Pentecost is upon us. We have the promise of Christ that if we pray and wait on the power of God, the Holy Spirit will descend upon us (Luke 24:49). All this put me in mind of this little innocuous word: power. It is not of course innocuous. Scanning an historical collection of quotations concerning power it struck me quite forcibly that most great thinkers fall into two camps. The first holds that power is always dangerous, always to be avoided, always to be resisted. It has the smell of sulphur about it. A classic quote from this tradition, which most people know but often misquote, is the following from Lord Acton: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I like that word “tends” for it puts Acton closer to the second view which holds that power cannot be avoided but rather it is its use and abuse that must concern us. The second group of thinkers have a clearer sense of this and it is this understanding which, I think, lies closer to the truth. For example, in a recent essay on the use and abuse of power the American lawyer and writer Gerry Spence claims that: “we are defined by how we use our power.”
I think this is where we have to start. We all have power. It is both our natural endowment and our opportunity. It can be acquired or frustrated, embraced or renounced, sanctified or corrupted; but all of us have power in some measure. Some, of course, have more power than others either by the inheritance of genes or the circumstances of birth, by nurture or potential. Some have more opportunities in life, made or given, and these distribute power and influence unequally.
Power or the lack of it can be either for good or for ill in human lives and society. Some use the power of beauty, others the powers of the gun - but even so, good and evil are often sown in the same field together. Some use wealth for the common good; others to undermine that commonwealth. Power itself is not moral; it is what we make of our own power that makes for heaven or hell. Moreover, it will not do for anyone to say that he or she has no power and, therefore, is somehow automatically humble or “safe”. It is far less hypocritical to acknowledge the power that one does indeed have and then to repent of the way in which one may have abused it. The hypocrisy we must always guard against is that false humility, which claims to have renounced egotistical power but which instead feeds upon it.
But what of the power that comes with an office or a role within an institution? Judgement starts with a household of God and so we must first consider the power, from God or from elsewhere, that is inextricably tied up in being an ordained person.
God has an absolute claim upon our life and yet He is love and this is where the exercise of power in the priesthood within His Church so often goes wrong. The confession that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) lies at the heart of our faith and it should always be in large print, in uppercase. The passions that afflict the ordained nearly always concern reducing this to lowercase, to small print, a footnote. Rather than putting Christ at the controlling centre of his power, the corrupt priest subverts his own calling by acting out his own ego driven desires to control the lives of others as if he were God. He then becomes a slave to Satan rather than the Saviour. All this can be done quite piously, but it is still an abuse of power. Historically it has unleashed a huge and abominable tract of misery across humankind. It has fathered atheism, cynicism and all kinds of darkness. However, when the priest humbly places Christ at the centre of his power and learns the greatness of service and sacrifice then as a true pastor he brings life, vigour, light and love to all whom he meets. Such men have graced humankind with glory together with all the saints who have been imbued with the Pentecostal Spirit; women, men, children… life givers all of them.
Next there is the power that the Father gives by the Holy Spirit to each one of us, not by virtue of ordination but by baptism. As baptised persons we all have the Pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit to add to our natural endowments of power. Rather than bury this talent in the ground in our fears, God has given us this power in the expectation that we will use this power to His glory… that is in being fruitful in both His service and in our lives outpoured for others. Trembling doubtless, lacking in self-confidence maybe, let us all take up this power from God and bring His life and love to others. All of us then shall become true priests in the kingdom of God.