at an old castle, and there was an exhibit in the main floor of the castle that featured Hildegard of Bingen!

The organizers of the exhibit called her a “12th century influencer” , having a similar impact and reach that social media influencers have today.

Here is what the website promoting the exhibit said about Hildegard:

Hildegard was a superstar in 12th century Europe. She was a mystic, composer, writer, poet, preacher, botanist, physician, and political lobbyist.  (That sounds like creativity on steroids!) 

She used words, images and music to reach her contemporaries, almost a millennium before Instagram and Twitter were invented.

And here’s what Beth Allison Barr said about Hildegard of Bingen in The Making of Biblical Womanhood book:

Kings and princes sought the advice of Hildegard.  She preached regularly in Germany undertaking four preaching tours between 1158-1170.  We know beyond doubt that clergy as well as lay people filled her audiences.  We also know that she spoke with authority to the bishops and priests in her audience—calling them to repentance.  But instead of trying to silence her, they even wrote to her afterword, begging her for transcripts of her sermons.  (P. 89-90).

That’s some kind of Holy Spirit power right there!

What a great example Hildegard of Bingen is of someone who harnessed the power of the Holy Spirit to be a witness for Jesus in her own community, and then her influence reached across Europe, into Scandinavia and beyond.

There’s a lot of bad news in the world, but there’s a lot of good news as well, and because of the Spirit’s power, it can travel fast and reach deep into people’s lives when it’s used as God intended it to be used.

I’d like to leave us with this question to reflect upon during the response time and beyond:  How is God’s Spirit invite you/or us to use the power of courage, compassion, and/or creativity as a witness for Jesus in our world today?  And what other ways might the HS be inviting us to manifest its power?

And I’d like to close with a quote and then a prayer from Hildegard of Bingen.  The quote fits well with the story of the Vasa ship I told at the beginning.  She says:  “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong.”

And Hildegard’s prayer is directed at the Holy Spirit, the life and the power that it gives us.  Let’s pray:

 “Holy Spirit, the life that gives life: You are the cause of all movement. You are the breath of all creatures. You are the salve that purifies our souls. You are the ointment that heals our wounds. You are the fire that warms our hearts. You are the light that guides our feet. Let all the world praise you.”  AMEN.