Sermon, Ascension Day, Sunday May 25, 2014.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
And Acts 17: 16-34
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
If I wanted to make a group of Christians feel totally inadequate, scared, confused and guilty I would only have to use one word and the job would most times be done.
Now I don’t want t make anyone here feel like that! But this text from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts raises the word that has this effect. What’s the word? ……..Witnessing!
Yes, there it is: “Witnessing to others”: Bearing witness to the gospel among other people who don’t believe in Jesus. Fulfilling the great commission of Jesus to preach the gospel to all the world….
If there is one area of the Christian life that we know we need to do but struggle so much to have any freedom in and joy in it seems to be this one.
We hear this great commissioning text and shudder in our boots a bit because we hear as being a challenge that seems totally dependent on us!
“….that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things…”.
When I think of “witnessing” I think of “Mission” and then i think of THE great missionary, Paul.
I think of him boldly showing us how it is to be done as he mixes it with the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17! The model of witnessing?!
Paul does have demonstrate the courage to stand up in public and launch the case for the Christian faith right in one of the leading cities of the world, and in the leading place of that city! Can you feel your flimsy witnessing courage ebbing away already?!
Is this where the guilt and the fear come from when it comes to our calling to bear witness to the gospel among people we know? Are we scared because know we are not Paul and guilty because we just don’t say anything much as a result?
Or is it that we, unlike Paul, just have no confidence to say much about our hope? Here Paul is using the rhetorical skills of the day to provide a strong case for repenting before God and receiving God’s forgiveness in the resurrected Jesus. Are we all meant to be able to do that? Is that why we just find witnessing so scary and something to suffered at best – if we ever pluck up the courage to say anything?
Or is because we are just scared messing it up? We have had a go with family members and we just end up in a bad place. It seems to turn into an argument and no one enjoys it and we feel like we have failed. So we have put the witnessing thing back in the box and left it there for the Paul’s of the world, or the pastors or the church staff or anyone but me!
I found some good news on this recently.
I heard someone say that the whole thing of witnessing to others need have no fear for us at all and that in our culture, in our time, there are ways to approach it and actually do it that are quite natural and actually quite easy. Even in this Ascension moment when Jesus commissions us he gives the good news that this work is his from start to finish
• “These are my words that I spoke to you”
• “to be proclaimed in his name”
• “clothed with power from on high.”
• “lifting up his hands, he blessed them”
I heard someone say that the whole thing of witnessing to others need have no fear for us at all and that in our culture, in our time, there are ways to approach it and actually do it that are quite natural and actually quite easy.
See, the gospel will sound different in every different situation and with every different person. And that is because the gospel of Jesus’ forgiveness is not some set text or formula that you just have to slavishly work into any conversation to achieve your goal of witnessing!
As an example….., on a few occasions in my life a friend has dared me to cleverly find some way of saying a weird word in a conversation with someone (stranger or friend) – just for fun. So the dare is, “I dare you to use the word ‘perfunctory’ (or some such other hardly used word) in a conversation with say “a taxi driver”.
So you jump in the taxi together. You have the word in your head and the conversation is going on and your friend who dared you to do this is keeping the score and you get nervous and your don’t know how to use the word and your scared of confusing the person or offending them (It could be his Indian grandmother’s name or something!)….
And now we are in the space we might find ourselves in if we thought that witnessing was using some set formula that we have to cleverly slip into to a conversation to pat ourselves on the back that we have won Jesus’ dare.
Well, Paul does not do that. The gospel comes out uniquely here because he is in a unique situation and he listens to the situation first.
In the particular situation he finds himself, he responds to the call of Jesus to bear witness for THAT situation. Here he uses all his awareness of the city and the people to invite people into the good news of the “unknown god”, whom he names as the righteous man whom God the creator has raised from the dead to give assurance of his love for the world to all (Acts 17;30-31).
Paul has a story, a nationality, a time and he has skills. He is steeped in the academic rigour of his day. He has rhetorical skills that fit this crowd. He uses them accordingly. I doubt whether Peter could have done this in this place. He has another background. Put Peter on the shore line with beefy blokes sharing a BBQ ad talking fishing and he could speak of faith in Jesus that would bear fruit. Then Paul would be out of his depth.
The good news comes out differently all the time.
OK. So this morning if can you accept that;
• You don’t have to be anyone else or
• You don’t have to use the magic word perfectly or set formula
• You don’t need to speak like someone else
Can you also just for a minute at least allow that
• You are free in your baptism into Christ to be yourself,
• Listen carefully and notice the other person,
• and when invited or when appropriate give YOUR account of the hope that is in you?
If so, then we might be able go a little further and can hear about a way to do this in much more natural ways, free from guilt or fear, express the “reason for your hope”.
“Inside Out” is the name for the way to be yourself, share your faith whenever and with whoever is appropriate.
Start from the ordinary things we already have inside of us to share then move on to those heavenly things of God with the person outside us – “inside out”.
