You Are Witnesses
Based on Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Do you like crime, murder mysteries or courtroom dramas? Are you drawn to shows like “Perry Mason”, “Matlock”, “Law & Order”, et cetera; or maybe movies like “The Judge”, “The Verdict”, “A Few Good Men”, “Murder on the Orient Express”, “12 Angry Men”, or “Philadelphia”? Me too…both my mother and maternal grandfather loved to read and watch murder mysteries and legal dramas. I guess I come by it naturally. There’s just something compelling about the process of figuring out the pieces of the puzzle of what happened – of listening to witnesses on both sides of the issue and deciding who or what to believe and finally getting to the truth.
Have you ever been asked to be a witness, to put your hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God? I have had the opportunity once to be a witness for a minor issue on behalf of a neighbor. I have also served as a background expert for a few different lawyers back when I was a pharmacy consultant. I have never served as an expert witness as I didn’t want to be cross-examined by a lawyer in a courtroom – too much anxiety. Yet I find myself in my current position as pastor to be in that very same position to the world – expert witness on behalf of Jesus the Christ. Called to answer questions on behalf of the Body of Christ to a questioning world as to why belief in the Holy Trinity and the presence of God not only makes sense but is critical for humanity to move forward in a healthy, connected and cooperative manner.
Our scripture readings today state that Jesus calls us through the power of the Holy Spirit so that, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.…” All of us who have been baptized into the Body of Christ are thus empowered to be witnesses to the whole truth about how our belief in the Christ is transforming our lives and the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us go to God now in a prayer of thanksgiving that we are all empowered by God to be witnesses. Won’t you all join me in prayer…
The two books, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts of the Apostles were written by the same author. Therefore, it is not surprising that the ending of the Gospel of Luke merges nicely with the beginning of the Book of Acts. Both texts are written to an unknown person named Theophilus (see Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1) who was likely a patron of the author. The first five verses of Acts are a synopsis of all that has happened in the Gospel account. New information begins in verse six and onward – telling the story of how this new “Jesus movement” began and developed. Jesus’ final words to the gathered disciples was to help them understand once again that he had not come to restore the kingdom of Israel, but that he came to begin the kingdom of God on earth. He also told them that once the Holy Spirit came, they were to receive the power to become witnesses to the transforming power of Jesus to all the world. It is a ministry that the Holy Spirit continues to empower today.
Paul is writing to the believers in Ephesus in today’s Epistle reading. Here in this early part of the letter, the Apostle Paul is praying, “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…”. Paul’s opening prayer provides the information we need to become expert witnesses to and for Jesus to Madison County and to the rest of the known world.
Christianity has always needed believers who witness to the way, the truth and the life of Jesus and what it means to the world. Those defenders of the faith who were most emphatic or most accomplished and revered were the Christian Apologists. Apologetics is not the process of apologizing for belief in Jesus – like we’ve done something wrong and we’re saying to the world that we’re sorry. Rather, Apologists are defenders (from the Greek word for defense “apologia”) of the belief in Jesus and what difference that belief makes in the life of the believer. In other words, Christian apologetics (hear as “Christian witnessing”) can be summarized in two parts: First that objective reasons and evidence that Christianity is true exist, and secondly, that the believer is called to communicate those truths to the world.
Christian witnessing to the world began with the ministry of Jesus and will continue until Jesus comes again in glory. Christian witnesses have always had to contend with those who do not believe in Jesus or the religious institutions that grew out from His teachings. From the earliest times there were other groups inside and outside of Christianity that sought to insert their views and beliefs into mainstream teachings. These can be seen in the Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and other writings that did not get included in the biblical canon (the “approved” books that make up the Bible, plus or minus the books in the Apocrypha).
According to the last words of Jesus recorded by the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, all Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel – the good news according to Jesus to the whole world. The Apostle Paul, not an original Disciple, but the first of many teachers and apologists of the faith tells us clearly how to become a witness. The first thing we all must do is get to know Jesus – that is, get to know the stories and the teachings. When we do this, God will open our minds and hearts with the “spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that our hearts might become enlightened and inform our worldview. When our hearts and worldview are enlightened, then we are shown the hope to which God has gifted and called each of us. Continuing our development then, we begin to encounter the wonderful traditions and teachings of the saints of the church from across the last two thousand years, and we see how it is that God’s creative power is continuing God’s work in the world in our place and time.
Just like any good witness, however, you have to know what you know, and you have to be able to communicate the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth effectively. To be an effective witness for Jesus, you cannot skip over the first part of what Paul wrote…you have to get to know the truth about Jesus. Jesus opened the minds of the Disciples so that they could understand the scriptures. In other words, Jesus made them into expert witnesses by getting them the information on how the life and ministry of Jesus fit into the Jewish teachings and promises about the Messiah. This is how an uneducated Galilean fisherman, Peter, could give his first sermon on the first Pentecost to thousands of Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the holiday about who Jesus was and how he fit into the greater narrative of their lives (we’ll hear more about this next week on Pentecost so stay tuned). This is why it is so important for us to understand the narrative of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) as it relates to its continuing self-revelation of God and God’s plan for all of creation. The mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples (aka witnesses) of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. To accomplish this worldly transformation, the witness must know and work with God and God’s plan. Also, the disciple must share their witness in Madison County, in Virginia and throughout the United States, and ultimately throughout the world. As individuals and as churches we are gifted and called to tell others in words and deeds that Jesus still lives and speaks like He did on that Ascension Day two millennia ago. We are not to be caught up staring into the clouds like the befuddled Disciples – wondering where Jesus has gone and when He will return. Rather, we are to get to work in the here and now because Jesus has told us that “you are all witnesses” to how He is the long-awaited Messiah. So, we continue to worship Him and like those first Disciples, we can return home continually blessing God and giving thanks that we have been given the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, with which to witness to all the world. Amen and amen!