“Jesus vs. the Phone Company”

May 17, 2015


Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

Lily Tomlin’s alter-ego, Ernestine the telephone operator, once candidly admitted, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.” 

I remembered this a few weeks ago while reading former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich’s, column exploring “Why So Many Americans Feel So Powerless.”

Yes, it’s still the telecom industry, although the names of the players have changed. But now it is so much more, Reich says.

He tells of meeting someone in North Carolina who had stopped voting “because elected officials don’t respond to what average people like him think or want. ‘They don’t listen,’ he said.”

He tells of meeting a passenger who had been at an airport for eight hours, “but the airline responsible for her trip wouldn’t help her find another flight leaving that evening. ‘They don’t give a hoot,’ she said.”

And then there was the security guard who “didn’t know how much he’d be earning from week to week because his firm kept changing his schedule and his pay.”  Echoing Ernestine, he says, “They just don’t care.”

Reich’s conclusion? “As I travel around America, I’m struck by how utterly powerless most people feel.” Workers are regarded as dispensable. Consumers have fewer choices. Voters feel disenfranchised either because their districts or states are considered “safe” by one party or the other or because big money takes away the voice of small people.”

Here’s the thing: there are people and organizations that would prefer this sense of powerlessness to continue, even to increase. A feeling of powerlessness means that individuals, congregations, communities—even entire nations—are not able to act in their own best interests or for the well-being of their community, their nation, our world.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. Pope Francis spoke to a group of 7,000 children last Monday. Calling the weapons business an “industry of death,” he told the children: “Some powerful people earn their living off making weapons. For this reason, many people do not want peace.”

It’s that simple—and many are committed to keeping it that way.

From scripture we get another vision. From scripture we get a different sense of what is and isn’t possible.

“You will receive power,” the risen Christ tells his followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

Jesus responds to overwhelmed, questioning followers with the assurance that in the face of all that would work against them, they will find the courage, the strength, the love—the power—to make the healing mercy of God real in the world.

This is not the power of money—although we have some of that.

This is not the power of authority—although many here hold such power.

This is not the power of knowledge—although many here possess vast and impressive amounts of it.

This is not the power of white privilege—although we have it in abundance.

Power is the ability to act. And each one of us has that ability. Our strength, our power, allows us to act in the world.

The power of God is a creative ability that lets us use our own wealth, authority, knowledge, and privilege for the good of creation.

This power not so much descends upon us as it wells up within us when we take what Jesus says seriously and then act upon it.

When those who cling to power won’t listen, Jesus says: “Let those who have ears to hear, hear.” He calls us to listen for the pain in the world. He invites us to listen for the longing for the good within ourselves.

When those in power don’t give a hoot, Jesus calls forth our compassion, telling us: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Jesus even takes on the Phone Company and the apathy of the elite, offering an alternative way, what he even called a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

So really, the Christian life is not just Jesus vs. the Phone Company. We’re in on this as well—called to listen, to show compassion, to love.

We do all of this, not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. The power to follow in the way of Jesus Christ arises from God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection. By faith we see that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith we see that God continues to do so today.

What we call the “power of the resurrection” is the ability to act that comes from a faith—however tenuous—that God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of both that work and that creation. This is a power that sets us free to love with abandon, to act even when fear presses in, to draw out the best in ourselves and other people. Because we are part of God’s new creation, the work that we do continues to matter.

We have faith in the direction of creation—that it is moving toward a good end—what we sometimes call the “realm of God”—and that we can be a part of that movement. Materialists would say that there is no end, no purpose to all of this. Through the resurrection we have come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. We act “in faith,” that is, trusting that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. put it his way: “Let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.”[i]

The great compassionate power in the universe wants to do more. Feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Making wars to cease. This power wants justice to roll down like fountains and righteousness like streams.

That power wants to work through you. That power wants to work through this congregation.

Like all power, it is somewhat frightening. Because this is “holy power” it borders on the terrifying. But it also speaks to us of great possibilities.

The ability to act for the benefit of self and others is nothing less than the strength of God acting through us. Just think of what might be accomplished through you and through this congregation by that power.

Together we are invited to see how we can act, to discover what we can do. And through our efforts God is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine.

In the midst of all that overwhelms us

We are given the power to change what needs changing.

We are given the power to be agents of God’s love in the world—to take risks for the good.

The risen Christ promises those who follow him the power, the ability to act for the good in the situations that life presents to us.

And with that promise, we heard again this morning from the Book of Acts, Christ was “lifted up” into heaven.

The ascension of Christ is usually misunderstood or ignored. In our time a bland literalism meets with a dull skepticism. We are asked to choose between a Jesus involved in some sort of vertical lift-off—going “up” into heaven—and the impossibility of the same event.

The ascension is, as NT Wright says, “a difficult and unpopular doctrine” because it asks us to think in new ways about the cosmos—about heaven and earth.

The point of the ascension is not that Jesus is going a long way away but that he is being elevated to be the true Lord of the world. Ascension doesn’t mean absence; it means sovereignty, exercised through the Spirit.

For the early Christians—and for us—this sovereignty is about power. It is about the power of God at work in raising Jesus from death. It is about the power of God making the crucified and risen Christ the ruler of this world. It is about the power of God working in us by the Spirit. This is what we have come to know: Christ no longer with us is Christ powerfully present for us at all times.

Yes, the knowledge of this power includes a sharing in Christ’s suffering. The hope of knowing the power of the resurrection takes us into the suffering of the world. Certainly we would not enter such places on our own. On our own we would seek our comfort and disregard the hurting world. Left to ourselves we do seek simply our own comfort in the midst of a broken world.  On our own, like the Phone Company, we just don’t care. Knowing Christ as the Risen One gives us not just the courage but the ability to enter the places of suffering to offer the healing, the peace, the wholeness that God seeks for all creation.

This world is incomplete. We are incomplete. We move toward resurrection but we have not attained it. We press toward the goal, but it is not ours yet. We learn in our lives and through our actions that crucifixion and resurrection are connected.

But resurrection changes everything. Christ is alive and that changes how we look at death. The final enemy is defeated, the destroyer has been destroyed. And because resurrection changes how we look at death, it changes how we look at life. Living in the power of the resurrection, we set aside old hopes and old expectations so that something different can rise up. We stop fighting old battles, nursing old wounds, dreaming old dreams.

The resurrection keeps bringing us back to here and now. Our eyes are not on the heavens but on earth.

If we take our theology to heart, it informs our actions. The power of the Spirit of God, the energy for life, is the ability to confront the principalities and powers of this world, to speak God’s “Yes” which sounds like a judging “No” to greed, to torture, to hoarding, to fear, but which is also a resounding affirmation of the goodness of life, the strength of love, and the possibility of justice and reconciliation.

This “Yes” is the message of Easter.

Christ is risen.

The risen Christ who reigns in power gives us the ability to act in the world as agents of God’s new creation.

God’s “Yes” will be our strength and our power.

Christ is risen indeed.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Strength to Love, in A Testament of Hope, pg. 509.