St Michael’s and St Barnabas 26th June 2011
Reading – Acts 1:1-11
Introducing the Theme
This morning I thought I’d begin by doing a little experiment, but to do this I need about three or four volunteers, of all ages. Do I have anyone who’s willing to come forward? That’s great. Now I’m not going to ask you to do anything hard. In fact I’m not asking you to do anything at all. All I want to do is test your memory and see how well you remember things.
Under this cloth on the tray I have a fairly random selection of objects. I am going to give you exactly thirty seconds to look at these objects and then I am going to cover the tray up again. I will then ask you what you remember. And if that’s too easy, then I’m going to ask you some questions about these objects. Do you think you can do that?
The subject I am going to look at this morning is about “being witnesses”. Can any of the younger ones tell me what a witness is? A witness is someone who sees something important happen and is asked to tell what he or she can remember. For example, you have witnesses in a court of law, or when someone is making a claim on their insurance. A few months ago we were involved in a fairly minor shunt in Dorset and I had to describe to the insurance company exactly what happened. I can remember some clear details about the accident, but I have to confess I can’t remember everything.
And why are witnesses so important? Witnesses help establish what really happened. Think, for example of Moses growing up in Egypt. One day he killed an Egyptian and buried his body. He thought he had got away with the crime because there seemed to be no-one else about. But actually some people did see what Moses did, and they told Pharaoh, and Moses had to flee into the desert to escape being punished. Witnesses are important. They help us to get at the truth and uncover the facts of what really happened.
The Disciples as Witnesses
Now in our reading from Acts Jesus appears to His disciples for the last time and He says these words: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So what truth were the first disciples witnessing to?
That’s right – to the simple fact that Jesus was alive. They had met Him, they eaten with Him, some of them had even touched Him. And even today the witness of the disciples is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that Jesus really did die on the cross and three days later come out of the tomb. Nothing else remotely comes close to explaining how this group of sad and frightened people suddenly turned into a bold and courageous movement that changed the world.
But there’s something very important to notice about the witness of the disciples. Usually witnesses simply talk about something that happened in the past. For example, the things that they saw in the last war or the crime they saw someone committing. But the disciples were to witness to more than the fact they had some time previously met with the risen Lord Jesus. They were to witness to the fact that Jesus was alive and with them now. Not in person, as a visible presence they could point to, but living in their hearts, changing and transforming their lives. Because, as Jesus promised in this verse, He would send His Holy Spirit upon them, so they would go out from Jerusalem, sure in the knowledge that He would always be with them.
That’s all very well, you may say, but how is all this relevant to me today?
Us as Witnesses
Well, to begin with, the simple fact remains that Jesus is alive. That is true now as it was two thousand years ago, and there are many people sitting in church who will bear witness to the fact they have met with Him. Jesus is not only a historical figure who walked the streets of ancient Judea and taught about the kingdom of God. He is also the risen Lord who comes to us today with the same power of the Holy Spirit that came upon those first disciples.
Of course we can’t meet the risen Lord Jesus in the same way that those first disciples did. But there are plenty of other ways that we can encounter Him. Probably the best way we can do this is by reading one of the lives of Jesus that are found in the Bible, called the gospels. Now people say you can’t trust the Bible, that it’s full of errors and inconsistencies. But when you begin to turn the pages you start to see that on the major events in Jesus’ life these four gospels agree to a remarkable degree. Yes, there are some minor differences, but we should expect this, because the gospels are in fact eye-witness accounts of what took place.
And just as our brave volunteers didn’t agree on all the details about what was on the tray, so we find sometimes Matthew, for example, remembers one detail and Luke one another. The gospels are living, eye-witness accounts of this man called Jesus and time after time when people begin to read them, they discover that, yes, Jesus still is alive and it is possible to come to know Him when you put your faith and trust in Him.
So, do you know Jesus? There are two answers to this question. If the answer is no, then take away one of the gospels today, and read an account of Jesus’ life. Then come back to me, and tell me about the Jesus you have found in its pages. If the answer is yes, then that’s great and it’s wonderful to enjoy worship together this morning. But it seems to me that Jesus’ words don’t allow us simply to come together and enjoy a holy huddle once a week. Holy huddles are nice and good and necessary, but Jesus’ command to the first disciples is also a command to us, to go, to witness, to reach the ends of the earth.
So what does it mean for us to witness? I guess at this point most of us have pictures of Jehovah’s Witnesses going round knocking on doors, trying to pass on a copy of the Watchtower. If that’s your picture of witnessing, then please try and delete it from your mind. Witnessing isn’t about trying to force people to accept your point of view. Witnessing is about honestly and naturally sharing the truth that Jesus is alive. And for most, if not all of us, that’s more about the way we live our life, than the words we say.
I was reading this week some words Paul wrote about the way slaves should behave towards their masters: not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. (Tit 2:9-10). That’s witnessing. OK, we don’t have slaves and masters any more, but apply those words to your teachers, to your employers, to your family. Think how the way you treat other people makes the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. There is nothing worse than someone who goes round saying Jesus is alive but cannot see how badly he behaves towards others.
And who should we witness to? Those little words “to the ends of the earth” mean to every person in every place. That doesn’t just include grown-ups. I very mindful that we are here today to baptise little P. What will she learn about Jesus when she grows up? Well, she will hear plenty of people who will use Jesus as just another swear-word. She will see TV shows that make fun of Jesus, and others that say He was a good but misguided prophet. When she does Religious Studies at school, she will be taught that Jesus is one religious figure among many. It’s going to be tough for P to find out who Jesus is.
So it is a brave and important step that her parents and godparents are taking as they promise to turn to Jesus and to repent of their sins. They aren’t just expressing what they believe; they are also committing themselves to bringing P up in such a way that she comes to know and love Jesus for herself, in a world that is frequently hostile or indifferent as to who Jesus is, or what He has done. That’s why we as a church have such an important role to support them and encourage them, as we welcome P into our community today.
I should add that Jesus’ words also do not apply only to people who happen to be comfortable and well-off. Jesus, after all, went round ministering to the poor, to the outcast, to those on the edges of society. Yet so often they are the ones who are missing from our churches. Somehow we have failed to witness to the wonderful truth: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Not just grown-ups, not just the people whose lives are sorted. But you and you and me, no matter who we are, no matter what we have been through.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The challenge of discipleship to us
So, to sum up, we have a message, Jesus is alive! Think what that means for own your life. Have you had a real-life, personal encounter with Jesus? Do you yourself know what it means to experience the power of the Holy Spirit?
We also have a mission, to the ends of the earth. And I presume that includes Stoke and Devonport and any other place that’s represented here this morning. What can we do as a church to share this wonderful good news with the many people around us who know nothing of Jesus and have never experienced His love, the people who perhaps think the Christian faith is not for ordinary folk like them?
And we also have a motivation – This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. As Jesus reminds us in our gospel reading, we don’t know when that will be. But one thing we do know is that, whatever time it is, He will return as Lord and King and Judge and at that point every eye will see Him, and every knee will bow. So the real challenge is: will you be ready? How faithfully are you bearing witness to the wonderful fact Jesus is alive?
Now I guess there are many different answers to these questions, but one option is ruled out – to do nothing. As our baptism service reminds us, Jesus demands a response, of faith, of love, of commitment. So as we come to the end of this sermon series, and as we consider all we’ve learnt about discipleship, let me read you once again these words from Matthew’s gospel we heard way back at the beginning of May, and let’s dare to ask the Lord how He is calling us to respond.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Let us pray…