“The Living Body of Christ: Be Witnesses Where?”

The Living Body of Christ: Be Witnesses Where?

First Baptist Richmond, May 12, 2024

Acts 1:1-11

But 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.

I started a sermon once by saying something I shouldn’t have said. I was new to the preaching game. I didn’t know all the rules. But now I know that you shouldn’t start a sermon by saying “I hate witnessing to people,” especially if it’s 1986 and you are the brand new pastor of a small Baptist church in Kentucky where the congregation seems to believe that the pastor should be the number one soul winner. Those people were so shocked by what I said at the beginning of the sermon that they couldn’t hear what I said next, and what I said next was really the point. The sermon was from Luke 10:16 where Jesus says, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sends me.” It wasn’t a sermon about witnessing; it was a sermon about rejection. Witnessing was only an illustration. Later in that sermon I said that it wasn’t witnessing I hated, but the fear of rejection that starts churning in my stomach whenever I think about sharing my faith with a stranger.

Do you know what I mean?

I sat beside Lynn Turner on the bus when we were on staff retreat last week. We were on our way to dinner and had a few minutes so I asked her about her experience of witnessing. She said that when she was in seminary it was a requirement for her evangelism class. They had to choose a partner and go out

two by two, knocking on doors. And if someone should actually open the door (which was far more likely then, in Fort Worth, Texas, than it is now, in Richmond, Virginia), she was supposed to say, “If you died tonight do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” No, “Hello, how are you?” or, “My name is Lynn Turner and I’m a student at the seminary.” No, just “If you died tonight do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” That’s getting right to the point. And if they should say “No,” or, “I’m not sure,” that was Lynn’s cue to ask, “Could I talk to you about that for a minute?” And if they said yes she was supposed to walk them down the Romans Road.

Are you familiar with the Romans Road? According to the website,i it’s a way of explaining the good news of salvation using verses from the Book of Romans. The first stop on the Road is Romans 3:23, which reads: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” In other words, “You…are a sinner.” The next stop is Romans 6:23, which explains, “The wages of sin is death.” So, you’re a sinner, and you’re going to die. You might be wondering when this news is going to start sounding good. But if you read the second half of that same verse (Romans 6:23), you will learn that while the wages of sin is death, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Whew! What a relief! And how do you get that life? You move on to Romans 10:9 which promises that, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Simple, right? And if you do that, then you have the reassurance of Romans 5:1, which reads: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s the Romans Road, and that’s what Lynn was supposed to share with anyone who wanted to know more. At one of the houses she visited a woman

invited her to come inside. They sat in her living room, and Lynn walked her down the Romans Road. When she was finished she said, “Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to trust Christ for your salvation?” And that woman wasn’t, but her sister, sitting next to her, was. And so Lynn invited her to repeat the words of the Sinner’s Prayer, which goes something like this: “Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.” That woman said that prayer. And when Lynn shared that story with her evangelism class they burst into applause.

And I say good for them, and good for Lynn, and good for that woman who, on that day, became a Christian. I don’t always approve of the methods people use to “win souls.” Some of them are emotionally manipulative. And to greet someone by asking them if they are ready to die seems a little extreme. But if that person has a change of identity, if they go from thinking “I am not a Christian” to thinking “I am,” then that seems like a good thing. They might say, “You know, I used to spend Sunday morning doing the crossword puzzle on the front porch, but now that I’m a Christian I might try going to church.” Or, “I used to spend Saturday night drinking until I passed out, but now that I’m a Christian I might spend it polishing my Sunday shoes.”

What does any of this have to do with Acts 1:1-11, our text for today? Only this: in verse 8 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will be my witnesses.” You might expect that the next thing he would tell them is how to be his witnesses: how to lead off with that question about “If you died tonight,” and how to follow that with the Romans Road, and how to finish up with the Sinners Prayer. But Jesus

doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t tell the disciples how to be his witnesses; he only tells them that they will. And since it’s Luke who is telling this story I thought I would look through the early chapters of Acts and see how those first disciples did it. It may be that Luke is giving us a model we can follow as modern day witnesses.

So, what’s the first thing the disciples did after Jesus ascended into heaven? They went back to Jerusalem and called a meeting. Peter said, “We’ve got to find someone to replace Judas” (who had killed himself because he was feeling so guilty for betraying Jesus). Peter reassured them that all of this had been foretold by the prophets; they shouldn’t be surprised; but they did need to find a replacement for Judas and Peter suggested that it should be, “One of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Did you hear that? It doesn’t sound as if Peter is looking for someone who knows the Romans Road or the Sinners Prayer, but rather someone who is intimately acquainted with Jesus, someone who can tell his story. And in the very next chapter, Peter gets to be that person.

