Would you expect that someone’s last words to you might be pretty important? Yeah, I would think so, too. I think of a family gathered at a loved one’s bedside, keeping vigil while their love one passes from this life into eternity. His last words spoken might be pretty meaningful. Or how about a family gathered at an airport, sending into harm’s way a son or a daughter in the military. A final hug; a final “I love you.” or “Take care of yourself.” or “Be safe.” Even if the worst that happens is a 9-12 month separation during their deployment, that last word would still be a meaningful moment.
Today is Mother’s Day, and although my mom died three years ago, I will always remember what turned out to be our final exchange. The content of the conversation wasn’t earthshattering. But the emotional meaning, of saying a final goodbye, that will live in my heart the rest of my life.
In our reading from Acts, Jesus mission is complete. He has experienced the passion, the crucifixion and the resurrection. He’s spent 40 days after Easter encouraging the disciples and calling to their minds all that he had taught them. Now, the time has come for Jesus to ascend into heaven, and he shares some parting words with his friends,
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8 (NLT)
This Easter season we’ve been exploring what it means to live out the resurrection in our daily lives. To show that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference in how we live out our faith even today, more than 2000 years after Jesus’ death. This morning, Jesus’ final words to his disciples, to us, is that living the resurrection is to Live Witness!
Jesus’ last words to us give us clear insight into what this means:
And you will be my witnesses
As soon as we mention the “W” word, we may find all sorts of reactions and resistance begin to well up inside of us. Traditionally, the Lutheran community has a bit of a reputation of being shy and quiet about our faith. This classic joke expresses it well:
What do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness with a Lutheran? Someone who knocks on doors but doesn’t know what to say.
Now a witness is someone who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced. Interestingly, the Greek word here is “martyr” which has, of course, taken on a very specific meaning in history of someone who sacrifices their life for the sake of the Gospel. Our witnessing, our martyrdom may not go to that extreme. But let the notion of being a witness, of being a martyr, do something else for us. Let it call to mind Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels that disciples, witnesses like you and I, do have to die to ourselves.
The journey of being a disciple is to allow Jesus to put to death our human nature to be in control, in order to be freed to live the life that God has for us. As the Holy Spirit does this work of faith in us, we will find ourselves better able to “give a firsthand account of something seen or heard or experienced.”
telling people about me everywhere
We’re often more comfortable expressing our faith in deeds of service and compassion rather than words. Nothing wrong with expressing our faith by how we treat one another. But the example of both our Lord and the early Church is to be a community that “talks the talk” and “walks the walk.”
It may be we only touch one life, but that little touch may have a large impact.
Edward Kimball was a shoe store assistant and a Sunday school teacher in Chicago, who spent hours of his free time visiting the young street children in Chicago’s inner city, trying to win them for Christ. Through him, a young boy named Dwight came to faith in 1858.
Dwight grew up to be a preacher. In 1879, he led Frederick to the Lord.
Frederick became a preacher and brought John to Christ.
John became a preacher and brought the message of Christ to a baseball player named Billy.
Years later, Billy held a revival in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was so successful that a teenager named Billy gave his life to Jesus.
If not for the simple effort of Edward, then our world would have been poorer without the faith and ministry of men like Dwight L. Moody, Frederick Meyer, John Chapman, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.[i]
It’s an intentional tension: Doing acts of compassion are very important, but acts done without being grounded in the saving message of Jesus Christ make us no different than a social service agency. Nothing wrong with social service agencies, to be sure. But we have those, and that’s not the church. But sharing the word of God’s love revealed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection without addressing the hurts and needs of the community is a mis-interpretation as well. James shows us the way when he writes,
Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” — but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. James 2:15–17 (NLT)
The early church in Acts: comprised of Peter and the community boldly speaking the message, and of the community sharing its resources with one another. To be the church, we need to be witnesses who speak the word of how God has saved us from our sins and reunited us with one another through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and demonstrate that love through acts of compassion and service.
Notice something else that Jesus says,
telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Our being witnesses is to different communities, if you will.
“In Jerusalem” – in our immediate community (Easton, Fowler, throughout Fresno County)
“Throughout Judea” – among our own “kind” ethnically and socially. For the Jewish disciples, Judea was “home.” It was known and comfortable. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
“In Samaria” – A different, specific geographic location in Israel. Traditional antipathy with Samaria; historical issues dating back to the exile in the eighth century. In Jewish eyes, Samaritans were second class citizens. Half-breeds who were not worthy to be considered Jews because of social intermixing that took place during the exile. No place in the temple; among God’s chosen ones. Jesus tells us that our witnessing extends beyond our comfort zone, to include people that we would naturally wish to avoid. Folks on which we might otherwise look down; those we would consider “outsiders.” What that is will be different for each community. But the challenge is still there. But Jesus doesn’t even stop there!
“To the ends of the earth” We are called to be witnesses in all three aspects of our community: to our local community, to our community around us that is different; on the fringe, and to the world community. For some, like Taylor Ewing who we sent out to Zambia last week, it means going ourselves. For most of us, it means supporting missionaries with our prayers and our funds. Immanuel has a long history of doing just that!
How are we supposed to do this, to be witnesses, martyrs, even for Jesus? Thankfully, it’s not just up to us. We don’t have to rely only on our own power or ability or natural giftedness:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.
God empowers us through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Spirit brings into our lives. God never calls us to do something without also providing the resources to accomplish it.
But our witnessing is never for our own sake, so we can meet our budget, or fill our church / new education building, or pay off our mortgage, or have a good reputation in the community, or really, anything about us at all.
Yes, our witnessing deepens our faith and helps us to experience God’s power and presence in new ways. But part of our dying to ourselves means that our motives for witnessing are always and primarily our concern for others. Our desire to have them experience the same life saving relationship we have received. In fact, all that we do here is not so much for us as it is for those who aren’t here yet.
Our ministry builds us up in faith, it nurtures a healthy sense of community so we can share that faith and that sense of community with those who don’t have any yet.
[i] Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, 1001 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 66-67.