Power and Witness

Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

Guest speaker: Pauline Evans

Last week we celebrated the Resurrection, and we reflected on that amazing and life-changing event. And it was life-changing. One piece of evidence often cited for the Resurrection is the changed lives of the disciples. They had been fearful, and they became bold, openly proclaiming the truth about Jesus in the face of opposition, persecution, and even death.

I do think that change in their lives is a strong argument for the Resurrection, one that has often buoyed my faith when I started wondering, “Is this all true?” especially when I didn’t think I saw much change in my own life.

But the fact of the Resurrection, by itself, was not what changed them. In our passage today, some weeks after the resurrection, it is not clear that they have changed much at all. For one thing, they are still looking for an earthly kingdom.

They were all set for Jesus to kick out the Romans and usher in a new Golden Age. They hated the Romans, but I don’t think they really hated the power the Romans had so much as it was the Romans who had the power. They wanted that same power, but on their side.

Not long ago, they had been arguing about who was the greatest among them, and angling for positions of power in the coming kingdom. The crucifixion dashed those hopes, but with the Resurrection, those hopes probably came back to life also.

One can put various interpretations on their question to Jesus, “Is it now you will restore the kingdom?” But one possible explanation for their interest is that they are still angling for positions of power.

Imagine the power of a man who could rise from the dead! The idea of being the second-in-command to a king with that kind of power must have been pretty appealing, even if it was to be used to do good for people. But Jesus lets them know that God’s plan is for something very different.

Notice that Jesus does not deny that he will be setting up a kingdom. But he redirects their focus by reminding them of the Father’s authority, which determine both the timetable and the nature of the kingdom. The timing is on a need-to-know basis, and these men don’t need to know.

What they do need is power. Not power over other people, but power to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. That power will come in the next chapter, and they will spent the rest of Acts – and the rest of their lives – powerfully witnessing to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Greek word for witness has an interesting history. Like our word witness, the Greek word martus comes for the context of law. In a court of law, witnesses are needed to tell what they know so that the case can be decided justly.

A witness tells what he or she knows to be true, about events, facts, or people’s characters. In these early chapters of Acts, Peter makes a point several times about he and others being witnesses to what Jesus said and did, both during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry and after his resurrection.

To be witnesses, they must have seen and heard what Jesus said and did. And being witnesses, they must give witness. In response to the Jewish leaders telling them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name, Peter says, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Just knowing the facts wouldn’t have been enough, though. It took the power of the Holy Spirit to make them effective witnesses, and the power of that witness is seen dramatically in the early church, as it grows by leaps and bounds. Not just growth in numbers, but in faith and holiness.

Their witness included what they said – Christianity could hardly have spread if they didn’t talk about their faith. But if their lives had been at odds with their words, it wouldn’t have spread the way it did either.

Followers of Jesus were recognized, as Jesus had said they would be, by their love. Their love for one another, as they shared possessions and took care of needy members of the church. And love also for those outside their faith community.

They became known for caring for people no one else cared about. Christians even went to the street corners of cities like Rome and Corinth and took into their homes the infants that had been abandoned there. When epidemics broke out in Carthage and Alexandria, Christians rushed to aid all in need.

They were also known for their high standards of morality, their joy even in the most difficult circumstances, and for accepting people regardless of social status.

And this witness – both of words and deeds – was used by the Holy Spirit to draw many people from a variety of backgrounds into the fellowship of believers. These new converts for the most part had never seen or heard Jesus – before long they included people who hadn’t even been alive when Jesus walked on the earth.

But they also became witnesses, in a broader sense of the word. They had received the truth, recognized it as truth, and now they witnessed to the truth. They witnessed faithfully, often at the risk of their social standing and sometimes at the risk of their lives.

Eventually it became so common for Christians to witness faithfully even as they were being killed for their faith, that the Greek word martus came to also mean someone who dies for the faith – and became our English word martyr.

The witness was handed down through the centuries. By the beginning of the fourth century – right before Christianity became a legally accepted religion in the Roman Empire – it is estimated that around 10% of the population in the Roman Empire were Christians, and perhaps as high as 50% in Asia Minor.

