Luke 24.44-53 & Acts 1.1-11
Delivered on Sunday 28 May 2006 in St Mary's, Ealing
© Ben Green 2006
Luke 24.44-53 & Acts 1.1-11
Spike Milligan's tombstone reads, in Irish, 'I told you I was ill!' Before he died in the Left Bank hotel, Oscar Wilde said, 'My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.' Dominic Willard was executed by firing squad, and asked if he had any last requests. 'Why yes,' he said, 'A bulletproof vest.' Everyone knows Julius Caesar's hurt in Shakespeare's play at the betrayal of his trusted friend: 'And you, Brutus? And then there's General John Sedgwick, Union Commander in the U.S. Civil War, who said shortly before he died, 'They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.'
We've just had read to us Jesus' last words to his disciples before he ascended to heaven to be with his Father. In Acts, Jesus (and then two angels) tells the disciples not to worry about when he would return. 'It's not for you to know,' they say. We have to get on with our job, however much we might long for Jesus' return.
So what is our job? It's repeated in both passages: we have to be his witnesses. Great. Ok, off we go, let's move on to the next part of the service. Except, it's not that easy, is it? Unfortunately for us, Jesus left us the job of working out what it means for us to be his witnesses. It's a life-long job - but I'll try to keep it short this morning.
First of all, being Jesus' witness means trusting the events of his life as recorded for us in the Bible. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus showed his disciples what the Bible means. He 'opened their minds'. I wish it were that easy today! To understand the whole Biblical story, just like that. He showed them how the Messiah (that's him) had to suffer and rise from the dead: 'Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day' (Luke 24.46). He showed them that, although no-one was expecting God to act like this, he couldn't have fulfilled his promises in any other way.
Jesus' death and resurrection are absolutely central to our faith. They were the culmination of God's promises to punish iniquity, rescue his people from slavery, renew the world and put the world to rights, dealing with evil once and for all.
But Jesus' death and resurrection were also the start of something new. Suddenly God is not distant. The temple curtain is torn in two. Suddenly access is God is open to everyone, regardless of colour, gender or nationality. Forgiveness is for all!
If you look carefully, you'll see Jesus' sentence doesn't end at verse 46. According to Jesus, the scriptures didn't just point to his life, but to the life of the church. The next verse carries on: 'and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.' It's in Acts as well: 'you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'
A witness has to believe it, and tell the world. Don't let anyone tell you that you can be a Christian without speaking, without literally telling other people about Jesus. It's not enough simply to 'love everyone'. We aren't hippies. Did the disciples love others? Yes! Was it enough? No! 'Proclaim' means 'make a noise', 'shout about', and so on. And why not? It's good news - it's great news - God promises that if we repent, he will forgive our sins and give us new life instead of death!
To be Jesus' witness means to have a faith solidly grounded in what actually happened to Jesus two thousand years ago. And it means not keeping that faith to ourselves, but shouting out to the nations that they must repent and believe, because God's kingdom is coming!
However, I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that there's more to evangelism, to being a witness, than shouting. Standing on street corners with a cardboard placard and a megaphone probably won't help you or anyone else.
You've probably heard the old cliché: actions speak louder than words. Perhaps it should be more like, 'words speak louder with actions'. It's our God-given task to proclaim the truth about Jesus to the world. But if we don't look and act like Christians, no-one will listen.
To be Jesus' witness, what we believe has to go deep, right to our very core. It has to inform everything we do, and in everything we do we have to try to live it out. Being a witness means being a disciple, not being a parrot. Not that I have anything against parrots, you understand.
How can we become disciples? Most importantly, we learn from other disciples, whose faith is more mature than our own. We follow their example, we imitate them. Being a disciple means actively putting your faith first in all that you do. How do you spend your time? What do you talk about? How do you spend your money? How do you vote? How do you care for the world? How do you treat your children? How do you treat your parents? How often do you pray? How often do you study the Bible? Do you? To be a disciple means being a follower of Jesus Christ in every area of your life. No holds barred.
If we are true disciples, with a deep faith, then when we speak people will listen. They will see sincerity in us, and that's an attractive thing.
So, being Jesus' witness means working on our faith, making sure it affects every area of our lives.
It's actually impossible for us to be Jesus' witnesses. It requires super-human strength of will, discipline, love, energy. We humans are part of the problem on this world, aren't we? We've wrecked it, polluted it, destroyed it. How can we be the ones to carry a message of hope to the ends of the earth? We'd probably lose it on the way, or, worse, change it to something that benefits us a bit more.
