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The Power of Witness

Mission and Ministry Series
Old Mystic, October 11, 2009
Acts 1:6-8

Summary

The task of being witnesses to God’s kingdom and to God’s work in our lives in Christ is possible because of God’s amazing presence in us through the Holy that empowers us to be co-workers with God in building God’s kingdom of which the church, reflected in many local communities, is a sign.

Sermon


When we look at this passage and we imagine the climatic scene of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples after the resurrection and when we hear the promise of Emmanuel, God being with us through the amazing presence of the Holy Spirit in us, there is a key word that catches our attention: power. And it is a remarkable word for what it means in most contexts. Its Greek version, dunamis, encompasses a variety of meanings. Power is the inherent strength or energy to perform an act effectively; it suggests movement or the generation of movement, force, and the ability to exert force to accomplish a feat. It often refers to the might of armies and their ability to conquer. In a broader sense, power is understood as authority and the capacity of exercising authority, control, and dominion of humans over humans.

Power plays such a significant role in society and within human social systems. It can be a force that keeps things in order in any given social system, and/or can change things both for good and for evil. We can speak of the powers that shape us, control us, and move us into action—or inaction—without ourselves being conscious about them. We often suffer—or not—the power of social arrangements that are maintained through power that continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. The power of oppression is so much present in the world—and has been so much denounced in the scriptures for over two millennia!

But I want to think of power as influence, beyond the idea of physical might or strength to force anything upon anyone. Power in this passage is influence, and it is about the power of the Holy Spirit, it the opportunity and the possibility of bringing conviction, transformation, renewal, and faith. The power of the Holy Spirit is the influence that Christian witness can exert in the lives of others. It is not an arm-twisting power; it is not the power of crusading against the “infidels;” It is not the political power to make all nations part of Christendom; neither the power to impose Christian views in the secular societies that are part of the world today. It is political in the sense that it is influence that will bring change to structures of injustice for the welfare of all, but understanding that it will not force peoples of other faiths to renounce to their conviction to become Christians. It is the influence that only the Holy Spirit can bring.

Jesus said, “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.” And so he commissioned his disciples and all the generations to follow to be witnesses. History tells us that there have been many faithful witnesses; the message of the gospel has been spread all over the world. Yet, the task of building God’s kingdom continues because there is so much that needs to be done. We have signs of that kingdom yet our influence must continue in order to bring love, peace, and justice to the whole world.

The Holy Spirit, God in us, has a very special way of bringing that power of influence. I will point out three ways. First, it is influence that brings conviction; real, deep, heartfelt, and transforming conviction. It is more that plain knowledge or our ability to comprehend a creed, a faith statement, or any propositional truth. We often associate the word witness to the image of a court where someone can give a first hand account of something he or she has seen, heard, or experienced. And in the context of a court, the truth has to be spoken. And so we have been doing it for centuries! We have relied so much on proclamation as a way of witnessing that have we have resorted to all types of media to get the message out. We have used the pulpit, the printing press, radio, TV, and these days, the web, podcasts, streaming video, Facebook, and Twitter. Not that there is anything wrong with it; but we have too often “screamed” the message too loud to be heard. We have often been too triumphalistic to be convincing and our methods too calculated or simplistic to sink in.

Yet, it is the Holy Spirit in us that bring conviction and that is a powerful influence. But the power today may not reside solely on what we can say—in fact in many ways we have been muted by others and by our own actions—but on who we are in Christ! Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Through our presence, our character, our actions, how we speak, and what we say, we betray the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our conversations will reflect the character of the one who is sending us, that is Jesus Christ. Convictions cannot be forced upon people; the one who convicts and convinces is the Holy Spirit.

Second, the power of influence that the Holy Spirit exerts is through the gifts granted to Christians. I make this statement with fear and trembling lest we once again fall prey of the arrogance that has plagued us so often. We as earthen vessels, by God Amazing Grace, we the wretches that are being saved, we have been given gifts that are not ours but God’s. And those gifts have the sole purpose of meeting human needs on God’s behalf. Paul made a long list of spiritual gifts that are often regarded as supernatural manifestations and a sort of proof of God’s presence. Indeed they are a sign of God’s presence, but not to prove anything but to bless people’s lives, beginning with their encounter with the Living God.

Paul’s list includes gifts such as healing, tongues, and prophecy which are perhaps the most popular among many Christians. But I want to focus on the gift of discernment of spirits which I interpret as the ability to know people, circumstances, and situations and the insight and good judgment to do what is right. I believe that this gift can takes us a long way as we witness to Jesus Christ in this world. I wonder how much use we make of this gift. What strikes me is that we suffer so many contradictions, we have so many disagreements, and we display so many different views about what is right or wrong in the world in spite of having been granted this gift of discernment. Yet, as we walk with the Christ we witness to, let us pray for that discernment that will make our witness powerful and transforming.

Third, the influence of our witness will be powerful through the fruit we bear; the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Paul also makes a list. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.” As we walk through life bearing this fruit, our witness will be really transforming! Looking at all these aspects of the fruit, the attempt to achieve them could be cumbersome for anyone. But let’s not forget, it is not our fruit, it is the fruit of the Spirit!

Love is first in Paul’s list perhaps because it summarizes all of the other virtues. Love brings joy, love makes peace and love makes all of the other possible. We know that love is transforming. As people who love our neighbor, we not only show our love but we also share the love of the One who made us all and the One who wants to save us all. And love is inviting; love is appealing; love blesses, touches, inspires, and changes things. The only way we have to bring people into the kingdom, or into the church is by loving them into Jesus Christ. Any action full of love will supersede all calculated, sophisticated, and artistic outreach methods.

The message has not changed since the day Jesus and the disciples met for the last time before his departure. Regular folks are called to be witnesses. It was never an easy task and for that reason it has been put aside so many times. Perhaps because the church has tried to bring the message on its own human terms and has tried to impose it upon others. These days are days where we need people walking humbly in order to be heard. It takes love and discernment, which are available to us. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us that will bring conviction to a broken world and continue to build God’s kingdom and the church.

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