I don’t want to linger too long here, because this is the story of Pentecost and I’d like to save it for next Sunday, but you may remember that Jesus said to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Well, that’s what happened. Peter received power when the Holy Spirit had come upon him, and he became a bold witness for Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s remarkable, really, because before the Holy Spirit came Peter had been too fearful to say a word. He was warming his hands over a charcoal fire

while Jesus was on trial, but when a servant girl wondered if he was one of Jesus’ disciples Peter denied it and swore that he didn’t even know the man. You know that fear I was talking about earlier, the fear of rejection? Well, this was worse. Peter was afraid that standing up for Jesus might very well cost him his life.

But when the Holy Spirit comes upon him Peter is fearless! He goes out into the street where a great crowd has gathered. He climbs up to a place where everyone can see him. He shouts his message so everyone can hear. He says, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” There’s more to his sermon, but in those few sentences Peter bears witness, not to the plan of salvation, but to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And if you’re wondering if that approach to evangelism is effective you might remember that 3,000 people were baptized that day.

In the next chapter Peter and John are on their way to prayer when a crippled beggar asks them for alms. Peter doesn’t have any money, but he takes the man by the hand, lifts him up, and heals him, and when the crowd wants to know how he says, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and

Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are (wait for it) witnesses.”

In the next chapter Peter and John are called before the authorities for what they have done, and when they are asked to explain themselves Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

It goes on and on like this in the Book of Acts: the Apostles are called upon to explain themselves as they go from place to place healing people, and performing miracles, and preaching the gospel, and baptizing sinners. At one point they are brought before the authorities simply because they are “turning the world upside down.” Don’t you wish someone would accuse us of that? But in each place they stand up and bear witness to Jesus; they do it by the power of the Holy Spirit; they do it without fear. And that’s a good thing because the word witness, in Greek, is martyr. “You will be my martyrs,” Jesus said, and a truer word has never been spoken. According to tradition only one of the Apostles died of old age, and that was John. All the others—including Paul—were put to death for their fearless testimony about Jesus.

So, when we use that word—witness—let’s start thinking of it as a noun

rather than a verb. That is, not so much as something you do, but as something you are. Think about those first disciples, who had walked with Jesus for many a dusty mile, who had heard him preach and teach, who had watched him help and heal. Think about how intimately they knew him, so that if you asked them, “What would Jesus do?” they might actually know the answer. And then think about taking all that personal experience and filling it with the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, until their cringing human fear fell away and all that was left was bold witness. That’s what I think Jesus had in mind, and if you read through the entire Book of Acts you will see that that’s what he got, and the movement that he started with only twelve disciples spread like wildfire through the ancient world.

But in Lynn Turner’s evangelism class they taught her how to ask people where they would spend eternity, and how to walk them down the Romans Road, and how to get them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. As I said, those things can be helpful. They can lead people to identify as Christians and that can lead them into a life of faith. But Lynn and I agreed that that kind of evangelism tends to be contractual rather than relational. For example: someone might find a gospel tract in a bus station somewhere, and read through it, and say the Sinner’s Prayer, and sign his name on the back of the tract, and then never think about it again. And yet, at the end of his life, I wouldn’t be surprised if God honored that contract, and let him into Heaven. But that poor soul might end up spending eternity with someone he doesn’t even know, and who wants to do that?

I was talking with Annie Campbell on Wednesday night. Annie led one of our recent prayer retreats. She’s a retired schoolteacher who is married to an Episcopal priest. She’s a beautiful writer, a terrific storyteller, and even though

she’s been fighting cancer it hasn’t affected her sense of humor; she may have the most contagious laugh in Richmond. But she is also a person of deep faith, and on Wednesday night, at a reception at Union Presbyterian Seminary under a big white tent, she was telling me about a conversation she had recently with a young woman who identifies as an atheist. This person was wondering how someone as smart as Annie could believe all those things in the Bible, including the Ascension, which seems even more unbelievable than the Resurrection. But Annie laughed and said, “Oh, honey. I just love Jesus.” And I wonder: is there any witness more powerful than that?

—Jim Somerville © 2024