Thursday, May 28, 2009

an expanding circle (acts 1. 8)

We are, by nature, people who want to venture out, see the world, expand our horizons. Many of you know that Pam and I have a daughter who live and works in Beijing, China. She is 23. We say that we must have been excellent parents, because our daughter moved as far away on the planet from us as possible; any farther, and she is coming back. I often think of that book Runaway Bunny, where the bunny goes away but the voice, the reader keeps saying, I will find you, I will bring you back. It’s a wonderful book, but twelve hours away by airplane makes that a little impractical.

But back to my point. We want to venture out, Columbus wanted to “discover” a new world, our ancestors wanted to “go west”. It is in our bones. Actually, it is also a part of our faith story. Abraham is called to go to a place that he does not know. Jesus commissions the disciples to go into all the world. And today, on Ascension Sunday, we hear the story again.

Acts 1. 8, in one single verse, sets the course for the entire book that we know as the Acts of the Apostles: You will receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

This is the movement of God and it is all about going out, beyond ourselves, beyond what we know, to the place that we do not know. Jesus is with the disciples, and they are asking questions about the end times, and the establishment of the kingdom. He changes the subject.

His response to their questions, Acts 1. 8, begins with a promise: you will receive power. One of the convincing arguments for the reality of the resurrection was the change that had occurred in the lives of the disciples, Peter who had denied Jesus, the other disciples, who had abandoned him, they have become new people, something has happened, they are alive with an inner fire. What it is the difference? It is the gift of God. You will receive power The word for power, in the greek, is dunamis, our word for dynamic. Something dynamic is happening. It’ like an electrical current, running through these pages of the Book of Acts. People’s lives are changed. There is reconciliation and healing. There is growth and new possibility. There are dreams and visions of a different world. This is the mission into which the disciples are sent, and even here there is a shift. They are no longer disciples; they are apostles.

A disciple is a student, a learner, and in a sense we are all lifelong students. The physician you wish for, and our congregation happens to blessed with many of them, is one who never stops learning. It is also true in the faith: we never stop learning about the Bible, about God’s purpose for our lives and for the entire creation. We are disciples. But now we are called to be something else, something more: apostles.

To be a disciple is to receive. To be an apostle is to be sent out, sent into the world. Jesus is departing, he had promised the disciples that he was going away, but he would not leave them comfortless. As he leaves, he gives them something. You will receive power, he says, because I will be with you, I will not leave you comfortless, I will not leave you as an orphan, I am coming to you, you will receive power. The power is the indwelling Christ, it is a strength that goes beyond their own human capacity, and it is given to them for a purpose. You will receive power, and you will be my witnesses.

Literally, the greek word for witness was martyr, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, to bear witness is an act of love. In addition, to bear witness is to speak about something, it is to give truthful testimony. I came across a very interesting article recently, about a phrase often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century. The phrase goes like this, and maybe you have heard it: Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” There are actually two problems with this phrase. First, Francis never said it. And second, he did not live it. The author notes that the phrase never appears in the first two hundred years following his life, in any biography about him. And in addition, Francis was known as a speaker, as a preacher, as a dramatist. One of the early biographies puts it this way: His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the Holy Spirit…”. The phrase, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words”, appeals to us, on a couple of levels. Words have become cheap in our culture, we are bombarded with so many of them. And words have a way of coming back to haunt us; the self-deception or the hypocrisy of our words fail us and those who listen to us.

But witness includes words. In a postmodern world, although it may always have been the case, the truth comes near to us when our words and our actions resonate, when they are congruent, when there is integrity of what we say and what we do and who we are.

You will be my witnesses, Jesus says. How do we witness? For most of us this is probably not by standing on the corner of Sharon and Providence with a sign that says “Jesus saves” or “Jesus is coming soon” or “Where will you spend eternity?” Let’s say this is not our witness. This does not mean that we abandon the idea of witness altogether. The promise, you will receive power, is connected to a command, you will be my witnesses.

We witness in a number of ways: through preaching and music and the sacraments; through teaching and encouragement and hospitality; through meeting basic human needs and advocacy and generosity. I might witness through a sermon, someone else might witness through performing surgery, another might witness by being a compassionate and fair supervisor. And of course, the witness is not just for an individual; we have a common witness.

