What a gorgeous day! It was Choir Sunday, so we celebrated our amazing music ministry this morning. The choir got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of their anthem. I love music! Here’s my sermon …
Rehoboth Congregational Church
June 1, 2014
Being A Witness To The Gospel
What does it mean to be a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
I spent seven years studying theology. I took classes in biblical literacy, systematic theology, ethics and Christian history. I learned the different ways to critically interpret and explain the bible. I was introduced to the theologians that heavily influenced our faith tradition and saw how our churches came to be over time.
Go me, right? Shouldn’t I have all of the answers? All of the tools I need to be a good witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ?? This is why you have called me to be your pastor?
In the end, as wonderful as my education was, it did not give me anything that we all do not already have to be witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
ALL of us. And that includes you. Let’s look at this morning’s scripture reading:
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 my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
This reading comes from the Book of Acts; the Book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. It picks up where Luke lets off and gives us a glimpse into the lives of the apostles; of the first believers who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection and began to spread his message.
You may have noticed at the top of the bulletin that ever since Easter morning we have been in the Easter season. This is the seven-week season between Easter Sunday and Pentecost where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and anxiously await his ascension into heaven, the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
And this morning we remember Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus spoke the words, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight.”
What a powerful moment that must have been for the apostles: Not only to have witnessed such a miraculous event, but also to have known instantly that it was their moment to carry out Jesus’ ministry on earth.
“You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
This is a bold and powerful statement; and it is one Jesus made not only to the apostles at the time, but also to the generations upon generations that would follow them.
And that includes us.
When Jesus said those words, “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth,” he was saying them to us as much as he was to the people physically present that day.
Remember that the Christian faith is not passed on through laws and traditions, but through people and through their experiences. The Christian story is such a powerful one; but that story will not get told if we do not tell it. The call to be Christ’s witnesses throughout the world is not a passive one, it is an active one. And it is one that we are all called into.
This is a pretty big and daunting responsibility. It can, at times, seem almost overwhelming.
But let’s look at what happened next in the scripture.
When Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses throughout the world, they did not quit their jobs and go to seminary. They did not choose someone who knew more than they did about Jesus and expect that person to do all of the world of spreading the Gospel. They did not look for – or even expect to find – one answer or tool that would make them a good Christian.
No – four things happened: They returned to Jerusalem. They entered into community. They broke through barriers of gender and class. They prayed together.
Verse 12 says:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.
It is almost anticlimactic in a way, isn’t it? They had just witnessed this incredible ascension and were given this bold and powerful responsibility – you would have thought they would have at least stopped for a celebratory ice cream on the way home!
But no – they returned to Jerusalem. They returned to their life. They knew they had work to do.
Verse 13 and 14 say:
When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James … together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
They entered into community. They did not return to Jerusalem and go home and do their own thing. They knew that the Body of Christ would be stronger if all of the pieces worked together and they entered into community in order to do that.
And they entered into a diverse community, as well! We often think that Jesus’ disciples were the first and only of that generation to be ministers, but they were not. Women gathered into community with the disciples, very likely the women that Jesus had healed and who had supported him and who had witnessed the resurrection. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also there – and so were his brothers.
This first community of followers is such a wonderful witness to us that members of a community of faith do not all have to look alike or act alike; they do not have to come from the same place in life or be there searching for the same things. They just need to come together with a common faith that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and that God’s grace will unite them.
Verse 14 also says:
All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.
They were not devoting themselves to studying. They were not pursuing perfection in any way. They were devoting themselves to prayer. They were doing something that each and every one of us can do. Remember that it does not matter how old we are, what our gender is, what our level of education is, where we come from in life or what our job is, each and every one of us has the ability within us to pray to God.
So often we get overwhelmed thinking about how to be a Christian or how to live out our faith, and – in reality – it just starts with a simple conversation with God.
And also – so often the structures that we have built up to sustain our faith get so big and complicated (or, you know, the church needs to be painted and the water filtration system stops working) and we forget that in the beginning, the first followers of Jesus simply devoted themselves to prayer.
My point is this: Part of me thinks that we have more to learn from what the people who witnessed Jesus’ ascension did afterwards than from the ascension itself. They returned to Jerusalem. They entered into community. They broke through barriers of gender and class. They prayed together. This is what we need to do.
Return to Jerusalem.
Okay, maybe we do not do that exactly, but we do need to find a way to have a powerful or meaningful experience at church and yet leave church and return to our everyday lives without losing that experience; we have to integrate our faith into our lives. Being a Christian is not just about showing up at church on a Sunday morning, it is about living out your faith in everything that you do. I am not talking about going crazy and evangelizing to every person you meet on the street. I am talking about being a living expression of your faith every day; about living out your faith always, even throughout the most mundane parts of your life.
Enter into community.
We cannot do this alone. We are stronger together than we are separately. We need to be in community so that we can support one another, pray for one another, challenge one another and love one another. We need to learn from others and let others learn from us.
Break through barriers of gender and class.
This is important on so many levels; because not only do we have to break through barriers simply of gender and class, we have to just let go of our differences. We are all different people; we care about different things, we do things differently and we believe in different things. And that is okay. But we absolutely need to find a way to rise above those differences and strengthen our community of faith. We need to stop judging others simply because their way is not our way and trust that God’s grace will unite us.
We are a community of faith. And sometimes we need to take a break from our meetings and our projects and our events (and our water filtration system) and just pray together.
Because that truly is where it all began.
Jesus called people – ordinary people, like you and me – to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. And if you ever doubt your ability to do that, remember these words that Jesus spoke:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.
You have everything that you need. Jesus made sure of that before he ascended into heaven.
My goal is always to preach myself out of a job. So remember this: You have the power within yourself to be a witness to the gosepl of Jesus Christ. You do not need me to do it for you.
Now this witness will take on many different shapes and forms. Each of you has a very unique role to place.
But do not ever forget that the Holy Spirit is within you – each of you – giving you strength.
And God is calling you to do great things.
And –for the record – this community of faith is better for it.
Thanks be to God!