Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Power? Whose Witnesses? For Ascension

“But 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.” Acts 1

These words, from the only narrative appearance of Jesus outside the gospels, offer the contemporary church two lenses through which we can assess the choices of the past and the crisis of the present. “What power?”  “Whose witnesses?”

In this last week of the Easter season, we might recall that these were the questions that Jesus entertained in his own last week in Jerusalem, the week leading to his execution. What power would he choose? Whose witness would he be?

Throughout that last week, Jesus made his choice clear, and maintained a steadfast witness. While the religious authorities of Jerusalem adapted to Caesar’s power, rooted in the mastery of death, Jesus trusted the power of the one he called “Papa”, whose Spirit animates the life of the world. And while the authorities’ bending before Caesar’s power made them witnesses to fear, Jesus trust in his Papa made him a witness to love.

So now, after forty days of encounters with Jesus alive on the far side of death, the disciples gather with him one last time. And he commissions them. Your power will be the power of the Holy Spirit, and your witness will be to the transforming effect of embodied love.

Soon, though, the religious authorities were back at the imperial table, witnesses to fear, living on borrowed power. But this time it was religious authorities bearing the name “Christian”. We travelled around the globe on the coattails of empires, baptizing genocides, blessing wars and sanctifying slavery.  There were exceptions – Anabaptist sects like the Mennonites and Moravians, and shining individuals like William Wilberforce. But the Anabaptists were persecuted by Christian religious authorities, and William Wilberforce was considered a corrosive nuisance for most of his career. Led by Czar or Kaiser, King or Emperor, empires grow by fear. And churches who borrow power from empires are witnesses not to love, but to fear.

On August 6, 1993, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Michael Peers, apologized to the Sacred Circle at Minaki Ontario for the role of our church in the residential schools, for our partnership in taking children from their homes, denying them access to their language and their heritage, and exposing them to the fear and shame of abuse in the schools. Since then, the work of reconciliation has continued as a priority of the Anglican Church of Canada. You can read more about that continuing work at a “The Living Apology”, http://archive.anglican.ca/rs/.

Archbishop Peers was addressing one of the many consequences of our own church’s dalliance with empire. Of course our intentions were good – to offer the gospel (as we understood it) to children who had not received it, and along the way to “better” their lives. But as those viewing the world through the lens of the empire so often do, we had a distorted sense of what “good” would be for children, and entertained the self-deception that it could “better” a whole generation of children to be isolated from their parents, their community, their language and their heritage.

And so, today, Jesus tells another generation of disciples – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses”.   What power?  Whose witnesses?

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