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A sermon of witness

May 26th, 2010 No comments

A sermon of witness” (Acts 16:16-34)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
May 16, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The book of the Acts of the Apostles proclaims the stories of the early apostles witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus, and the new reign that has been inaugurated through God raising Jesus from the dead. They go around inviting those who they meet to leave behind their old way of life and enter into the new creation that is breaking forth in the world, a new creation where the poor and lowly are lifted up, where the captives are released, the blind are given sight, and the oppressed go free, a new creation where Jesus Is Lord, and all of the Caesars of the world are not. All through this Easter season, we have heard the stories of witness from the early church, all through this Easter season, we have heard tell of this new creation, the in-breaking of God’s Reign into our daily lives as members of the church, all through this Easter season, we have heard of the power of the resurrection both from the lives of the early apostles and from the lives of congregation members today.

The story told this morning from Acts 16 is no exception; it is a lovely example of Paul and Silas witnessing to the power of Christ’s resurrection and inviting the jailer and his family to participate in God’s Reign. But what does it all mean? What was it about Paul and Silas that witnessed to those around them? What is required for them to “believe on the Lord Jesus?” When the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” what does it mean for the jailer and his household to receive salvation? I am sure it means different things to our 21st century ears than it did for those first hearing the story told to them around the fire, in caves, or in house churches. 2000 years of church history and tradition, our own cultures, our gender, our class, our own life situation have influenced our hearing of these stories from Acts, and for this morning, our hearing of this particular passage of Paul and Silas witnessing to the jailer and his household. When they say, “you will be saved,” does it only mean that the jailer’s eternal soul will now go to heaven after he dies? When they say “believe on the Lord Jesus,” does it only mean that the jailer must now assent to a certain set of beliefs and doctrines? When they witnessed and “spoke the word of the Lord to him” does it only mean that they spoke to him of Jesus’ atoning death? Or is there perhaps more meaning than meets our 21st century, North American, white middle class ears?

Now I wish to focus most on what it means to witness, as that is what Peter and I have been focusing on for the book of Acts during this Easter season. But before I plan to look more in-depth at Witness, I believe that it is necessary to examine what it means when we talk about salvation and belief, for our thoughts on these topics will greatly shape our theology of witness.

I am convinced that salvation is more than simply “going to heaven when we die.” Now, please do not misunderstand, because I do have faith that there is life after death, as I think both Jesus and Paul did as well. I have a strong hope that each of us will be with God after this life is over. But I am convinced that there is so much more to salvation, that it begins in this lifetime and has a profound affect on our lives now. Salvation is entering in to God’s Reign, which is already breaking into the world now, today, at this very hour and all of us are invited to participate. Salvation is the process of becoming more and more like Christ, who God testified to in the power of the resurrection. Salvation is forgiveness of sin and a turning to a new way of life in Christ. Salvation is committing our ultimate allegiance is to God and not to any rulers or powers of this world, so that we live differently from the way the world has taught us, where we instead heal, and teach, and preach, and hope, and pray, and love as Jesus did. Salvation affects every part of our being and should radiate through us with every breath that we take. Salvation is joining in on what God is already doing in the world, it is joining our lives with the new life in God’s new creation.

Likewise, I am also convinced that believing is more than simply giving our assent to certain claims that we hold to be true. Once again, please do not misunderstand, because being a Christian does mean that we hold certain claims to be true, especially that there is a God who is active in history, that Jesus is central and has most fully has revealed who God is, and that the Bible is central and it tells the story of God’s salvation and movement in history. And in our life together it is good that we hold these things to be truth and to be central to who we are as church. But believing goes beyond simply holding such claims to be true. For Paul and Silas to ask the jailer to “believe on the Lord Jesus” I think that they were asking the jailer to commit his loyalty to Jesus, to commit his allegiance to Jesus, to give his heart to Jesus.1 To believe on the Lord Jesus is to commit to Him and to say that Jesus is Lord and thus no one else will claim that authority in our lives. To believe on the Lord Jesus is to give one’s heart to Him is to enter into the way of life that Jesus lived, to enter into God’s Reign that was embodied by Jesus. To believe on the Lord Jesus is to trust that “Jesus’ way of living is the right way, and [to trust] it enough that one is willing to live that way– and die that way.”2 We trust in Jesus’ way of life, because we know that God said “Yes” to Jesus’ way of life in the resurrection, and that through the power of the resurrection when God triumphed over the powers of this world, We Have Confidence that God has the ultimate and final victory at the end of the story.

