Actually, it was all a pretty unlikely scenario: here were these eleven disciples, this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts, who for three years now had been stumbling around Judea following an itinerant rabbi named Jesus. When they left everything in Galilee to follow him, they’d had no idea what to expect – and truth be told, the longer they followed and the more he taught them about God and his kingdom, the less they seemed to understand!
And then there was Jerusalem, where, of course, everything fell apart: Jesus was arrested and sentenced to a violent death on a cross; and the disciples themselves, in the words of Daniel Clendenin, “all fled for the tall grass,” scattering “in fits of cowardice and betrayal.” But just when they thought the journey was done forever, the disciples heard this preposterous report that somehow, Jesus was alive from the dead – an undeniable truth that they couldn’t begin to comprehend! So now, here they were, back together again with Jesus, joyful, awestruck and utterly confused all at the same time! In many ways, it was just like old times – except that come to find out, Jesus had one more surprise for them. When the disciples asked him if now was the time for the kingdom he always talked about, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods 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.”
Excuse me? Power? Witnesses? The ends of the earth!? Really?!
You can almost see their jaws dropping to the floor! What do you mean, “you will be my witnesses?” Lord, we’re not you, after all; there’s so much we don’t know, much less understand; and besides, have you noticed, Lord, that we haven’t exactly distinguished ourselves as disciples up to this point? But even as they searched in vain for the right words, it didn’t matter, because already Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” – and with their master and teacher having ascended to heaven, the disciples were left to face an uncertain future and an improbable mission.
Of course, we know what happens next, but you have to wonder, if at the time, any of those first followers of Jesus ever, in their wildest imagination, could have ever believed that their “first, halting efforts at bearing witness” to Jesus could have led to his good news resounding in every corner of the globe! You wonder if they had any inkling of the enormity of the task before them, or of the price they would have to pay for the sake of the gospel – or could any of them have possibly imagined the power and wonder of the Holy Spirit working in and through them?
What’s interesting, you know, is that the Greek word for “witness” used in this passage is actually better translated as “martyr,” which in our understanding has become synonymous with dying for one’s faith. As it was originally understood, however, to be a martyr meant first and primarily to live for faith – living wholly and completely for the sake of this good news of the resurrection. So you have to wonder what it was about those eleven disciples, that even though they felt lacking in just about everything they needed, they nonetheless and immediately focused their entire lives on being witnesses of the risen Christ!
And lest you think we’re just talking ancient church history, understand that our scripture reading this morning is not only the story of the disciples – it’s our story as well, yours and mine.
Like those early disciples, you see, we too are living “between the now and the not yet,” a time after the resurrection of Jesus Christ but before his return in glory; living amidst the kingdoms of the world but awaiting the fulfilled promise of God’s kingdom coming in its fullness. The Book of Acts, from which we draw our reading this morning, actually begins the story of these “in-between times,” from the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and continuing up through Paul’s imprisonment in Rome for the sake of his new Christian faith – but that’s not the end of the story.
There was a woman in the church I served in Hallowell; her name was Kay, and she was one of those rare individuals who always had a good and spiritually uplifting word, no matter what was happening in her life or ours. One day she came through the line to greet me after worship, and she said to me, “Now, Michael if you really want to understand what faith is all about and what the church should be doing, then you really need to read the 29th chapter of Acts!” She said this with such conviction and joy that I couldn’t help but be filled with curiosity – so imagine my surprise when I got home, opened my Bible with great anticipation and discovered …there is no 29th chapter in the Book of Acts! What Kay was reminding me was that the story of our faith, the mission of the church, the tale of our own witness is ongoing – God is, in fact, writing the 29th chapter of Acts through our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ!
We are called, you and me, to continue the story as witnesses of the risen Christ – through the power of his Holy Spirit so that the life changing news of God’s love can be told “to the ends of the earth:” understanding that today the end of the earth can be a place as far-flung as a third world nation, or, as close as the hearts of those around us desperately trying to find their life’s fulfillment everyplace except in God’s presence and love. Simply put, friends, we are meant to be missionaries!
