âYou 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.â (Acts 1:8) In his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Joseph Fitzmyer says that this is the âprogrammatic verseâ of Acts; it sets the scope of the spread of the Word of God, the goal that the commissioned apostles are to attain as they bring that Word from Jerusalem âto the ends of the earth.â
And, in fact, this verse might also be said to set the program for the Christian life; we who are followers of the Risen Christ are also called to be his witnesses wherever we go.
Whatâs that? You say that this commission was just for the apostles? If that is so, the witnessing would have come to an end centuries ago. Do you think that Peter and John and James ever heard of the town or city we have gathered in today? [Insert the name of the place where this sermon is being read]. Oh, but then perhaps itâs the job of the bishops, the successors of the apostles to be witnesses? Or perhaps the role of witness is meant for all of the ordained clergy?
Think again, my friends! The commission is for all us. âYou will be my witnesses.â The commission is for all us who are called to take part in the royal priesthood of all believers. Just as Jesus said, âFollow me,â he also said, âBe my witnesses.â So we had better be about doing just that!
And what is a âwitness,â anyway? Websterâs definition says: âOne who has seen or heard something and who can give evidence for its occurrence.â And also: âOne who signs his name to a document for the purpose of attesting to its authenticity.â It would seem that the testimony we must give does not call for mere heresay. But then, how are we, living in the 21st century, in a place that the apostles never even heard of, to be witnesses to something that happened 2,000 years ago, in a place most of us have never seen? Sure, weâve read the Bible; we know the story, but does that make us witnesses? Can we, as Webster says, give evidence of the occurrence of these things? We werenât even there!
Letâs look more closely at what Jesus said. Itâs true that the apostles had been witnesses of all that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry, but what Jesus says in todayâs reading is, âyou will be my witnesses.â Our testimony is about him, not just about what happened long ago and far away. We are to give evidence about what we ourselves have heard, seen, experienced. We canât be witnesses unless we have met the Risen Christâunless our lives have been transformed by him. If we could in good conscience go before a notary and sign a paper attesting of the presence of God in our lives and in the world, then, and only then, can we be his witnesses.
This is something that we, as Christians, probably do a lot more often than we know. St. Francis of Assisi said it well: âProclaim the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.â How many persons in your own life have been witnesses, silent or otherwise, to you? On this Motherâs Day, we might recall our own mothers, grandmothers, and other maternal figures in our lives who have inspired and encouraged us, both by their word and by their example, in our life in Christ. We are called to do the same, and this call is not issued just to teach us individually, but also to us as members of the Body of Christâand, more specifically, to us as members of this congregation. We should be seriously considering how we are called, in this place and at this time, to be his witnesses.
Probably we donât think of ourselves in that way. Nevertheless, if the Lord Jesus calls us to be witnesses, weâd better not think of this as something optional. But what we do? How can we get started? It would appear from todayâs reading that two things are necessary.
First of all, of course, we can do nothing through our own power. âYou will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,â Jesus said. As we await the glorious feast of Pentecost next Sunday, let us pray earnestly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all of us, both corporately and individually. It is only when we are clothed with power from above that we can do the work he calls us to do.
The second thing that we must do is reflected toward the end of the reading from Acts: âAll these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.â The communal prayer and harmony reflected in the stories from the Acts of the Apostles should serve as a model for our own church community. Any disunity in the Body of Christ will always be an obstacle to the effectiveness of the witness we bear. As the Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died that we might all be one, so we must pray and act as one.
In the Baptismal Covenant (which we will renew next Sunday) we are asked, âWill you continue in the apostlesâ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?â We must be wholehearted in this commitment, in order to be his witnesses.
Let us pray: May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself; may the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen us is his service; may the joy of the Lord Jesus fill our souls, and may we be his witnesses wherever we may be. Amen.