Conversations about ordinary things and everyday concerns using Jesus own words for the moment is bearing witness inside out. His words are inside our hearts and minds and they simple come out for the moment as they are brought to mind by the Holy Spirit in that moment.
Jesus spoke about wheat and vines and water and business people and church buildings, and the like.
And we can do it like this…
You are chatting in the street with a person you know who is telling you about a really difficult situation they are having with their grown-up daughter. She is off the rails and this person is worried and a little bit angry and just wanting the daughter to come back home and talk about it.
What Jesus stories are in your mind now? I know which one comes to my mind straight away: the story about the prodigal sons – especially the young son.
How would it be that you simple said that this situation reminds me of a story Jesus told about a Father who also lost his wayward son….. Tell it your way how you remember it in whatever time you have.
And here is the best thing about this “inside out” way of bearing witness. You really don’t need to say anymore.
You might be tempted to go on and try and make all those links you know: God is our Father and he accepts us all and welcomes us back and calls us to do this for others and etc, etc…OR NOT.
What if you just related a story of Jesus or of any Bible story if it fits the conversation and trusted the Holy Spirit to make all the links for that person in his time and way?
I reckon we can trust the Holy Spirit to do that.
After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us that the Holy Spirit is the Director of mission?
‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me so I send you. …Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven” (John 20:21-23).
When Jesus sends out the 70 to the places he intended to soon go, he encouraged them to “pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into His harvest. (Luke 10). This conversation and the story and you are the Lord’s right there and then.
The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said. Peace I leave with you….” (John 14)
Is witnessing less scary now and less about you knowing how to say thing right, and less about getting it right, having all your questions and answers right?
Isn’t it more about conversations about ordinary things and everyday concerns using Jesus own words for the moment? I reckon so and I am trying it. It is much easier and I am not so scared anymore.
Trusting the Holy Spirit is in our conversations and our simple talking about everyday things and concerns and offering the story of Jesus we know already that seems to match our Areopagus, our town square, our Valley, our skills and understandings and our century.
And one more freeing thing I notice with Paul and with ourselves….
If while you are talking to your friend in the street and nothing comes to mind, no story of Jesus appears, or his lift arrives and he has to go or you sense that the time is not right, you can stop it right there. Leave it to the Holy Spirit for another time.
Right at the end we hear this:
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
And that is always the way. This is the Holy Spirits work. We hand our conversations to him and ask him to help us recall Jesus and tell of him when and where we can, but he has the final say.
Read the texts out loud in some way carefully, noting what questions come to mind and what makes your mind wander into thought…
Share you initial reactions to the Word for a short time…
What makes you scared or intimidated with the action of witnessing? Make a list together…..
Share a bad experience of witnessing to Jesus and a good one.
What makes us tentative about sharing our faith? Which one is more a concern for you:
- Don’t know what to say about Jesus
- Scared of a negative response
- Might lose a friendship
- Might say something wrong – tell the person a wrong thing about God
- Might say something wrong – something that offends the person.
Are you convinced that it is your responsibility to bear witness in words (and actions) or is this something you are unsure of?
Talk about people’s responses and experiences…
I suggested that this task Jesus gave his people (his church) is his work and that there is a way to bear witness to the hope we share in Jesus’ forgiveness and peace that fits our culture. I called it “Inside Out”. The letting what you already know – particularly the stories you know of Jesus and simply relating them in your own words to fit the situation as it presents itself – So moving from what God has already placed inside you to letting that outside of you in conversation.
I also suggested that telling of Jesus and the stories that reveal who he is and what he has done for people in OUR OWN words is certainly good enough. Ho to do feel about this idea? What would it require of you to engage in more often/ Share your thoughts….
Paul is the great model of mission mindedness and that is great, but we are not Paul. But we can do what Paul did to begin the conversation about God’s grace and the hope we have in his Son. he watched and listened to the people and the town and their idols and values and simply told of God’s creating all things and giving of his Son and raising him from the grave so that all could live at peace with the God of the universe. Is this something you think you could do for a friend as the opportunity comes – in your own words and way – why/why not?
I said we are free to be ourselves in this and if the conversation does not have time to develop or we just cant think of a Jesus story or whatever, that is OK because this is the Holy Spirit’s work and he is the “Director of Mission”. However, I guess it does mean that we need to know stories of Jesus and be able to share the hope we have in him. That’s our “homework” and yet, it is still the Holy Spirit’s work from beginning to end.
Would you think of a person with whom you are in a relationship now who is searching for help or advice or even faith and with their situation in ind, try and think of a bible story that relates to their situation and ponder how you might go about simple speak about that story as a gentle and friendly way of bearing witness to Jesus’ hope with that person. Take a few minutes individually and then share your thoughts.
Lord of the Church, help us to bear witness to you in the ordinary things of life and the stories of your Word as we are able and as you decide so that more people move from worshiping unknown gods to knowing and loving Jesus. Amen.