We 21st century Christians tend to make the mistake of believing that the days of missionaries are long past, that there are very few places left in which the gospel has not been proclaimed and heard, and that the virtues we espouse as God’s people have become part of the dominant culture – when the opposite is swiftly becoming true. In fact, if there’s ever been a time that it’s crucial that the world hears this good news of light and life, it’s now. The mission field, as it were, is everywhere; the world around us is quite literally starving for God, crying out in hunger for the life and work of Jesus Christ to be made real in the here and now, true faith manifest in the lives of those who follow him. As followers of Jesus, we are as such his witnesses, the teller of his tale – and so now, more than ever, we are called not to passivity where our faith is concerned, but to activity!
Now, I know the very thought of a task like this is huge, if not inaccessible – I don’t know about you, but my immediate thought is that this is a job that belongs to somebody bigger and greater than me …certainly somebody more religious than me (and this is a minister talking here, folks!). But then I remember the gospels and realize that Jesus wasn’t looking for greatness in those who followed him, but rather faith – for all their doubts and rough edges, in the end, what the original eleven had going for them was a true and authentic faith in God. And that’s what will set us apart, too.
The Rev. Thomas Tewell says this very well when he writes that “what characterized the early church and will characterize us is authenticity. God is looking for authentic people, people who are real and ring true. They are the kind of people that other people would like to be. God is not looking for people who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good, but real people who can follow Jesus Christ and serve God with authenticity and joy.”
To put it another way, for us to be true witnesses does not necessarily mean that by our faith we are pulled into the big events of life – but it most certainly means that by our faith we are drawn into the everyday, seemingly small things of life in a big way. Someone once said that “life is what happens to you while you’re waiting for the bus,” and you know, I think it’s true. So often you and I find ourselves overly focused on the bus that’s coming and where it’s headed – the “next big thing” of our lives, as it were – when all along, the very thing we’ve been seeking has always been right there at the bus stop!
There’s a pretty good analogy there for our lives as Christians; most of us tend to wrap our spirituality around the big moments of our lives – getting married, the birth of our children, funerals and so on – and well we should. But there’s also a profound spirituality about the smaller moments of life – getting up to go to work morning after morning; spending your days juggling tasks and schedules and checkbooks; doing what it takes to maintain meaningful relationships with family and friends when it feels like the whole world is going crazy around you. Friends, it’s our spirituality in the midst all of this that’s the stuff of real, authentic faith, and this is what shines forth to be seen by others.
It’s pretty simple, actually: when people see a joyful, winsome and sincere love for the Lord in us, then they want to know more – and that is where the good news gets told and the gospel gets heard in ever growing numbers, spreading from family to friends to community, and even, perhaps “to the ends of the earth!” But first, being a witness starts where we are, in the places where we dwell!
In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Peppermint Patty and Violet are talking about how great it would be to someday be a grandmother. Yes, says Violet, being a grandmother would be nice because all they have to do is “sit and rock.” (I know…remember, this was the sixties) But then Peppermint Patty adds that the only trouble with being a grandmother is that first you have to be a wife and then a mother! “I know it,” Violet sighs. “It’s all those preliminaries that get me!”
Well, friends, just as being the perfect grandmother begins with being a great mother, so you and I will learn to be authentic witnesses of the risen Lord through faithful living at the most basic and preliminary levels of daily life – and where this world is concerned, that, in and of itself, will be pretty radical behavior. The poet Wendell Berry – who also happens to be an outspoken agriculturalist, a fierce opponent of technology in general and computers in particular, as well as a deeply devoted Christian – actually says it all: “When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it …live resurrection.”
That’s good advice for all of us who are on this walk of the Christian life: LIVE RESURRECTION …so that the good news can be told.
Thanks be to God who by the power of his spirit, calls you and me to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry