Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Joyful Witness

Joyful Witness
Acts 1:6-14[1]
  As I conclude my exploration of the factors that inspired Easter joy in the first Christians, you might think this is a strange way to do it. I’m afraid there are many in our day who may not associate “joyful” with the concept of bearing witness to our faith. We see bearing witness to our faith as a command, as a duty, as an obligation. That all sounds very heavy, burdensome, maybe even unpleasant. It’s a very different take from what we read in the book of Acts. For the early believers it was a privilege to be chosen as witnesses of the resurrection. For them it was an honor to be able to bear witness to their faith, to “give an answer for the hope” that was in them (1 Pet. 3:15). For them, the role of a witness was one they embraced joyfully.
  So what has happened that something that was so prized, so valued, and so cherished has become something we dread? Many Christians these days would rather be burned at the stake than have to say anything to anyone about their faith.[2] How can this be? I have to wonder where we lost the joy of carrying out our calling to be Christ’s witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). I think part of the answer is that we have embraced a cultural norm that religion is a private matter, so we don’t talk about it. In fact, for many families religious differences have become such a bone of contention that we have learned to carefully avoid even the slightest hint of a discussion about faith. Unfortunately, that’s true in other areas of our lives as well. We don’t want to take the risk of offending anyone, so we don’t say anything.
  But the Scriptures will not let us settle for that when it comes to our calling to bear witness to our faith. It is true that some Christians have caused more harm than good by their “evangelistic campaigns,” going door to door implying that everyone they meet is going to burn for eternity. And we certainly don’t want to follow that pattern. We believe that a our witness to the gospel must be combined with deeds of compassion that reflect the love of God. But it is a mistake to think that we can just let our “light shine” with our “good deeds” without actually saying anything about the “hope within us” that inspires those deeds. We may not like hearing it, but good deeds without Gospel words fall short of what I think the Risen Christ commanded his followers to make their vocation in life: bearing witness to him.
  I think another problem may be that we tend to suffer from spiritual amnesia. We get so caught up in the demands and stresses of the moment that we forget what our faith has meant to us in the course of our lives. In the process, we have let slip our own spiritual histories, which would give us ample material for giving an answer for the hope that is in us if we paid more attention. That’s really all it takes to be a witness for Christ: being willing to share your story with someone else.[3] It’s not about arm-twisting or even “soul-winning.” Our job is to tell the story of our experience with our faith.[4]
  I’m afraid another reason why we’re less than enthusiastic about this relates to a spiritual problem. Jesus told his disciples that what would enable them to go from being a group of frightened people huddled away in a secret room to being his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” was that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8).[5] But it seems to me that for the Spirit to empower us to be witnesses to the Risen Christ, we have to cultivate the presence of the Spirit. This is another area where regular and continual personal worship is essential. We cannot hope to be joyful witnesses for Christ without the help of the Spirit.[6]
  I realize that to some extent I may be stepping on toes here. But I believe we have to face the fact that without a vibrant witness the church in our day and time doesn’t have much of a future. If we want our churches to thrive in an ever-changing world, we have to do the one thing Jesus commanded us to do about it: to bear witness to our faith.[7] We have been entrusted with a crucial task: St. Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation.” It is the mission of sharing God’s love with those who may not think or feel that God loves them. And the way we do it is by telling the story of our experience of the new life that the risen Christ has given us.  And so I believe that one irreplaceable element in our experience of Easter joy must be the story we share about it.[8]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/1/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 133, where she points out that this has been true among mainline churches for decades. She says, “Back in the 1960s, both parents and church school teachers taught us Methodist children that it was impolite, rude even, to talk about religion in public.”
[3] In light of the definition of evangelism in The Book of Order 2013-15 W-7.2001 (p. 145), this may seem to be too simplistic, but in my opinion, the most powerful witness is the one that comes from authentic personal experience.
[4] Cf. Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 134, where she encourages this approach by pointing out that “The entire New Testament is a testimony, a record of experiences that early Christians had with the transformative power of God.” She adds (p. 138), reporting on the experiences of one congregation, that “Our stories ... tell of finding meaning, finding unique selves, and finding God in a confusing and chaotic world.”
[5] While it is true, as R. I Pervo, Acts: A commentary on the Book of Acts, 42, points out, that “for Luke the essence of power is the miraculous, so long as one understands that every manifestation of divine power is a miracle,” this is not the only manifestation of the Spirit’s empowerment in Acts. Pervo recognizes that the whole story of the early church in Acts stands under the promise of the empowerment of the Spirit (ibid., 44). From my perspective this includes proclamation, service, suffering for the gospel, and planting and building up churches. Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr, Christian Doctrine, 310, where he says it well: “according to the New Testament, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are promised and experienced precisely in the church’s Sunday-by-Sunday preaching and teaching of the Word of God, its not-too-exciting everyday life, and its ministry to the world.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 278–279: “Deeply moved, we ourselves move, and go out of ourselves. The primal image is the Pentecost story, which tells how the experience of the Spirit turns a crowd of Jesus’ intimidated disciples into free witnesses to Jesus Christ, apostles of the gospel who carry the tidings ‘to the ends of the earth.’”  Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1:455.
[7] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 417, “If the church exists in the final analysis for the sake of the world, the church will obviously be viewed solely as an instrument for preaching the gospel and for rendering service.”  Cf. also Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 365, “As Reformed churches (along with others ...) have rediscovered the biblical idea that ‘apostolic’ means sent with a task or mission to fulfill, they are also rediscovering the biblical and Reformation understanding that the apostolic task is given not just to a few people with a special calling but to the whole Christian community and every one of its members. ...the task and privilege of the ministry of reconciliation is given to all.”
[8] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 326, where he points out that “all the appearances of the risen Jesus, with the exception of those on Easter morning itself, contain mandates for the work of missions which is now beginning (Matt. 28:19f.; Mark 16:20; Luke 24:49; John 20:21-23; 21:15-19; Acts 1:8).”

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