Sunday, November 13, 2011

Witnesses (Acts 6:1-11)

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I have a confession to make this morning: I rarely read instructions. I know there are people who buy a new car and before they leave the dealer, they read the owner’s manual cover-to-cover, or buy a new kitchen appliance and read the English, Spanish, and Korean instructions before brewing a pot of coffee. I am not one of those people. Am I the only one, or does anyone else want to own up to that?

I think it has to do with how absurd instructions and warnings have become lately. We live in a society that is litigation-happy and people will sue you at the drop of a hat. McDonald’s now has to put a warning on its coffee cups that says, “Warning! Contents may be hot!” because some lady was awarded $2 million when she burned herself on a cup of hot coffee. Or, start walking around your house and read the instructions and warnings on every day consumer products. Here are a few of the more absurd I’ve come across/

On Swann frozen dinners: “Serving Suggestion: Defrost.” Printed on the bottom of a box for a Tiramisu dessert: “Do not turn upside-down.” On Boot’s children’s Cough Syrup: “Do not drive car or operate heavy machinery.” On a kitchen knife: “Warning: Keep out of children.” On a packet of Sainsbury’s peanuts: “Warning: contains nuts.” On a packet of American Airlines peanuts: “Instructions: Open packet. Eat nuts.” You know the really sad part – somebody got paid to write those!

Perhaps that’s why I don’t read instructions – very often, they don’t tell me anything I didn’t already or could figure out on my own, and quite honestly, I question the where-with-all of the people who came up with those instructions! But, what is the instructions dealt with something really important, or you unquestionably trust the person who gave them?

In today’s text, Jesus is providing instructions to his disciples, including us. They are the last words he spoke before ascending into heaven. These instructions clearly tell us what Jesus wants us to do in his absence, as we, his followers, continue to carry out his ministry on the earth. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus had to say, and what he wants us to do. May we pray.

It would be a mistake for us to read Jesus’ instructions in today’s text in isolation, for they are connected to another set of instructions he made elsewhere in Scripture. Both are given by the post-Easter, resurrected Jesus to his disciples, and they function like two sides of the same coin. We cannot read this passage from the first chapter of Acts without also thinking of the 28th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

In Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples what he wants them to do: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [Jesus] commanded (Matthew 28:19). Then, in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples how he wants them to do it – “To receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon [them], and to be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)

I want you to pat attention to that distinction. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples what to do, in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples how to do it. To put it in organizational terms, Matthew 28 describes the mission, and Acts 1 describes the strategy.

Let’s unpack that a little further. The mission always describes what an organization exists to do, its primary purpose and function, its reason for being. And so Jesus has given the church its mission. He told his disciples what their purpose was – to make disciples of Jesus. Fundamentally, that’s it! That’s what they – and we – are to do! When you boil it down, that’s the reason the Church exists – to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and everything we do needs to be focused around that mission.

But we don’t stop with just the mission. Yes, it’s important, fundamentally important to know what your mission is. Until you are clear about why you exist, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to do much of anything. But, just because you know your purpose, that still doesn’t mean you know what to do next. Fortunately, Jesus seems to have anticipated this, as well; in addition to providing us with our mission, he has also provided us with our strategic plan for accomplishing our mission in today’s text from Acts 1.

He tells his disciples they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of earth. Jesus’ promise associates the power accompanying the Holy Spirit’s coming with their role as witnesses to the ends of the earth. This one verse outlines what will happen in the rest of the book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit will empower the fledgling church’s witness in increasingly wider circles. Keep reading the story, and you’ll see the Christian faith being taken to the ends of the earth, keeping with God’s desire that disciples be made of all nations, underlining God’s purposes to bring reconciliation and salvation to all humanity. Like ripples in a pond, the love of God in Christ is to spread from us in ever-widening circles.

At the start of this conversation, a fascinating assumption underlies the question posed to Jesus by his disciples. They say, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). In other words, Lord, when will God set things right? Lord, when will suffering and abuse end? Lord, when will hunger be abolished and tragedy be no more and wars end? When, Lord, when?

These are all noble aims, but underneath each lies the assumption that Jesus is going to do it all. Jesus seems to say, “Hold on, my brothers and sisters, don’t you realize that this is a partnership? God has God’s job to do, but you also have yours.”

I’ve often heard it said that organizations work best when everyone clearly knows what their job is, and then does their own job. In the Church, God has God’s job to do, and we have ours. God’s job is to give the Holy Spirit and to empower us through the Holy Spirit. And our job? It’s to be witnesses.

What’s a witness? Simply put, it’s someone who sees something, who knows something, who experiences something, and shares it. If you have seen a crime take place, you may be called to court to testify as a witness. If someone you know is applying for college or a job, you may be asked to write a letter or make a statement of reference, to be a witness to their character or qualifications. If you attend a wedding, you may be asked to sign the marriage certificate as one of the two witnesses required to make the thing legal.