But - and it's quite a big but - two thousand years ago, twelve men were sitting in a room together, and something happened. A prophecy, ages old, was fulfilled. A promise, repeated often and longed for even more, was made good.
God sent his Spirit.
The Holy Spirit of God was sent from on high and clothed the disciples with power, just as Jesus had promised, in both our passages this morning. It is impossible for us to be Jesus' witnesses, but with God, all things are possible. The Holy Spirit is our power to do the task we've been set by Jesus.
The Holy Spirit gives us courage and boldness to speak out. Having been filled with fire, the disciples left the room they were in, and Peter preached the sermon to end all sermons, and three thousand people were converted. I'd say that's pretty impressive.
The thing is, though, the boldness usually comes as we put ourselves in a situation requiring boldness. Peter didn't think, 'I'm feeling particularly bold now, so I'll speak out.' He just launched into it! You probably won't wake up one morning suddenly feeling energised to go out and preach the gospel to all and sundry. If you do, great, but it doesn't happen very often.
No, we have to start doing it. Then the words start coming, and the courage too. And then, of course, the next time we try, it's easier, and so on. The courage will come - but not if you don't put yourself somewhere that you need it.
To be Jesus' witnesses we have to be bold: the Holy Spirit gives us courage.
As well as giving us boldness and courage, the Holy Spirit is our inspiration. To be effective witnesses, we have to be relevant and interesting and imaginative. We have to go to the ends of the earth: do we think the same method of witnessing will work everywhere we go? Of course not. The same method wouldn't even work in different parts of Ealing, let alone the world.
To make matters worse, these days people can't listen to speeches and talks. We have the attention span of goldfish. If it's not a sound bite, they don't want to listen. But, God can cope - and he's our inspiration. So let's make a habit of asking him for help. I've got a few ideas for starters. As a basic method, look at the needs your local area, think about what we as Christians have to offer, and match the two together.
Family breakdown is common across the country. More people are living alone, more and more children are brought up in unstable households. Sexual morality is practically non-existent. So why not offer, as a church, free parenting and/or marriage classes?
What about environmental issues? How about running a plastic recycling collection here at St Mary's? The council obviously aren't yet, but we produce so much plastic waste that can be recycled. Why not all club together and buy environmentally-friendly toilets, with two flushes, or everyone switch over to a green electricity provider like the Good Energy Company, or Ecotricity? You could then try to encourage other Ealing residents to do the same. You could call the campaign Ealing Greener.
The basic point is, you need the Holy Spirit to inspire you to come up with relevant, interesting ideas, that are accessible to local non-Christians, and at the same time give you the opportunity to demonstrate your faith.
It's really, really hard to do all this. We have an enemy who really doesn't want us to succeed. Like I said, it requires super-human strength. But we have God on our side, whose Son has already defeated our enemy, and whose Holy Spirit is here to help. You have to let him help, you have to give him the opportunity to work, to give you courage, to inspire you.
Being Jesus' witness means being filled with the Holy Spirit to be bold, inspired, relevant and interesting.
I'll recap the main points, and then we'll pray. Being Jesus' witness means having a solid faith based on what actually happened to Jesus. It means proclaiming those events to the world. It means being a disciple, living out our faith. It means being clothed with power from on high, the power of the Holy Spirit. It means being bold and inspired.
You know, our ascended Lord Jesus is really quite clever- as one man he could never have been effective to the ends of the earth. But by ascending to heaven, sending his Spirit, and calling us, he - we - can reach the ends of the earth.
As we now pray, try not to think about something else, but focus on what we're praying, on who we're praying to. We'll be praying for God to inspire us to be effective witnesses here in South Ealing. God may inspire you in these moments with an idea or a thought - if he does, often it seems a bit random, and your heart speeds up a bit. If this happens, I suggest you come and tell Steve or myself after the service. And if you get any ideas during the week, don't keep them to yourself, tell someone!
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we praise your name as you are exalted at the Father's right hand. Thank you for sending us your Holy Spirit to help and inspire us to continue your work here on earth.
Please send your Holy Spirit upon us now. Fill us up, Lord, and inspire us. Lord Jesus please help us to know how we can tell the people around us about what you have done. In the stillness now, please help us to listen to what you are saying to us by the power of your Holy Spirit. Speak to us Lord, we are listening.
Thank you for your presence here with us. Please increase our faith, help us to grow more and more in love with you as we learn more and more about you. Give us the grace to live out our faith, to be examples of your loving-kindness.
May all who look on our church and our work praise our Father in heaven because of what you are doing through us.
In your name we pray, Amen.
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