Do you ever read books or watch films or TV series where the timeline has been messed around with. I watched a film the other day where the first five minutes of the film showed a man grieving over the death of his mother, and then it cut to a scene with the subtitle “two years earlier” and the rest of the film took you through what happened to lead up to that death.
The series of readings that we have been following through Acts, looking at the theme of witness, have been a bit like this. But in this case it’s not that we’ve had the end of the story at the beginning, but that we missed the beginning. We jumped right into the story and are now, this week and next week, finding out what happened to start it all off. What it was that led to all the amazing witnesses speaking out in the way that we have heard about all through this Easter season.
We’ve been following the story of the first followers of Jesus in the account of it written by Luke, an account put together after a load of investigation so that those who read it can be sure that it is a trustworthy witness of what happened.
First of all, we heard about Peter’s eye witness testimony to the crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”. Then we heard about what Peter told those who were convinced by that eye witness evidence to do, “Repent and be baptised every one 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”
Then we found out about what all these new believers got up to, what difference it made to their lives. What people on the outside of the group of the believers witnessed, what they saw them doing, how they saw them living.
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
But then things started going wrong. People started to get upset about what Jesus’ followers were saying and doing. They were offended by the witness statements that they were hearing. Stephen, one of the first followers of Jesus had been telling people about what he witnessed in Jesus’ life. Because of this he was put on trial by the religious leaders of the time and they took offense at him and what he said.
In the middle of all these angry people and hate that was being directed towards him we are told that, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And a little later that as he died he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
These two verses reminded us of the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on God’s glory and of forgiveness when people attack us for our faith and witness to that faith.
Last week you heard a bit about Paul’s visit to Athens and his witness there.
Now, this week we hit the rewind button. We go right back to the beginning of Acts. Now we get to find out what launched Jesus’ followers onto the path that we have been following them on. We get to think about how it might launch us in our lives of witness. Jesus has been spending some time with the disciples after his resurrection, but now it is time for him to return to the Father’s side. He is saying goodbye to his disciples, and one of the things he says is,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Next week is Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit to all God’s people, so we are going to think about that then, but I do just want us to realise today that one of the reasons that Jesus gave for returning to the Father was so that the Holy Spirit could come and be with God’s people. Ascension and Pentecost are two sides of the same coin. Jesus went so that the Holy Spirit would come.
But, this morning, we are going to concentrate on what Jesus says next. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I think that is really important that we understand one thing this morning very clearly. Jesus said “You will be my witnesses”. He didn’t ask his followers to be his witnesses. He didn’t command them to be his witnesses. He just said that they would be his witnesses. They were known to be his followers, and whatever they did or said would be a witness about Jesus.
We know that those first followers were pretty good witnesses. We know this because we’ve followed their story over the last month or so. We’ve seen how they lived out their faith in love and fellowship, in a way that showed how attractive living God’s way is. We’ve seen how they continued witnessing for the truth even when it became painful. We’ve heard about how they went out into the surrounding countries and found new ways of witnessing to Jesus, ways that made sense in foreign cultures.
We know that over the centuries that there have been many good and faithful witnesses to Jesus. Because of those witnesses through time and across seas we are sitting here this morning. Who is it that has witnessed to you about Jesus? Who was it was a witness of Jesus to them, all those witnesses in a chain reaching back through time to that hillside in Judea two thousand years ago to Jesus saying, “You are my witnesses”.
And that chain doesn’t end with us, it goes on into the future, made longer by the people that we witness to, if we witness truly and faithfully.
And there’s the rub. As people who are known to be Christians we are witnesses to Jesus. We have no choice about that. What we have a choice about is what kind of witness we are. When I really stop to think about this it sometimes scares me silly. When I lose my temper, when I forget a name, when I am too busy to visit someone, when I gossip, when I am unloving or harsh it is not a good witness for God. Those Christians, they’re all hypocrites you know. I could tell you some stories.
Of course, I know that it isn’t as bad as that. God works in lives graciously, encouraging us and calling us on. Our imperfections are being made less and God works with and through us to call others to faith. It has always been like that. But, we still have a responsibility to be the best witnesses that we can be. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to point out the things that we do that bring God’s name into disrepute. We need to be willing to change those things.
There is one particular thing that is close to my heart that I want to use as an example this morning.
In our gospel reading we heard from John’s account of Jesus’ life. In particular we heard part of the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. He is praying for his followers, for his friends at the time, and for us, for you and me. He prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Later on he goes on to pray that this unity may be seen in his people so that the world may witness God’s love in action, and will believe.
Love between Christians and the unity of the church is at the heart of our faithful witness. There is no more important expression of our faith. We might disagree about things. We might find each others’ habits annoying. We might be hurt by each other. We might find it hard to understand why some things are happening. But we must continue to love each other. And this love is to be visible and practical. It means listening to each other rather than talking about each other. I admit that I find this difficult. When I’m sneeped it’s much easier to go and have a moan to a friend, but that’s not the loving way. The way of love is to listen to the person I’m upset with, to do what I can to make the relationship all that it could be, to pray for them. I have a feeling that this is going to be really important for St Mark’s over the next few years. This summer I will be leaving. In a few years Keith will be retiring. This church is going through a time of change.
Over the three years that I have been here I have seen change taking place already. I have seen the true and faithful witness of people here draw other people in to our family of faith. This weekend quite a few of us have been involved in the Canals Festival at Etruria, witnessing to the love of God to our community in one way. This coming week we have a Messy Church event when we will witness to that love in a different way.
I don’t know what further things God has in store for St Mark’s over the coming years, but I do know that we are Jesus’ witnesses. It is my prayer that this church will be known as a place of love, and so will bear a faithful and true witness to the love that God has for this church and for the people of Shelton and Etruria.