Essential: Witness

Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

Back in England in the 1730s, a young Anglican priest and failed missionary named John Wesley began preaching in the streets and the fields. He preached about grace and he preached about holiness, and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. People came to hear him by the thousands, at least as his journal tells the story. They heard his message and they believed, and then they asked a question: “What next?”

This was the beginning of the Methodist movement: a network of small groups where people held each other accountable to living out their newfound faith in their lives.  Faith, Wesley believed, shouldn’t just change you on the inside, but on the outside too.

17 hundred and 30 years beforehand, another crowd had gathered, this time in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost.) An ex-fisherman named Peter preached from the window of an upper room. He preached grace and he preached about God’s power and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. And people stopped to listen, and they heard his message and believed.

In the story as we have it, at least, they never explicitly ask the question “What next?” But we do hear what comes next. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This first verse describing the very first post-Pentecost church should be familiar to you now if you’ve been following along with this sermon series. What strikes me is that the first thing the new believers do when they hear the Gospel is they get to work. When people are convicted, there’s no time to waste getting started.

These new believers hear the story of Jesus and their lives change. It’s not just a matter of finding inner peace or joy, though there is joy to be found. Their lives change not just on the inside but on the outside: The patterns of their day. Who they understand to be their family. What they do with their property. What they devote themselves to.

We’ve spent the last five weeks focusing on this passage from Acts, asking what it has to tell us about the essentials of being the church, both then and now – and especially now as we are being forced to think about being church in new ways. We’ve talked about worship, teaching and learning, communion (both with a big C and a little one), prayer, and justice. These are the practices that define the church’s mission and identity. And when I first planned this series, I was going to leave it at that, because that seemed to sum up what they did. But I realized I had missed one part of this passage: “They praised God and had the goodwill of all the people. [My CEB translation says ‘Demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.’] And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. And once again, people responded, and they changed their lives too, and they demonstrated God’s goodness to others. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The aspect that I missed when I first planned out this series was witness – because the believers did all these things, they worshiped and learned more and ate together and prayed together and shared what they had, and they also didn’t keep it to themselves.

As we’re rethinking these days what it looks like to be the church, maybe we have an opportunity here to think about our own witness to the wider world.

On the one hand, our worship and fellowship and study are now more accessible to many people than they ever have been before. Anyone, from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection, can come learn about /Jesus and the Bible and how we live out our faith/ for themselves.

And on the other hand, we can now no longer count on someone seeing our building in the middle of Rosslyn and wandering in, as visitors and newcomers to the area have done probably since we’ve had a building. Some of them would come and go, but over time, some would make their home here, just as most of you decided at one time to do. That particular scenario is not going to happen for a while now, and it makes me wonder how much we have perhaps been content to let our building be our witness for us.

So what next? When we can’t use our building in the same way, it becomes even more important to be God’s people in the world.

Even that might seem harder these days. We are in our homes more and in the world less. And still now, all around us, there is death and fear. There is inequality and racism that threatens lives. There is loneliness and longing. All around us, there are people looking for community, and purpose, and hope.

Do we have something to offer them?

How might we use our new more digital reality for good, here? I was excited a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine who is local but not associated with our church sent me a screen shot of a post from a Facebook group she was in. “I’d like to invite you to our church,” the post said, and shared the description of worship for that week from our Arlington Temple Facebook page. I said yes! Someone is doing their job! Maybe you know someone a particular sermon would speak to. Videos are all there on Facebook and our church website; send them along. There is opportunity here.

And still, what made an impression on those newest believers who joined the earliest church wasn’t a fancy website or well targeted Facebook ads. Those things are tools to help us in our witness, but they are not our witness. Instead, for the early church, what happened is that people saw what they were doing. They saw them praising God and being together and God working wonders in their midst. They saw them sharing tables and sharing possessions. And they said, something new is happening here. And we want to be a part of it. The community itself WAS their witness to the story of Jesus. How they lived their lives and lived them together WAS their witness to what God had done and was still doing among them.

Back at the beginning of the year, back when no one knew what 2020 had in store, the Christian writer Brian McLaren wrote a blog post with three New Year’s resolutions for pastors. Number one was: “Smoke what you’re selling.” (His words!) “In other words,” he said, “be sure that you actually enjoy the abundant life you are proclaiming to others.”[1]

That question stops me in my tracks sometimes, especially these days, when so much feels like stress and fear and burnout, and I think I am not alone in those things. And yet, if faith doesn’t make a difference in times like these, then when? Maybe there’s a question for all of us in that: are we experiencing abundant life, together? And then, from that – are we demonstrating abundant life to others around us – not because we need to sell something, but because it’s true? And if not, then how? What’s next?

We’ll be out of our building, worship-wise, for a while now. But the church was never a building. The first church didn’t even have one, at least not their own. There’s a world around us waiting for some hope. There are streets, and parks, and stores, and people on the other end of screens. They’re looking for abundant life. We can offer what we have. These are hard times, but God is love and Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is moving among us, and Pentecost can happen all over again.


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