When Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Most people connect power to headlines in the news. The average headline sends a political signal, telling us who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, who has power and who wants to take it away from the one who has it. Jesus used the same logic when telling the apostles to avoid modelling themselves after the “rulers of the gentiles”.
Jesus was referring to those rulers who “lord it over” their people as if the rest of us were mere slaves created by God to make rulers rich. As conventional wisdom puts it: “Power corrupts, etc.”
So what is this new power, this different kind of power, that Jesus promised to give his disciples? What is the gospel message on power? What is this power that does not rely on physical force but on something from God?
Perhaps St Augustine is the one who described it best. He pointed out that many gospel texts refer to this power by connecting it with the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
The first scriptural reference noted by the great African bishop is found in St Luke’s account. The evangelist tells us how Mary of Nazareth became a mother while remaining virgin.
Mary had asked Saint Gabriel how she could give birth to a son, since she intended to remain virgin (even though she was the wife of Joseph). She said, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” (In biblical language, the phrase means that Mary would never have sex with her husband.) The angel told her: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.”
Another clear reference in the Gospel equates the kind of power Jesus wants us to have with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus asked his disciples to tell others: “The kingdom of heaven in close at hand.” St Mark tells us: “He went up the mountain and summoned those he wanted. So they came to him and he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to proclaim the message, with power to drive out evil spirits.”
The power Jesus shares with his disciples is spiritual power. We are not called to conquer evil relying on violent means. We are called to conquer evil by first seeking forgiveness for our own sins and then showing others how they can free themselves from sin by seeking God’s mercy.