Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We Are Witnesses

Acts 10:34-43[1]

What defines the church in our day? Is it our beliefs? Our worship? Our lifestyle? Our political views? We live in a time when people are taking opposite sides on many issues, and the definition of what it means to be the church is no exception. I think it is appropriate that we will be walking through the book of Acts during the Easter season this year, because it is the story of the foundation of the church. I can think of no better way to try to find a new orientation about what it means to be the church than to go back to the beginning.

Fundamentally, the story that the book of Acts tells about the early church is a story of witness—the witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that comes out of it. As soon as the church receives the power of the Spirit, they begin to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, from then on, they rarely mention the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection without adding, “We are witnesses of these things.”[2]

One of the amazing features of this story is that, despite all obstacles, against all odds, the early church’s witness to Jesus’ resurrection is a great success. It is natural to wonder what made the witness of the early church so successful. Perhaps we should seek the answer by asking a prior question: what was the witness of the early church? It was the combination of their life and their message.

The message of the early church was that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God, who vindicated Jesus’ claim to be savior.[3] They proclaimed to all who would listen that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sign pointing us to God’s new creation that is coming in the future, and indeed it is already working in hidden ways.[4] They proclaimed that the resurrection validated Jesus’ claim to be the bearer of the kingdom of God, the realm of compassionate justice and joyful new life. And they proclaimed the hope that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.[5]

But perhaps just as important a factor in the early church’s witness was that their message was backed up by their life.[6] They lived out the good news they were proclaiming by extending God’s gracious welcome to all and by their mutual acceptance of one another. They sought God’s guidance in prayerful discernment by asking questions together and listening together for the answers. They lived out the joy of the resurrection in worship that opened their hearts and minds to a genuine experience of God. They shared their faith and their experience of God’s love with one another by sharing their testimony. They integrated the good news into every aspect of their lives through open and humble study. And they went out from their prayer and worship and study seeking to realize the compassion and reconciliation of God’s kingdom in every facet of life.

Some who study these matters would say that it was these practices that made the early church’s witness so powerful.[7] I think I might put it a little differently—what made them so successful was that their witness came out of the experience of being radically transformed in their own hearts and minds and lives.[8] They were bearing witness to that which they had experienced first hand! One of the early Christian leaders put it this way: what they spoke about was “something which … we ourselves actually saw and heard: something which we had an opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands” (1 John 1:1, Phillips).

We might be tempted to think that our witness could not possibly rise to that level because we are not eyewitnesses of the events as they were. And yet, I would argue that we do have the same opportunity to become witnesses of what we have experienced. The power of the new life that was unleashed in this world by Jesus’ resurrection is still working to transform our hearts and lives today. And so when resurrection of Jesus transforms our lives and hearts we can also bear witness to what we have experienced first hand.

The sad truth is that the “witness” that the church has borne has often looked very different from the early church’s witness to the life-changing power of the resurrection of Jesus. Some say that the lesson from Acts for today is the story of how Peter had to be converted to the notion that non-Jewish people were included in the gospel of Jesus Christ—as did the church of his day![9] I think like them we all need to be constantly converted to a way of life that flows from the life of the risen Lord Jesus. And that means constantly “learning new ways of being the church.”[10 Only as we do that can we fulfill our calling to be “a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ” and to be “Christ’s faithful evangelists.”[11]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/12/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. John B. Polhill, Acts, 85, 93; William H. Willimon, Acts, 34-37.

[3] Polhill, Acts, 115.

[4] Cf. Willimon, Acts, 3;cf. also J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99, 191.

[5] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 223.

[6] Cf. Willimon, Acts, 39-42; cf. also 51: “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.”

[7] Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture, 209-10 (citing John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World).

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3: 622: “The Christian becomes and is … the witness of the great Yes which God has spoken to [the world] in total renewal and definitive liberation.”

[9] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 158-60.

[10] Robinson and Wall, Called to Be Church, 164.

[11] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, 3.0300(c).

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