Sunday, June 11, 2017

We are Witnesses

We are Witnesses
Acts 2:22-32[1]
We Presbyterians get pretty nervous around words like “witness.” It reminds us of people who go door-to-door, rather too confidently professing their own faith and assuming those they are “visiting” are spiritually “lost.” When I was a Seminary Professor, a young lady came to my door one night to ask me, “If you died tonight, are you sure that you would go to Heaven”! Of course I was polite with her, but I found it ironical that someone who was just starting her faith journey presumed that I needed “saving.” At the time I had been serving the gospel in a wide variety of ways for over twenty years! I give her credit for her effort, but I think that’s the kind of “witness” that makes us cringe.
I would say part of our problem is that is the only model we have for what it means to bear witness to our faith. We assume we have to go door-to-door behaving in a way that is at least disrespectful and perhaps worse. From another point of view, we may think that only those who have had an exceptional spiritual journey actually have something that’s worth sharing. When we think that’s what “bearing witness” to the gospel means, we may assume that we don’t have much to say. Or at least we don’t think that what we have to say counts as bearing witness to the gospel. For whatever reason, we don’t feel comfortable with the idea that “we are witnesses” to the gospel.
When we look at our Scripture reading for today, at first glance we may think it confirms our hesitation. Our lesson from the Book of Acts is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. In this part of the sermon, he talks about “deeds of power, wonders, and signs” (Acts 2:22) that they saw Jesus perform in order to demonstrate that he truly was sent from God. He also speaks fairly confidently about God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” demonstrated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. All of this makes it sound like his witness to the good news about Jesus is way out of our league. Surely he must have some kind of insight that we are not permitted to attain. When Peter says “we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32), he must be referring to a select group of Christians here.
But if you look at the passage a little more closely, Peter is doing something fairly common. He’s interpreting the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection in light of Scripture. In this case, it’s one of the Psalms. Peter quotes from Psalm 16 to make the point that it was God’s intention to raise Jesus from the dead all along. I think that makes sense, because Psalm 16 was a declaration of hope for anyone who trusted that their life was in God’s hands. The faith expressed in the Psalm was that nothing, not even death, could snatch them from the safety and joy they had in God’s presence.
In Peter’s case, the Psalm provided him with the language to bear witness to his experience that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead. More than that, it helped him to give words to his conviction that this was God’s plan all along. So from one point of view, you could say that Peter’s witness was rather ordinary. By that I mean that in his “witness” Peter was not claiming some supernatural revelation. He was simply sharing his own experience as he understood it in light of Scripture. He was bearing witness to what he had seen and heard. That’s really all any of us can do: share our experience as we understand it in light of Scripture.
Of course, Peter and the others whose witness serves as the basis for our New Testament did have some extraordinary experiences. Peter’s “witness” in our lesson for today is part of his sermon on the day of Pentecost. We know that what made Peter’s “witness” so effective that day was he was “filled with the Spirit.” And we would say that it was the Spirit who empowered the testimony of the all the Apostles. Most of us would be uncomfortable claiming that we are “filled with the Spirit.” I doubt that we would say that our words of witness to the gospel are empowered by the Spirit. But I think this is an example of how we tend to take ourselves for granted. The Scriptures tell us that the Spirit has been poured out on us all. The Spirit is working to empower every one of us in whatever we may do in service to God and one another. And that includes our “witness.” The Spirit is at work when we share our experience of Christ with others.
 I realize that, to many of us, our own faith journey may seem too “ordinary” for us to be able to “bear witness to the gospel.” It may seem like sharing our experience doesn’t count as a “witness” for Christ. But while our experiences may be similar, no two people have the same journey. That means each of us has insights into what it means to be a Christian that are unique. And it is our calling to share those experiences with those around us. They may seem insignificant to us, but we never really know what people are dealing with and how our words of encouragement might help them. Our very simple and ordinary “witness” might make all the difference in the world.
The truth of the matter is that “bearing witness to the gospel” is an entirely ordinary aspect of the Christian life. It’s as simple as telling the story of what you have seen and heard, as you understand it in light of Scripture. It’s as ordinary as talking about how God has worked in your life. The truth is we all have a story to tell, the story of our own faith journey. If nothing else, we all can relate to someone how we have experienced God’s love in our lives. Bearing witness to the gospel doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. As Peter said so long ago, “We all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/23/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

No comments: