I wonder how you know that Easter is over? Is it when all the Easter egg chocolate has gone? Is it when the last daffodil has faded and been mown over? Is it when it feels about time to take the Easter cards down?
Of course, in the church year, Easter goes on until Pentecost, when we remember and celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers. This is the feasting season when we celebrate and celebrate again Jesus death and resurrection. One of the reasons that it goes on for a good couple of months is to give us the opportunity to reflect on what Easter means for our lives today.
We celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection not just as historical events that happened to other people a long way away and a long time ago, but as life changing realities today. Jesus didn’t just die and rise and go into heaven and that was that. Those events changed the whole course of human history, Jesus is alive now and continuing to change history.
One of the things that we do during Easter to help us to think about this is to have a series of readings from the book of Acts. This book, which comes right after the four accounts of Jesus’ life in our Bibles is actually the sequel to one of those accounts. It was written by Luke, the same person who wrote the third Gospel.
At the very beginning of his first book Luke wrote this:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
This summary of what Luke was trying to do in his writing also covers his second book, Acts. In all that Luke writes, his purpose is to give a careful account of what happened, backed up by evidence, so that people can be sure that what they are reading is trustworthy, and can be confident about their faith. One of the foundation stones of Luke’s writing is the idea of witness. It is a theme that runs through the whole of the story he tells, the importance of witness.
In the series of readings from Acts that we have in the Easter season we hear about what Jesus’ followers did in the months following his death and resurrection. We hear about how Jesus’ death and resurrection started radically changing the lives of ordinary people, people just like you and me. Each week we get a different bit of the story, a story that helps us to understand how the good news of Jesus spread and the difference it made to people’s lives.
So, for each of the weeks of this Easter season, we are going to focus on a verse or two from these accounts in Acts, and think about what they have to say to us about witness: about the witness that we hear from those accounts, about our response to that witness, and about our witness to others.
Last week we heard part of Peter’s speech to the crowds in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. We thought about a key sentence from the middle of that speech “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”.
In coming weeks we will hear about the way in which people saw the way in which community life in the young church was a witness to the love of Jesus, we will hear about how Stephen witnessed and told others about the glory of God. We will go with Paul to Athens, where he found witnesses to God in the most unlikely places. We will think about the power of the Holy Spirit being given to Jesus’ followers so that they could witness to everyone, everywhere, to the good news of Jesus.
But what about this week I hear you cry. What is God saying to us about witness this week?
Let me keep you in suspense no longer. The verses that we are going to focus on this week also come from what Peter said to the crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The people have heard what we heard last week, the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection that Peter, as an eye witness, could tell them about. They have been cut to the quick, and now they want to know what they need to do. And Peter tells them, “Repent and be baptised everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins might be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
I wonder whether you have a favourite talent show? In our house at the moment on Saturday nights we have to watch, “So you think you can dance” Maybe for you it’s X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent. One thing they all have in common is the ploys they have of heightening the tension at the moment of decision. Who is going home tonight? The contestants stand under spot lights, the tense mood music starts up, the presenter says, “The couple going home tonight is......” “going to be revealed after this short break.
Maybe you can’t stand talent shows, maybe you prefer a good courtroom drama. I used to love Ironsides, or good old Perry Mason. The plot was the same in every show, and the dramatic climax would often come as the decision was delivered by the jury. Again there would be tense mood music, the camera would go to the faces of the victim and the accused, the various lawyers, the tension would be built up and up until the verdict was given.
In both kind of shows, the producers know that the most important thing in the story is the decision. In the talent show people have witnessed the talent, or lack of it, and now their response is going to be revealed. In the court room the witnesses have all given their evidence, the barristers have made their arguments and delivered their speeches, now the jury will respond with their decision.
We see a similar effect in these verses from Acts. They come at the climax of Peter’s speech, he is telling the people what they need to do if they find the eye witness evidence they have heard compelling. For the talent show, if you find one of the performances compelling you pick up the phone and vote. In a court room, as a member of the jury, if you find the witnesses compelling then you deliver a verdict in line with that evidence. Peter tells people what to do if they find the witnesses who say that Jesus is alive compelling.
What they need to do is to repent and be baptised. This response opens the way for people to receive forgiveness and gift of the Holy Spirit.
It makes perfect sense. Jesus died and rose again to show that evil, sin, and death are not the ultimate power in the universe, God is. He disarmed their power so that everybody could live lives of love, joy, peace, and freedom. If people want to be a part of that then they need to turn away from the things that Jesus overcame. To be real about their part in causing pain, hurting people, failing to love, being part of conflict and broken relationships, and commit themselves to living another way. There is a need to die to self and be raised with Jesus, to have the pollution and dirtiness of hearts and minds washed and made clean again. These things are found in baptism.
Having turned away from the dark, help is needed to live in the light. That is what the Holy Spirit gives. Jesus’ people are not left alone to struggle on, trying hard, but powerless. The Holy Spirit has been given to guide, to strengthen, and to comfort.
So, we’ve thought about what “people” are told that they need to do if they find the witnesses to Jesus’ ongoing life compelling, but what about us? What does all this mean for us?
Firstly, we need to have made our own response to the fact that Jesus is alive. Because of what Jesus did our sins can be forgiven and we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to be guilty or ashamed anymore. Our forgiveness cleans us from all past sin and the Holy Spirit helps us to live in a way that is not dominated by sin in the future.
But, we do have to do something to receive these gifts. Jesus is standing here offering them, but we have to turn to him so that we can be given them. That is what it means to repent.
If this is something that you feel that you have never done, but you are finding the witnesses to Jesus life more and more compelling then I invite you to do so today. You might want to do that on your own, but I would strongly encourage you to tell somebody about it, somebody who can pray with you and support you. We are not only given the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in our walk with Jesus, we are also given each other.
The second thing that it means for us is that we have something to say to those who ask us what they need to do. Repent and be baptised. This answer that Peter gave wasn’t just for the people he was speaking to on that day 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. He makes it very clear. He says, “the promise is for you, for your children and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”
The promise is that these gifts, forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, are available. That promise is not for a few but for everyone whom the Lord our God calls, it is for us and the people we live and work among. It is for the person you meet up Hanley for coffee, it is for your neighbour, it is for your children and grandchildren.
We are witnesses to this fact. We have received these gifts. We have been forgiven, and have the gift of the Holy Spirit. We can now tell others about them, so that they have the opportunity to respond as we have done, and to receive the good things that God has promised are there for them.