Acts 1:1-11

Proof of Life after Death
Last week we looked in on the gathering of the disciples after the crucifixion (John 20). No one was there because they wanted to be there. They were huddling together for self-preservation more than anything else. We can imagine that their conversations were focused on plans to secure their survival. And on top of that, they were probably consumed by feelings of guilt, grief, anger, and worry. Of course that began to change when the risen Jesus came joined their gathering.

Everything begins to change as Jesus is suddenly everywhere. Mary Magdalene speaks with him near the tomb. Then he is journeying to Emmaus with Cleopas and a friend. Next he is in the locked room with the disciples and shows them his wounds. According to Luke, these encounters with Jesus in the resurrected flesh take place over the next forty days. Jesus is able to give them, in Luke’s words, proof that he is alive. He shows them his wounds and he eats with them – he’s cooking breakfast by the lake in Galilee on one occasion (John 21)! According to Paul, at one time over 500 people saw him. Jesus teaches them and he ministers to them. He gives Peter a second chance to affirm him three times since Peter had denied him three times before. Jesus gives the disciples a mission and he prepares them for it. Luke says that the subject of their conversations is the kingdom of God. It is at one of the last gatherings near Bethany when they’ve gathered together for a meal that the disciples ask Jesus the question they all want to know ...

Is This the Time?
There had been some serious misunderstandings about the kingdom during Jesus’ ministry with the disciples. They were expecting the Messiah to lead an invincible army into the holy city of Jerusalem and restore the kingdom of Israel. They were ready even to the last and Peter was brandishing steak knives at the last supper in defense of his king. But now they understood something new – especially about Jesus’ talk of dying on cross which upset them so much before. Now that Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for power they have got to ask "Is this going to be the time you restore the kingdom?" Maybe their worldview has expanded somewhat, but they still have kingdom expectations. And they should; Jesus doesn’t deny them that. In fact, the church in Theophilus’ and Luke’s generation was probably asking this same question – "When will we see the full and complete restoration of the kingdom of God?"

Perhaps we have lost some of that expectation. The more comfortable we get in the power structures of this world the less expectation we have of a new government – the rule of God. Even though we have the church and are blessed to experience the rule of God in the church I don’t think we can say that all of our kingdom expectations are fulfilled. There are too many lost souls and too many unredeemed institutions out there to be satisfied in our expectations. It’s a fair question: "How long O Lord? When will we see the kingdom completely restored and established in its fullness?"

But Jesus will not answer the "when" question. God is not our contractor building a kingdom for our pleasure. We are not God’s contractor’s building him a kingdom. Such thinking makes us anxious and we get into a "hurry up" mode and we assume we need to know more, or do more. Jesus will not answer the "when" for the disciples nor for us because the restoration of the kingdom is God’s work. He controls the schedule, he designed the plans, and he sets the boundaries. Jesus redirects the question and teaches the disciples (and us) about our proper role in the kingdom: We are witnesses.

The Power to Be
Unfortunately, the term witness is a word we have "churched out" to the point it doesn’t communicate anything for us. Other religious groups use this term quite commonly but in ways we aren’t familiar with. You hear talk of giving a witness and witnessing. We think of Jehovah’s Witnesses or the preacher who says "Can I have a witness?" The way this term is used makes us think of evangelism, soul-winning, preaching, or door-knocking. These of course seem like work to us and call upon us to be very cautious about matters of technique, style, strategy. It lays a great sense of responsibility on us and we assume we need to know more or do more in order to be a witness.

Never mind that the Greek word for witness is also the word that gives us martyr. Never mind what it means to give a witness, get a witness, have a witness or witness Jehovah. Just think about what it means to be a witness in any other context. The general definition of a witness in a court of law is one who, being present personally sees or perceives a thing; a beholder, spectator, or eyewitness. One who testifies to what he has seen, heard, or otherwise observed. That’s easy right? Another way to think of witness is a witness to history. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down? What were you doing when the twin towers collapsed? All of us have been witnesses to history and we have a story to tell about it.
The disciples were witnesses of the ministry, the crucifixion, the resurrection and they had a story to tell.

