Friday, November 23, 2007

“The Church in the Power of the Spirit”

2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10[1]

Most of you know that my favorite reformed theologian is a man named Jürgen Moltmann. You may or may not know that my favorite book by Prof. Moltmann is called The Church in the Power of the Spirit. I first read it over 20 years ago for a class in Seminary, but I began to really use it when I started preaching again more regularly about 10 years ago. It is well-used by now; in fact, it has become like a second “bible” to me, in a manner of speaking.

The title “The Church in the Power of the Spirit” might seem strange to you. “Power” is not something we associate with either church or spirit. “Power” is what the high and mighty wield to make themselves “higher” and “mightier.” We tend to associate “power” with the “movers and shakers”; it’s what they use to increase their wealth and extend their influence. “Power” is something we are suspicious of—as in “all power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2]

It’s certainly not something we would expect an old Jewish preacher named Paul to talk about at the end of a career that he himself described as “the dregs of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13)! Yet there he was, sitting in chains, inviting Timothy to join in his work “relying on the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8)! From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem that the “power of God” had done Paul much good! Why would anyone think that an obscure Jewish Christian evangelist like Paul would know anything about power?

The answer is that the kind of power Paul spoke of is different from what we call power. The kind of power Paul was talking about is the power of faith, and hope, and love.[3] The kind of power Paul was talking about is the power of a promise that opens the door to new life—the promise of Jesus, his gospel, his death, and his resurrection. It is the power of hope, joy, and enthusiasm that comes from the vision, “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[4] It is the freedom and power of knowing that we are loved, and giving ourselves away in service, and compassion, and community with others. It is, simply put, the power of the Spirit.

I think Paul knew something of this kind of power—the power of the Spirit. He himself was a personal witness to the power of new life through the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Philippians 3:7-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul himself had seen new life springing up over and over again through all his hardships, humiliations, and sacrificial service on behalf of others (2 Corinthians 4:7-12).

Prof. Moltmann describes it this way: “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing left to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for. … He makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”[5]

Church in the power of the Spirit is the sacrament of God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[6] It is the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church that is out there every day, striving for the oneness of all humankind, striving for the justice of God that makes all life holy, striving for the universal peace of God that embraces victims and perpetrators in God’s love, striving to proclaim the apostolic truth that sets all creation free from the chains of death.[7]

That is, at least, the ideal of the church in Scripture and in the thinking of my favorite reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. In real life, the church can have a very different look and feel. Personal agendas, personality clashes, tedious meetings, the monotony of continuing to do and say the same things over and over again, when it seems that nobody is listening. In real life, the church can seem more like a relic of an ancient past that lost all power to influence or transform or inspire long ago.

I daresay, however, that when we get stuck in that rut, perhaps we’re thinking about power from the wrong perspective. Jesus reminded the apostles that the role they were called to was a humble one, not a lofty one. I think it would not be unfair to the holy Apostles, the founders of and foundation for the church, to say that they still cherished some faulty notions of “power” when it came to their perspective on the Kingdom of God. But Jesus brought them back “down to earth.” He reminded them that the task he called them to consisted of things like “plowing” and “keeping sheep” and “serving meals”; in other places it consists of “fishing.” None of which qualify for the terms “power” or “prestige.”

In a very real sense, the “Church in the power of the Spirit” is the church that serves no matter what the cost. It is the church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[8] It is the church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[9]

And yet, despite the humble character of that kind of life, one of the things that Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, demonstrated so clearly over and over again, is the power that faith, hope, and love hold in store to “make everything new” right here and right now.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/7/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Lord John Dalberg-Acton, Letter to Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887), referring to the declaration by Pope Pius IX of the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility; accessed at

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 307-314; see Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 115-119.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 91, 294-95; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 66, 84, 146.

[5] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191; cf. also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 35, where he discusses Calvin’s view of the Spirit as the fons vitae, or the “wellspring of life.” See further Spirit of Life, 57, 82, 84, 95, 177, 212.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 205; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 279: the presence of the Holy Spirit is “the experience of the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 340-361; see also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 54, 123, 141, 143, 154, 271-72.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 143.

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