Let Your Whole Life Be a Witness
Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost October 21, 2018
Reading: Acts 8:26-39
(Adapted from The Message)
Pastor Jeff Wells
I don’t know if you feel the same, but I think goats get a bad rap in that story. Why couldn’t Jesus say, “The king will separate the sheep and the snakes.” Snakes already have a very poor reputation from the story of Adam and Eve, so this probably would not have made it worse for them. So, let’s just ignore that part. In fact, let’s ignore the whole message of separation and the fires of hell. What I want you to focus on in the story this morning is the importance of our acts. What do we show to God and to our fellow human beings through the ways we act? What do we witness to when we act in the ways Jesus described? What are we saying through the ways we choose to express ourselves?
When you hear the word “witness,” what comes to your mind? You probably think of someone being interviewed by the police or giving testimony in court. “Witness” has become legal term in common speech. A witness is someone who has seen or experienced or knows something that is relevant to the judge or attorney or jury and may help them to decide on a person’s innocence or guilt. But it is a bit different in our own context. For people of faith, to be a witness is to tell our story. It means we give testimony to what we have experienced about God’s love, justice, and forgiveness in our personal lives, in our relationships, and in our community with one another. We each have a personal story to tell and we have a communal story to tell the world and our stories have the power to literally transform people’s lives.
Now, I know what at least some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute…he’s talking about EVANGELISM! No. No way. I don’t want anything to do with that! Maybe I can pretend to go to the bathroom and just sneak out the side door.” That’s a common response because evangelism have been so twisted and damaged by a lot of Christian theology and practice. As one author put it, “Most people would rather have a root canal than think about evangelism.” The very word sets off alarm bells and heightens anxiety. Yet it is a quite simple and natural thing to do because witnessing simply means “anything you do to help someone move closer to a relationship with God” or into a community of faith.” That is not the only story each of us has to share with the world, but it is an important part of our story. When we witness, we share with another person something we find meaningful for ourselves. We are all imperfect human beings, but as broken as we might be, when we witness, we have an amazing love and an amazing community of faith to offer as we tell our stories. Why should that be scary or embarrassing?
Let’s get back to the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. We all witness through our actions – that’s what I take from the scripture this week. Our witness in action can show both to God and to other persons what is important to us, what we value. We can demonstrate through our actions that we have learned to love others, to care for the sick, to visit those in prison, the liberate those who are oppressed – in other words, that divine love is working through us. Of course, if we do not act in these ways, then our actions witness to a different character and values.
Jesus suggested these particular ways for us to demonstrate our love in action and to witness to God’s love in us. As he said, toward the end of his life, “In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other.”
God calls us to let our whole lives be a witness. And it’s not about witnessing only to our beliefs, but also to our experience. Our stories include sadness, loss, alienation, mistakes, and failures, but they also include love, joy, hope, affirmation, growth, and transformation. In everything we do, we can witness to the ways God’s unconditional love has shaped us. In all the ways we behave toward other people, in the ways we choose to serve others, in all the ways we make sacrifices and give of ourselves, we are witnesses.
But the ways we act are only a part of our witness. God also calls us to witness with our voices. God wants us to share our stories – stories that testify to the ways God’s love, grace, and forgiveness have impacted our minds, bodies, spirits, and relationships.
Every one of us is a witness. We can be witnesses to love, justice, and courage, or to things that are far less positive – apathy perhaps, or even hatred. Your whole life is a witness, whether you intend it or not. Your life is a testimony to the ways you have been hurt or loved, ignored or valued, and also to the ways you have been shaped by your relationship with God, with others, and with a community of faith.
The call to be a witness resounds like a drumbeat throughout the New Testament. There is the famous passage from Matthew’s Gospel that says, “Go…and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “As God has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). And in the Gospel of Mark, he reiterates, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
Every disciple, every follower of Jesus is can share the love, the profound acceptance and affirmation, the encouragement, and the care we ourselves have found. I am a witness. You might say it’s my job – or a big part of it. And, I love being a witness. But not when someone says to me, “Pastor, that’s your job” – and they mean, “your job, not mine.” In our cultural context, in which so many people are suspicious of organized religion, a lot of people are more likely to be open to hearing from a lay person than from a clergy person. A prominent Methodist evangelism professor said: “The day you get ordained, you lose half of the unchurched people. They now perceive you as a paid propogandist for the institutional church.” So, the reality is, you have a better change of getting someone to listen to your experience of God than I do. Once somebody comes through those doors, they might be willing to listen to me, but outside these wall, all of you are going to have at least as good a shot at reaching people, and often better. So, I do often engage in conversations with strangers or people I don’t know well in my neighborhood or when I am traveling. I try to share my experience and tell my story. But rarely do I lead with the fact that I am a pastor. I save that part until the person gets to know some other things about me first.
Why be a witness? I don’t think the best answer is, “Because Jesus asked us to.” The most powerful motivator for me has always been that I want to share the story of my powerful experience of God. My life has been radically changed for the better and I am a much better person because of my relationship with God and with this loving community of the Jesus’ followers. I want to share that life-transforming experience with other people. I love Jesus and I believe he has a lot to say to our world today. I love his example and his spirit and it has produced in me a burning desire to tell the story of his life, teachings, and his sacrificial love and how it has shaped me. This is part of loving God and loving our neighbors. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, then we want the best for them, don’t we? And what could be better than sharing the transforming love we have found through our relationships with God and this church? There are so many people out there whose lives would be enriched, whose pain could be eased, whose shame could be removed, whose hurt could be healed, if only someone would invite them into this relationship.
Often, when I share my story, it is spontaneous. It’s not hard because I know my story so well. I have shared it many times and it feels natural. But when I am witnessing intentionally, I pray before I share. I pray for myself that God might use me to reach this person and I pray for the person to whom I am telling my story, our story. And then, I pray that I will not get in the way and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit of God touching that person’s mind and spirit. I know from my own experience that it is God’s Spirit that does the most important part of awakening and inviting a person into relationship. I know that is how it happened with me when I was reawakened to the love and grace of God after being an atheist for 20 years.
And I continue to see and feel the Spirit of God working in my life every day. Part of learning to be a witness is continually being open and available to the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Friends, the lesson here is simple: tell your story, and tell it with passion! If someone sees that you are passionate and invested in what you are telling them, then they will be curious about just what makes you so excited and committed. I have the privilege of hearing many of your stories, at least parts of them, so I know that you all have powerful stories and the ability to talk about them. You have a story to tell. You have a love to share. Let your life be a witness.
 Unbinding the Gospel
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
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