These preachers bother me. They hold their flock in dark bondage, and lead some of us outside their circles to reject out of hand any detailed theology of the Spirit’s work in their lives. One of my brothers made a comment to this effect: I just cannot believe that God reaches down and gives us flashy superpowers so that we might impress one another and be entirely irrelevant to the world in which we live. Alright, so that’s not a direct quote, but that’s the idea, and the “superpowers” phrasing has stuck with me for a good week or so.
My friend is absolutely right. But the Holy Spirit really does come and give us superpowers. These powers do not equip us in any way we would have wanted or imagined on our own. It is the way of our dark and fallen world to see power in terms of control, deference, and authority. This is wrong, but a seducing concept because it seems to work so well. We tell ourselves that if only we could be respected, influential, affluent, and loved by everyone, then we would be happy and at peace. This is not true, of course. It would be in that inability to be affected by the dark aspects of humanity that we would be most untouchable and miserable.
Our God has shown us the way of real power in the self-giving love of Christ. His last word regarding our sins is forgiveness. Our master Jesus has faced all of our darkness, weakness, mixed motives and rebellion, and absorbed every last bit of it. There is no manifestation of our fallen condition that has not demonstrated sympathy for by the ministrations of his cross. As his body, the Church continues these ministrations by absorbing sins and giving away his forgiveness: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).
It seems to me that I spend far too much energy in attempts to gloss over my own failures and shortcomings only to find that the image I’ve created is entirely meaningless. If the self I present for the acceptance of other people is not really me – if it is rather an unrealistic depiction of myself as I want others to see me – I cannot gain any real affirmation. I might be able to make people love the image, but they would not be loving me – not from lack of willingness, but because the real me would remain hidden. So many of us create images hoping to be accepted, but wonder why we feel empty when the plan works.
If we are really to be known and loved by others as we truly are, we cannot gloss over the ugly parts of our fallen humanity. This is one of many reasons that members of the Christian community confess their sins to one another: when baptized people exercise their priesthood by speaking prophetic words of correction and tender words of redemption to one another, we shine the light of God’s love and acceptance into the dark places of our lives. In forgiving one another the sins we commit against each other and the community at large, we absorb the brokenness of our sinful humanity in the name of Christ. This is not an easy or glamorous task. It rarely feels warm and fuzzy. But it is a necessary part of redemption, for reconciliation is God’s fervent desire for his people.
In his Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote, “In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness is made beautiful because of the love that surrounds it.” God’s truth is spoken into our lives through the Word, the Spirit, and the Church that he might reveal our brokenness and sin. He does this for our redemption: that we might be healed. This healing is brought about also by the Word, the Spirit, and the Church. Being active in this for one another is a mark of authentic discipleship, a sign of redemption, and a cost of true fraternity.
The Holy Spirit has indeed given us superpowers. They do not work most powerfully by preventing us from sinning, quieting all the rebellion in our hearts, or perfecting our moral lives. This is part of sanctification, but in my mind not the most needful or difficult part. As we are deeply prideful, fallen people, the most exquisite example of supernatural, transformative grace occurs when having sinned, we confess and repent. When we rebel, we turn again, and ask forgiveness. When we fall, we ask God’s mercy, and that of his community. When we can trust in God’s love for us so powerfully that the ugliness we see in ourselves is made an offering rather than being hastily hidden, then we will know that the Holy Spirit has come to us.
Holy Spirit, come in power. May the same power by which God raised up our brother Jesus animate us to walk in new and abundant life, just as he does. Amen.
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