We have faith today because of those who continued to witness faithfully. Sometimes it was through established churches, raising young people up to know the faith of their forefathers. Sometimes it was through groups that separated from the established church, working to cast off errors that had crept in, and preach the true Gospel that was in danger of being marginalized by the false doctrine and ungodly practices in some of the established churches. And for many Christians in other parts of the world, faith has come as a result of the faithful witness of missionaries who go to lands where the Gospel is little known if at all.

Far away, or close to home, we are called to be witnesses today. Not in exactly the same way as these eleven men in Acts 1. We are not giving eyewitness testimony to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But we are called to give witness to the truth as we have come to know it, not only as facts we can state but as a life that is evidence to the power of the Holy Spirit.

So what does this power look like, and how do we come to have it? There are times the power is dramatic and obvious. In Acts we see people healed by the Spirit’s power, and both Peter and Paul raised people from the dead.

But often it is not so showy. When a husband and wife on the brink of divorce are empowered by the Spirit to forgive each other and to mend their marriage, that it God’s power at work. When any two people who have allowed resentment, envy, or distrust to sour their relationship, and they are reconciled with God and with each other, we see the power of God.

When Christians of different backgrounds – whether from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, from different social or economic classes, different political or ideological leanings, different church traditions – come together for worship and mission – not erasing their differences but transcending them in Christ – that is a powerful demonstration of God’s Spirit at work.

The power of the Spirit is always present when we respond to the call of God and turn from sin and do the good God calls us to do. We cannot do it otherwise. Apart from the Spirit’s power, we are not able to do God’s work.

By nature we respond in sinful ways. Paul gives a catalog of these “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5. Some of these we might congratulate ourselves that we don’t do that. But other sins we fall into more easily – envy, selfish ambition, dividing up into factions.

Paul contrasts these with the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. To exhibit these, we need first salvation through Jesus Christ, then we need the power of the Spirit to grow the fruit of the Spirit.

Keep in mind that some of us are naturally more patient than other, more cheerful, more disciplined to self-control. Jesus said that even “tax collectors” – those not known for putting God first – love those who love them. It’s easy to be kind to those who are kind to us.

It may be easy to come to worship just because we enjoy the company of our friends, or because we like the music, or just because it’s so much a part of our weekly routine. It’s easy to work with like-minded people on projects we care about.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying friendships in church or working together with people who share our interests and passions. But we need to be careful that we don’t become complacent, doing what seems to be the work of God in our own power.

The power of God is most plainly seen when it goes against what come naturally. When we show encouragement in the midst of despair, or faithfulness in the midst of persecution, or healing in the midst of sickness, or boldness in the midst of fear, or insight in the midst of confusion, or peace in the midst of war, or love in the midst of enemies, God’s power is at work.

So, then, how do we come to have God’s power in our lives? Does it just happen? Do we have to do something special?

You can read books or hear sermons that try to help us with the answer to that question. Because you can find a variety of answers, I think it must be because God’s power enters our lives in different ways. For some people it comes dramatically, when they have finally turned away from the sins that had separated them from God. For others, it seems to enter so quietly that they barely notice. After all, it comes as we are focused on God, and not on ourselves.

We can find some guidance from these early chapters of Acts. What did these men and women do, who so powerfully witnessed to the risen Christ? We know they obeyed Jesus’ instructions to wait, first, for the coming of the Spirit, rather than rushing out to do His work in their own power.

We know they were devoted to prayer, joining together to pray and to praise God. We know when they faced persecution, they prayed not for escape from their troubles but for boldness to speak the word of God. We know they cared about one another, not just with warm fuzzy feelings but in practical ways, giving sacrificially to help anyone in need.

They experienced the power of God because they followed Christ wholeheartedly, they were focused on doing His will, and they were willing to put God’s will above everything else. God’s power isn’t something we can ask for just when it is convenient to us. We receive His power when we submit to His authority.

So let us take encouragement from the example of these early Christians. We are called, like them, to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in our words and in our lives, and we will have God’s power to witness as we surrender to Him and follow Him faithfully. We cannot do it without God’s power. But by God’s power and grace, He will do it through us. May we be faithful witnesses to our risen Lord.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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