But the story wasn’t over because they have proof that Jesus is alive. And if the story ended at Pentecost then why does Luke waste ink and paper 26 other chapters? The story hasn’t ended and you and I are witnesses now of the on-going story! We have a story to tell. If you are a follower of Jesus then by default you will BE a witness. But the sort of witness you will be is not a given. Just as there are competent, credible, adverse, and hostile witnesses in a court of law, we may be good, bad, or indifferent witnesses. Being a witness carries a responsibility, and before we assume we need to know more or do more to be a good witness let’s simply focus on being a witness who tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And everyone who strives to do that – even in a court of law – always says "so help me God."

We witness to what we have seen, heard, and what we already know about Jesus Christ. We witness to what God is doing to form his kingdom in this world. And the power to BE the witness, to BE the church that gives witness of God’s work and Christ’s lordship is the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is for the Mission: The gift of the Spirit is for the sake of the mission. The spirit empowers, equips and enables all the sent church for the mission – we are empowered to live as witnesses in the world and we are empowered to tell the truth. So, the Spirit is for the Message: As witnesses we don’t just talk about what we know, speak about the one we know – we know Jesus through his Spirit. When the disciples are witnessing on Pentecost they are just as surprised and as awed as everyone else that day. Their message is not revelation of a hidden secret that only insiders can know – it is to name what is going on among them and to explain what they have witnessed – to name what God is doing even to the ends of the world. The invitation call to the kingdom is not something that we control or manage – it is not a policy we spin - it is something we must be faithful to as witnesses – so help us God!

Turned Inside Out
We have no control over the when and we must be faithful as witnesses wherever. Jesus makes it clear that his followers will BE witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This is why our definition of mission needs to be broadened. Our brothers and sisters in Guyana are witnesses, they are the church in Guyana. The Kweekuls and our brothers and sisters in Laos and Thailand are witnesses. Stephane is a witness in Vietnam. They are no less the church because they are organized a little differently than we are. The Hundley’s are witnesses in France. Our brothers and sisters in Nigeria are witnesses in their land. The brethren that Roy teaches in Africa are witnesses in Ethiopia, Sudan and other nations in Africa. And what about us? Are we not witnesses? Are we not also part of the same mission?

We have allowed our institutional forms and geography to form our relationships and titles. If you stay here you are an evangelist, but if you go over there you are a missionary. Jesus says you will be my witnesses. Whether we are in Jerusalem or at the ends of the earth we witness.

Even in Samaria, we can witness. It can be easy to witness close to home in Jerusalem – people understand you there. It can even be easy at the ends of the earth with the sense of adventure and the "there and back again" rhythm of it all. But it is a little harder in Judea and especially Samaria. I am sure the disciples must have winced when Jesus said they would witness among the Samaritans. It is hard to speak to a people you’d rather not associate with.

It gets messy to break down the physical and social fences that we assume make us all good neighbors. But while we are looking up into heaven praising Jesus the word from heaven comes to us and says, "Why are you gawking up here?" This same Jesus is coming back and he turns us inside out – we have been gathered, but we are also sent. If you are a Christian, you a witness, and Jesus turns you inside out to testify to the hope that is within you – even in Samaria - tell people about Jesus. When you get into the classroom, or the board room, the office, over the backyard fence or over the kitchen table, preaching can be more difficult. What you say and what you do matters. Nevertheless, empowered by God’s spirit and grace, you are able to preach – to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God.

Discussion Guide
  1. Imagine what it would have been like for the church during the 40 days that the risen Jesus appeared among them and taught them. How would this start to change their view of the kingdom?
  2. Why do you think the disciples are still concerned about the time the kingdom will be established? Do we expect the return of Christ in the same way? Why or why not?
  3. How is it good news that the restoration of the kingdom is God's work? How does this inform our concept of mission?
  4. What do you think of when you hear the word witness? Does your understanding of that word change in a church context?
  5. What do you think of this statement: If you are a follower of Christ, then like it or not you are also a witness.
  6. How does God's spirit enable us to be his witnesses? What do we witness to? How do we do that?
  7. What does it mean to say that we are turned "inside out" as a church? Who sends our missionaries into the field? How is our situation different from theirs? How is it the same?
  8. How have you understood Jesus' statement about being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 13 February 2005

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