What and where is the church’s witness? Here Jesus helps us. His followers are to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Many scholars see this as the basic structure of the Book of Acts----Jerusalem is the context of the chapters 2-7; Judea and Samaria in Chapter 8, and the ends of the earth in chapters 9-28.

First, we are witnesses in Jerusalem. Jerusalem might be our congregation, it might include what happens on this campus, it might even extend to what happens in the body of Christ, in our relationships with other churches in our community, and with other churches in the Charlotte District. Jerusalem is a very religious place, some of you may have spent some time there, and this is where we begin. Imagine a stone hitting a smooth surface of water, this is the center of what will become a series of expanding circles, but what happens at the center is important.

Then, we are to be witnesses in Judea. Judea might be our neighborhood, people who are like us in many respects, we go to school with them, we play sports with them, we shop with them and socialize with them, we enjoy their company, and yet, the demographics tell us, at least half of them do not have a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ that includes worship or study or service.

You will be my witnesses in …Samaria. These are folks who might live in our geographical areas, maybe even our region, but in some ways they are unlike us: perhaps they are immigrant or poor, perhaps they dress or act outside our social conventions, perhaps they are younger or older than we are, perhaps we look down upon them or judge them.

This was the historical context of the Samaritans in relation to Israel. The Samaritans had intermarried with the Assyrians in the fall of the Northern Kingdom. There was history there, there was a moral judgment there, there was a natural separation, and yet…Jesus says, you will be my witnesses to them. I think of the families our church welcomed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I think of the men and women who sleep in the Catacombs of our church during winter months. We are witnesses through our words and our actions. I think of a very active couple in our church. One summer our youth and adult leaders were engaged in flood relief in Clyde, North Carolina, in the mountains. As they worked they met a seminary intern working there, and they struck up a friendship. The intern remembered our people, and the words imprinted on our van: Providence United Methodist Church. Later in the summer her parents were in the process of moving from Ohio to Charlotte and told her they would be searching for a church home. You need to visit Providence Methodist”, she told them. She was Courtney Randall, now serving as a missionary in Latvia. Her parents are Bill and Dulcy Michel. They attend the 8:30 service, serve on a missions committee and are active in a Sunday School class.

They saw the sign. They observed the mission. And someone invited them.

You will be my witnesses, there are expanding circles of God’s grace and mission here, in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the ends of the earth.

The ends of the earth…This is the global mission of Christianity, and the seeds of it are planted here in the words of Acts 1. 8. Why do we take the gospel to the ends of the earth? Over twenty centuries men and women have felt this call. There have been abuses: at times it has been more about culture than Christ, more about colonization than conversion. But at times the responses to the words of Acts 1. 8 have been faithful.

David Livingsone was born in Scotland and sensed a call to be a missionary in Africa. During his lifetime he was accused of being more political than spiritual. He believed that God had called him to help bring an end to the slave trade, in the tradition of John Wesley and William Wilberforce. He also sensed a call to help the Africans gain a measure of economic self-determination. Livingstone died in 1873, at the age of 60. He was buried in a place of honor in Westminster Abbey, in London. His African friends, following his wishes, had first buried his heart and entrails in what is now Zambia. Today, Livingstone is largely forgotten in secular Great Britian, but he is still a national hero in Zambia, which, according to its constitution, is a "Christian country".

You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. Today I am thinking about Marcia Conston preaching Cap Haitien, to a church filled with Haitians, who all trace their ancestry to Africa, and the fulfillment of a vision of John Wesley, who said “I look upon all the world as my parish”.

The Holy Spirit comes and fills the hearts of the faithful, and like a stone that penetrates the smooth surface of water, it creates a ripple effect of expanding circles of grace. This movement, beginning where we are, moving beyond us, to people like us and unlike us, and those whom we will never meet, is the great intention of a God who cannot be kept in a box, whose grace and favor is upon all people, it flows from the mandate of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope, and it becomes real in a church that loses its life in order to find it, for the sake of the gospel.

One thing is missing. Stay here. Wait, until you are clothed with power from on high. Not your power, God, says. Mine. I will pour out my spirit on all flesh”, God had promised the prophet Joel. And you will be my witnesses.

Sources: Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Wiley-Blackwell. Mark Gallo, “Speak The Gospel”, Christianity Today, May 22, 2009. Bill Easum, The Church Growth Handbook.


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