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The Holy Spirit is Power

One of the most profound things I learned is one of those things that's easy to get wrong, but if you stopped and thought about it, you'd probably say, "I already knew that." It is this: Paul came first.

Of course, Jesus came first (and comes first): the Word’s participation in creation itself; the incarnation; Jesus' baptism; the voice from heaven saying "this is my beloved son;" walking dusty trails and disciple-ing those who followed him; caring for, healing, cleansing, casting out demons from, forgiving, and loving people; the conflict that inevitably arose, betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension; Pentecost—all that came before Paul. BUT, the gospels were written after Paul's letters. The earliest writings in the New Testament are 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. Paul wrote his last letter to the Romans before going to Rome in the 50s or 60s. Mark, the first gospel, was not written until after the destruction of the temple in 70. If you want to read about the earliest, purest Christianity, read 1 Thessalonians. Paul himself didn’t come before Jesus, but Paul's letters came before the writing of the gospels.

Christianity really split from Judaism and became its own distinct thing in that period when all of Judaism was adrift after the destruction of the temple, but Paul was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead before that time. Much of what Paul was saying is that Jews and converted gentiles are all affected by this amazing person Jesus and what God has done for us in resurrecting him from the dead. In this regard, Paul is all about change.

Paul's first encounter with Jesus in chapter 9 of the book of Acts is about change. This is Paul's origin story: he was persecuting the Christians because he didn't want his religion, Pharisaic Judaism, to change. Then he encountered Jesus and was changed himself. Then he worked for Jesus to accomplish that change in the whole world, even among gentiles. In 1 Thessalonians 1, we see that work and labor and power are all tied to the Holy Spirit:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction

Words like work and power make me think of physics. A force that pushes on a mass but doesn't overcome static friction accomplishes no work. When the mass moves—when it changes position—the amount of work done is measured in units of power. Power and change are inextricably linked. Jesus greeted Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his position.

Paul uses these words in the most holy way. Work, here, is the work of faith. Labor is the labor of love. Steadfastness might seem like the opposite of change, but Paul attaches steadfastness to hope, and hope is always future-oriented. If you're hoping for what you already have, then you're not really hoping anymore, are you? Hope also has change baked into it. The one thing Paul wants not to change is our hope for something different and better.

Words are like force in my physics analogy. It is when the Paul's words of the message of the gospel come to the Thessalonians with the power of the Holy Spirit that they are changed. The power of the Holy Spirit fuels change—the change that is the result of the work of faith and the labor of love, the change that is the realization of the steadfast hope that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Labor and work are also associated, in our contemporary economy, with jobs. Jobs, to us, have a bad association with struggle and drudgery. We work to earn money to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. We work to live. Work is something to take a break from in the form of a vacation. What happens, though, when the thing you want to do on vacation is the thing you do as work? When I was in seminary, people told me I was working too hard, that I needed to do some self-care, to take a sabbath. I responded that I had worked for 30 years in a computer career, and that now I was enjoying (getting joy out of) being awake at 3:00 in the morning learning Hebrew, studying for tests, and writing papers. The whole experience for me WAS a sabbath, . . . and still is. This is vocation, not in the sense of career (like in my computer career), but in the sense of calling.

What do we hope for? The Beloved Community? Christian fellowship? The love and nurture of our children? Justice for the poor? The realization of God's peaceable kingdom? When we put our faith to work for these things, it is not drudgery—not a job. When we put our faith to work for these things it is a labor of love—love at work in the world. That's the power of the Holy Spirit.



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