Jesus has called us, each and every one of us, to be his witnesses. That’s our job, but remember, God has a job to do in this partnership, as well. God gives us the Holy Spirit, who comes with power and touches us at the core of our being and transforms us. And from that changed place at the very center of who we are, where the Holy Spirit has touched us and transformed our lives, we are called to witness. As changed people, we are called to share what we have seen, what we know, and what we have experienced in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, to the ends that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth as it is in heaven, to the end that God’s love be shared to the ends of the earth, to the end that disciples are made of all nations.

Jesus needs us to be partners in this work. Jesus needs us to witness to the ways the Holy Spirit has moved into our hearts and changed us. Jesus needs us to witness to the transformation that has taken place within our own lives, in order that others might be transformed through us.

Friends, do not underestimate the power of your witness. Through you – what you say, how you act, the attitudes you hold – Jesus desires for his light to shine. He needs you! It is no coincidence that, immediately before he ascended into heaven and would no longer be among us physically on the earth, he called us to be his witnesses. Though Jesus may have left the building, his love and presence continues living on, so long as we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and then witness to what God has done and is doing within us.

The old preachers, after some point of life-changing import had been made in their sermon, would pause and ask, “Can I get a witness?” To be sure, this was a rhetorical device to underline an important point, a moment to call for a response from the congregation, but on a deeper level, they were asking not for someone to shout out a witness in the safe confines of worship, but they were asking for a daring, bold, courageous witness lived outside these walls, where our witness really matters most, in a world that knows too much of its own ways and too little of God’s kingdom.

Can I get a witness? Not for me, not to make this sermon a little more exciting – can I get a witness for Jesus and his kingdom? Anybody here filled with the Holy Spirit and doesn’t mind if somebody finds out about it? Can I get a witness? Anybody here who has tried it their own way and is now living God’s way? Can I get a witness? Anybody here willing to say, “Yes, Jesus is my Lord – I’m done living for myself and from today on I’m going to live for Jesus!”? Can I get a witness?

Friends, Jesus is looking for a witness. He has called us to be his witnesses. He’s called you, he’s called me, he’s called all of us. Friends, Jesus needs us to be his witnesses – not to opt out, not to leave up to someone else, not leaving it just up to Jesus and hoping and praying it all works out in the end. I’ve heard it said many times – I’m sure you have, too – “Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I’m afraid he might just ask me the same question.”

We are called to be Christ’s witnesses – to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to live as Christ’s continuing presence in the world. St. Teresa of Avila, in Spain in the 16th Century, put it this way:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

No body now on earth but yours and mine, because after he had promised the Holy Spirit and instructed us to be his witnesses, he ascended into heaven. We – his followers on earth – we are his body now.

If you visit the Holy Land today, tour guides will take you to a rock upon a mountain, supposedly the rock from which Jesus ascended into heaven, and they will even show you two impressions in the rock they claim were left by his feet at that moment. There’s not much evidence to support this claim, but I suppose it makes a nice story for the tourists, nonetheless.

However, Jesus’ footprints are not permanently pressed into a rock – his muddy footprints are all over the Bible, and the hearts of those who call upon him as Lord and are trying to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps that is why the disciples are asked in this text, “Why do you stand gazing into heaven?” Why are you gathered around this rock, mouths hanging open, staring into heaven, when Jesus, the one whose prints are all over your lives, needs you as his witness, making some muddy footprints of your own out there in the world? The Spirit that anointed Jesus now anoints you and me for the task of witnessing to the ends of the earth, this earth upon which Jesus left his footprints and now calls us to make some footprints that look like his.

Friends, Jesus needs your hands, your feet, your eyes. He needs your words, your actions and your attitudes. He needs your mind, your might and your heart. He needs all of you. Jesus needs a witness.

And here’s the good news – you already know what this looks like! You already know the power of witness! You already know the power of stories of transformed lives, how powerful it is to share firsthand stories of what God has done in the depths of the human heart.

For the last several weeks, we have heard the testimonies of various people within our congregation about what God has been doing in them – often through the ministries of this church – and how their lives are transformed as a result. Those stories are a witness! The witnesses we have heard from Tam Thompson, and Frank Fields, and Ginnie Hinkle ; the witness we will hear next Sunday from Terry Blackwell; the witness in the lives of the saints we celebrated last Sunday – these stories are powerful expression of what God can do in the depths of the human heart.

Here at St. Paul, witnessing isn’t anything new – you already know how to do this! Where God has already transformed your life, let that shine as brightly as you possibly can.

Why? Because Jesus needs a witness. In fact, he’s counting on it.

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