August 23, 2020 Cycle of Discipleship Sermon—Empowered to Witness
Scriptures: 1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Ephesians 6:10-17; Acts 3:1-16, 4:1-10
Jesus invited listeners to follow. Jesus inspired followers to worship. He educated worshipers to love. He equipped lovers to serve. And Jesus empowered servants to witness—the final phase in the original Cycle of Discipleship.
After his resurrection and just before he ascended back to the Father, Jesus promised his disciples, “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” (Ac 1:8). That promise he spoke to a specific group of persons in a specific place and time. But the implications of that promise reach us today.
What, then, does this promise of power and witness mean 2,000+ years later?
When I think of witnesses, I think of Perry Mason. I love that old show! My weekday exercise routine has been greatly enhanced by being able to watch Perry while I’m doing Pilates and riding my exercise recumbent. But the old Law and Order show might do as well. I just like courtroom drama. That scenario shapes my understanding of what it means to witness.
Whether in a courtroom or elsewhere, a witness is a person who has knowledge of a thing by immediate, personal experience or observation. To witness, or to testify, is to speak or otherwise communicate about what one has directly seen or heard. The New Testament describes several “courtroom-type” scenes when Jesus’ disciples were hauled before authorities and required to testify. Today’s Gospel reading has some of that atmosphere.
The incident begins one afternoon with Peter and John on their way to the temple, to worship and pray. “A man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple . . . so that he could [beg] from those entering” (Ac 3:2). So the lame man asks the two disciples to give him something.
Their response was stunning. It still takes us by surprise: Peter and John looked intently at [the man], and Peter said to him, ‘Look at us.’ [The man] fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, [and here’s where the King James translation is beautiful] ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I unto thee; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (Ac 3:4,6). And he does.
The next day came the courtroom scene: The Jewish leaders and the high-priestly family—a kind of ad hoc tribunal—arrested Peter and John, held them overnight, and then brought them to testify to the truth of how the miracle was really accomplished. And that’s when Jesus empowered them to be witnesses.
Why was their testimony necessary? Well, the reasons vary, depending on your perspective: From the human point of view, the religious authorities demanded an explanation because the public response to the healing and to Peter’s preaching scared them. As you might imagine, when the lame man stood up and began to walk, he started leaping and praising God. It made a scene. The crowd around realized who he was and what had happened, and they were amazed and “utterly astonished.” Answering their reaction, Peter spoke to them, immediately disavowing credit for the miracle and giving glory to Jesus, the risen Christ.
As a result, the biblical text says, the authorities were “much annoyed.” I think it’s fair to speculate on their deeper motive: They were afraid. Peter preached that, in Jesus, there is resurrection of the dead. That flatly contradicted what the authorities taught. And, what was more, 5,000 people came to believe in Jesus because of the miracle and the message that day. The religious authorities wanted Peter and John to recant, to reverse their testimony about Jesus and the resurrection because the religious authorities were afraid of losing power over people’s minds and all that goes with that—loyalty, money, and more.
But from God’s perspective, the disciples’ testimony was necessary for a far greater reason. It was the way the kingdom of God would be more firmly established and people would come to trust Christ as Savior and Lord. God had decreed that human witnesses would have the privilege of carrying the Gospel to all the world. And he would give them—give us—power to do that.
Well, you may say, I find it nearly impossible to believe that I will ever be in a situation like that and do a miracle and preach a sermon like those disciples did. So what does this story have to do with me as a disciple being empowered to witness? To help us understand, let me highlight three specific actions and three observations about what Peter and John did. Those might help us imagine how we could continue the cycle of discipleship:
For one thing, look at what Peter and John did when they first approached the lame beggar. What would you have done? I might have just glanced at him and then looked away and walked faster. Peter and John could have done that. But instead they chose to act in the power of God’s love that was flowing through them. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians says, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ep 3:16-17). So the first observation is this: Empowered witnesses put the love of God into action when everything human in them says “mind your own business.”
Second, when the man who was healed grabbed onto the disciples in gratitude, and the crowd buzzed around them in astonishment, Peter and John could have taken credit for the miracle. They could have smiled self-deprecatingly and said, “Oh, don’t thank us. We’re just doing what we can.” But they didn’t. Instead, they shone the spotlight directly on Jesus. God empowered them to fight against ego and false modesty, to give the praise to Jesus. The word of God says, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light (Col 1:11-12). So we can make a second observation: Empowered witnesses use God-given strength to defeat temptation and keep the focus on Jesus.
And finally, when they are speaking to the crowd and later to the authorities, Peter and John could have finessed their testimony without mentioning anything unpopular or disagreeable about Jesus. Haven’t you ever done that—talked about faith and maybe even about God, but neglected to say the name of Jesus? But Scripture tells us: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord . . . but join . . . in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (2Ti 1:7-9a). Therefore, our third observation: Empowered witnesses have the courage to speak the name of Jesus when their natural instincts tell them to be silent.
Our lives are made up of opportunities like these every day. But before you and I go around trying to drum up those opportunities, it’s important that we notice one more truth: From the words of Scripture, we know that Peter and John were intending to go to the temple for 3 p.m. worship that day. But from what the story tells us, we have no reason to believe that they left home that morning looking for a chance to pounce on someone with their testimony.
Witnessing for Christ is not a task we have to do. It’s not a chore or an obligation. Witnessing for Christ is a privilege that we get to experience when we live as close as we can to Jesus—in all the ways that we know how to do—and then our lives come into contact with another life longing for an invitation.
To some disciples, God gives the gift of evangelism, exhortation. Those are the people who can do what Peter did, speak boldly in the name of Jesus and call people to repent and believe. That happens sometimes in public settings to large crowds, but it also happens one-to-one in private relationships and conversations. That’s a big gift, and some individuals are tempted to counterfeit it, pretending to speak in the name of Jesus but without the relationship with him.
But most of us will not face that temptation nor experience that gift. Most of us will be more like John in this incident. Did you notice that he says nothing? He simply stands with Peter, and his actions speak as loudly as Peter’s words. We don’t know if that was always John’s way. There may have been other situations in which he spoke. Many scholars believe this John was the author of the Gospel of John and perhaps the three short books named John placed the end of the New Testament. If so, we still hear John “speaking” today. God gives each of us gifts for following, worshiping, loving, serving, and witnessing. Just be yourself as God transforms and leads you.
Witnessing for Jesus. By the power of his Holy Spirit. That is the high calling Jesus makes on each life who first sets out to follow him. That’s what he meant when he said to Peter, the fisherman, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for men.”
That is the invitation Jesus extends to each one of us—in our station in life, with our own God-given gifts—“Follow me. Let your life witness for me.”
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.