Witness to the Ends of the Earth

We all have certain assumptions as we interpret our world. Certainly, the disciples did, and Jesus was forever challenging their assumptions. Even in our story today, the disciples didn’t really know who the risen Christ was because they had another storyline playing in their heads and thought Jesus was someone else.

One need not look far to see evidence of how our assumptions shape what we see and don’t see. When my son, Thomas, was around 5 years old, he was very taken with the Star Wars universe. That was how he saw the world for a time. When I preached a sermon referencing the Israelites crossing the River Jabbok, he later wanted to know why I was preaching about Jabba the Hut.

When we saw a statue of Jesus once that had a golden metallic appearance, he incorrectly identified it as C3PO.

And he was prone to re-assigning identities to his mother and father, so I had to stress with him that his mother was not Princess Leia, and that, yes, while it was true that “I am your father,” I’m not Darth Vader, OK? Thomas, doesn’t dad seem more like Obi Wan Kenobi to you? Just asking. Or do we have to go into family therapy?”

Well, even after spending three years with Jesus – and witnessing his death and resurrection – the disciples saw Jesus as the next version of King David, who would restore Israel to all its earthly glory, despite the many indications from Jesus that this was not why he rose from the dead. He had bigger fish to fry, you see.

Bigger fish to fry: that is what the book of Acts is all about, the book in which we now find ourselves in the season of Easter. Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and it covers the earliest days of the Christian church. It tells about the giving of the Holy Spirit and how this Spirit worked through the disciples and transformed the world. Those same disciples that could never understand what Jesus was teaching them!

Well, early on in Acts – before Jesus has ascended – the disciples continued to misunderstand Jesus, and Jesus kept trying to enlighten them. After Jesus’ resurrection, he had reviewed with them all that he did and taught, setting his whole life in context. “You know how I healed not only Jews, but foreigners, too. Remember the demon possessed man and the woman at the well? And have you noticed that I’m not interested in political power and nations?”

Then he said: “This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Baptized with the Holy Spirit? That sounds pretty important! What’s this all about? Well, it had been forty days since the resurrection, and now, in Acts 1, Jesus had gathered them at the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem for some reason. The location only underscored the enormity of this meeting. The Mount of Olives was an historic location, where David fled from Absalom a thousand years earlier, where God appeared to Ezekiel 500 years earlier, where people frequently worshipped, and, of course, where Jesus went to pray on the fateful night of the Last Supper. And now Jesus brought them to this very sight to tell them something important. Something’s up!

So, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer, in a word, was “no.”

And shortly thereafter, Jesus ascended to heaven – quite possibly because he was tired of the disciples’ questions and just needed to get away. No, I’m kidding.

But before he ascended, he said this:

“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.”

“Where? Samaria and the ends of the earth? We’re bringing our message to those people? You mean this isn’t just about Israel? We’re supposed to be witnesses to people everywhere?”

No, this wasn’t what King David would do, but Jesus wasn’t King David. Not even close. Jesus was and is the son of God, and his purpose was never to merely make Israel a great nation again. His purpose was to establish Israel and his own followers as a mission outpost for the world. Jesus came to this world to bring hope, to bring justice, to bring life to all peoples, including the most broken and shunned, including my neighbor – even the one I don’t like; including people from different nations, ethnic groups, religions and cultures. The inclusivity and compassion in Jesus’ ministry firmly established this.

But let’s not lose sight of how radical a 180 this was for the disciples. They had been basically living under a “shelter in place” order after Jesus died and rose again. And now, all of a sudden, Jesus says “Get out of Jerusalem and out into the world – way out there!”

So, new phase. This God is not just for Israel; this God is for everyone.

But there was another daunting challenge. “Wait a minute…who’s going to carry this message to them? Me?”

Indeed, those disciples were the very ones Jesus selected to tell the world about Jesus. So, despite their serious shortcomings with both comprehension and faithfulness to that point, as Jesus departs from this earth, he says, “tag, you’re it” to the disciples.

The gamechanger, of course, is that God’s Holy Spirit was about to be given to them on the day of Pentecost – nothing less than God working with, through and alongside these folks. A powerful combination, this. Thoroughly imperfect people, yes, but God was at work in those followers, nothing less than the new body of Christ.

But that band of disciples were not and are not the only disciples of Jesus. Anyone who follows Jesus is a disciple. That means you and me.

But we have reluctance here, as mainstream Lutheran Christians. Who are we to tell others what they should believe? A lot of people have said to me that our job as Christians is not to talk about Christ, but to show Christ’s love in our lives. But why? They’re not mutually exclusive. You can do both, of course.

Why the reluctance to talk to someone about Jesus?  I think many are afraid because they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing.

I also think we’ve been led to believe that anyone who shares their faith with someone else is pushing religion down that person’s throat. But why would that be true if you were merely telling someone about what you experience? Isn’t that what witnessing is?

It is true that the vast majority of our witnessing to the love of Jesus means showing that love to our neighbor.

And yet, there are times where God does expect us to point to Jesus, to talk of him, to simply say, “here’s what I know; here’s what I’ve come to believe.” And you point to it. Not because you’re pretending to know a lot, but because you have a story to tell.

The late, great, evangelist E. Stanley Jones put it best: “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread.”

This is a beautiful and concise statement about what it means to be a witness: if we believe Jesus is the bread of life who has sustained us and given us hope, why wouldn’t we tell others about this bread? People everywhere are hungry, right?  Telling someone where they can find bread because you found bread there is not coercion or presumption. It’s also not holier than thou, because if you are a beggar looking for bread, that’s a pretty humble place to be in.

Neither is it disrespectful of whatever that person’s spiritual journey has been. In fact, I wouldn’t ever witness to Christ unless I had taken the time to listen to that person’s spiritual journey, and honor and respect it. Then you might add to it and say, “In my life, I’ve found where there’s bread that sustains me; where there’s life. And it’s Jesus. It’s Christ.”

What might you say if you were to offer one way that Jesus is the bread of life to you?

No one here – myself included – is responsible for whether someone believes in Jesus or not. We just point to what we know and believe and give the Holy Spirit a chance to go to work. And the great part is, no matter who your neighbor is or what they believe, what their journey has been like, you know that God’s love is for them, and you don ‘t have to dangle it in front of them like some sort of deal or condition they must meet. It’s unconditional love from God and it’s for them.

So, as we move from Easter towards Pentecost, let’s be clear about who Jesus is: the one in whom life springs forth out of death. And sometimes people need to know the life – or the bread – comes from. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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