Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bearing Witness to the Good News -- Core Values #5

Number 5 in a 6 sermon series on Central Woodward Christian Church's congregational core values.


Acts 1:6-14

There’s a little old song that we’ve all probably sung, and it goes like this:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

When we sing this song, we know that it’s not talking about lighting candles or turning on flashlights when the electricity goes out. This little light that we’re supposed to let shine is our own life that serves as a sign of God’s presence in the world. It reminds us that what we do and what we say bears witness to the grace and love of God. And as Jesus said, don’t hide your light under a bushel or in a cellar – instead, put it on a lamp stand where it can be seen (Luke 11:33; Mk 14:21; Mt. 5:15).

Back in February as we discerned God’s missional calling for this congregation, and laid out six core values, one of those six was the call to be a witnessing congregation. What we heard that day, was God call us to take the lamp out of the cellar and put it back on the lamp stand, so that whether by word or by deed we would be witnesses to the good news of God’s healing and reconciling presence in the world. Right after we discerned this call, we participated in the Unbinding Your Heart study, where we worked on sharing our faith stories.

Today we rekindle this calling by attending to the guidance found in the book of Acts as to what it means to be a witnessing congregation. Our text this morning -- Acts 1 – commissions us as a church to bear witness to the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit, while being undergirded in prayer.

1. A Witness to the Ends of the Earth

Acts 1:8 is the foundational passage for the missional church. It says to us: Be my witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then continue on until you reach the ends of the earth. Now, if the book of Acts is to be our guide, then the question is: what constitutes Jerusalem and then what constitutes the ends of the earth?

I’ve come to believe that if Acts 1 is to speak to our church life, then we must see our mission field as three concentric circles, beginning with our church and personal neighborhoods as the starting point for our ministries. One of the things we’ve learned from the missional church movement is that the mission field isn’t just out there. It’s also close to home. But, as important as this home mission is, we can’t lose sight of our connections beyond the inner circle of mission. Therefore, moving outward to the next circle, we see a call to embrace ministry in our Judea and Samaria, which could be seen as metro-Detroit, and then further out to the ends of the earth. The point is that we are called to engage in a ministry of witness wherever God is at work in the world – and according to Acts, that would extend the vision to the ends of the earth.

I believe it’s instructive that Acts 28 ends abruptly, without ever telling us what happened to Paul. It’s unfinished nature encourages us to continue the work begun by these early witnesses in our own contexts. And as we read Acts missionally, we will discover that being a witness to God’s transforming presence requires us to cross borders and boundaries, some of which are dividing walls of hostility that have to be taken down (Eph. 2:14). Consider for a moment that on the day of Pentecost the good news went out in the languages of all the nations, bringing to an end the confusion of Babel. Then Philip preached to the Samaritans, a community that lived on the other side of a wall of hostility from the Jewish community, and then Peter preached – with some hesitancy -- to Cornelius, opening the doors to the Gentile world. Paul took that ball and planted new mission stations across Asia and Greece. And in the end, with Paul in a Roman prison, we find ourselves invited to write the next chapter of the story.

As I was thinking about what it means for us to be a witnessing congregation, a couple of examples quickly came to mind, largely because they occurred this past week. Coming first to mind was our hosting of the SOS shelter with CCB. Whether you were in the kitchen, served as a driver, gave resources, or sat and ate with our guests, you were bearing witness in a very real way to God’s love for the world. This annual event, which pulls together the entire congregation, is truly a witness of God’s love that flows out into the community. And, it all runs like clock work – everyone knows their job – and everyone does it with a sense of joy, which is something we talked about last week.

Even as our church was ministering to a part of the community experiencing a deep sense of need, I was asked to speak at a community rally here in Troy. The organizers invited representatives from different parts of the community to speak to the financial crisis affecting the city. I was asked to represent – as best I could – the faith community. The message I shared with the group was a call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and invited us to concern ourselves with the common good of all. These are but two ways in which we as a congregation let the light of God shine in the community. There are, however, many other possible ways that we can and do bear witness to God’s presence – at work, at play, in the store, and as we volunteer in the community. Wherever we are present, we can shine forth the light of Christ’s love for the world, whether verbally or not.

2. A Witness Empowered by the Holy Spirit

Now, before Jesus leaves the disciples and sets them on their way, he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come and empower their witness to the world. In saying this, Jesus makes it clear that we do not undertake this task on our own. Its success doesn’t depend on us, but on the Spirit who goes with us. That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care in what we say and what we do. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for whatever it is that we’re called to engage in. But it does mean that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves us, pushes us, empowers us, and corrects us when needed. This mission belongs not to us, but to God. Or, to quote Beverly Gaventa, Acts reminds us, “especially in times of malaise and crisis, that [the church] does not belong to itself, but to the God of Israel, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the God whose witness continues within, outside, and even in spite of the church.”1

According to Acts 2, this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, which was a festival that celebrated both the harvest and the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel. On that day, the Spirit descended upon the church, as was promised through the prophet Joel. The Spirit fell on everyone, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, which suggests that there are no barriers that can keep us from proclaiming the good news that God is present and active in the world, except perhaps the ones we erect. For as Peter put it, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

3. A Witness Undertaken in Prayer

Although the disciples first response to Jesus’s disappearance was one of shock, even bewilderment – they stared up into the sky until the heavenly messengers reminded them of their calling – as soon as they remembered Jesus’ command and promise, they returned to the upper room and did two things – they prayed and they filled a spot in their leadership team. That is, they returned home and prepared themselves for what would come next.

They may have been unsure of themselves, maybe even frightened of the consequences of their allegiance to Jesus, but they understood that Jesus was not finished with them yet. So, maybe they weren’t as surprised by Pentecost as we tend to think.

The question for us this morning is: What kind of prayer did they engage in? That is, if they are to be our models for mission, then we should pray in a similar way and for similar things. Although Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what they prayed for or how they prayed -- just that they prayed constantly -- I believe we can read behind the lines here.

It would appear that they prayed with receptive hearts. As Anthony Robinson reminds us, we can’t give what we’ve not received. Therefore:
Before the church is an instrument of grace, it is always a receiver of grace. Thus, we go into the world and encounter others as persons who have like ourselves stood in need of God’s grace and of the Spirit’s power. This imparts a necessary humility to the task of “being my witnesses.”2

And even as we pray expectantly with humble and receptive hearts, we must also pray, as J├╝rgen Moltmann reminds us, with open eyes. That is, if we’re to bear witness to God’s presence in the world, if that light is going to shine in the darkness, then we must keep our focus on what God is up to in the World, and therefore we must pray watchfully. If we do this, then surely we will be a witnessing congregation that is empowered and guided by the Spirit of God.

1. Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 54.

2. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 206), pp. 46-47.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2oth Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2009

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