Which brings us back to Witness. And just as Paul and Silas were sent, so too, are each of us sent to witness to the resurrection of our Lord. For the resurrection is at the heart of who we are as church. Through the resurrection, we know that God will have the final victory. Through the power of the resurrection, we are each empowered to continue Jesus’ work of healing, teaching, and preaching in the world. Through the resurrection, God’s Reign was inaugurated into the world and is now breaking in, and that we as members of the church have entered into God’s Reign at the time of our baptism. As members of this new creation, we are all sent then to proclaim the gospel, the “good news that God, the world’s creator, is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom… God raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord.”3

Too often we see witness as something that is optional, an extra, a task for pastors and the outreach committee to complete, and something that the rest of us will get around to only if there’s any time left over from other concerns. We too quickly forget that witness is foundational to who the church is, that witness is the calling of every person in the body of believers. If we proclaim Jesus as our Lord, if we believe on him and have committed our lives to him, then the Holy Spirit should be transforming our lives, renewing our lives, shaping our lives to the life of Christ so that our lives will witness to God’s Reign. God’s Reign is so beautiful, so life-altering, so incredible, how can we not wish to proclaim it to others, to invite all who we come in contact with to join us in this transforming Reign that is already breaking in to the world. But if the gospel is not transforming our own lives, how can we possibly expect it to transform the lives of others?

I have chosen the theme of “Light” for this morning’s worship service, that just as God is light, so too each of us are called by Jesus to be light for the world, to illuminate the love and power of God to all we come in contact with. This sort of an image suggests that witnessing is not something that we do, but it is what we are. Light need not do anything to be seen by others, it simply needs to be what it was created to be. Our witness need not be deliberate actions that we take, but that by our very being, our very presence in the world we will radiate to others the glory of the most High God.

What is it about our lives that reflects God’s Reign? How do others catch glimpses of who God is through us? The verse that struck me the most in this morning’s passage is verse 25 that says:”Paul and Silas were praying and sing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” Now the passage does not say whether these prisoners came to believe on the Lord Jesus as the jailer did, but surely their lives were touched as well by God’s witnesses. Surely some sort of unshakable foundation was laid for them that even in the smallest way opened their lives to God’s moving. The world is watching us, listening to us. What do those around us see and hear?

I often wonder about my own witness to the world, especially knowing our heritage and the way that our Anabaptist forefathers and mothers were willing to die for God’s Reign. It seems to me that the Mennonite Church in North America has grown comfortable. Yes, I believe that God will have the final victory, but I wonder if I would be willing to suffer and die for the sake of following Jesus. These thoughts often come to me late at night when I worry about someone breaking into our house. Would I be able to choose the way of Jesus, to continue to love this person, to respond with compassion and dignity, and not respond in hatred, if they threatened, or even took my life or the life of someone I love?

But even in much less extreme examples, am I living a life that is counter cultural enough that people notice? What is it about me that shows that I have chosen to follow Christ in my life? What am I doing that is radically different from the way that the culture lives for the sake of the good news? How does my life proclaim the resurrection? How am I embodying God’s Reign in my own life?

These reflections are not meant to inspire guilt, but are meant to inspire change and a response that we all continue to actively seek to embody Jesus’ way of life in our lives, to let our light continue to shine brightly.

But just as salvation is not limited to the afterlife and belief is not limited to holding certain claims to be true, neither is witness to be limited to us as individual Christians. So too are we as a church, as a body of believers who place our trust and allegiance in God. together we are called to be a witness. Our congregation is called to witness to God’s Reign through our life together. Here in this gathered community, we are to provide a glimpse of what God’s new creation looks like. For those who step into our church, what do they see? How do they see the way of Jesus through us? How do we handle conflict in such a way that gives glory to God? How do we handle a diversity of views? How do we practice hospitality to guests as well as to our own members? How do we teach our children to be light for the world? How do we worship so that God is glorified? How do we continue to share with each other the ways that God is moving in our lives? How do we share with others outside of the congregation the ways that God is moving in our lives?

But let us not for a minute think that witness is only something that we do to increase the numbers of our church. For witness is about something bigger and beyond ourselves, it is all about what God is already doing in the world. Yes, God invites us to participate in what God is doing, but lest we get arrogant, we need to remind ourselves that it is not about us, but about God and God’s purposes in the world.

And yes, there will be times when we fail, when our witness is less than what we would have wanted it to be. Even Even Paul got annoyed at the slave-girl, and one has to wonder, that even though he exorcised the spirit, whether he did this more-so for his own sake than for hers to alleviate his own annoyance rather than set her free. Yes, he liberated her from her spirit, but he did not liberate her from her captivity or proclaim to her the Most High God, whose name her lips had once spoken. But I believe that this is where the strength of the church comes in, with the the many gifts bestowed by the Spirit, for I would like to hope that perhaps someone else came along with a passion for nameless slave-girls who proclaimed to her God’s Reign.

But it is also good to affirm the ways that we are already being a brilliant light for the world, where we are already doing things well, where we are already witnessing to the glory of God’s Reign. Young people of this congregation, I especially want to affirm you and your witness, and the many ways that you have let your own light shine to those around you, the way you have invited others to Youth Group, the way you have helped those on the fringe feel included, the way you have embodied the joy of Christ, the way you are actively seeking to follow Jesus’ way of life. As many of you go off to college now in the next few months, may you continue to let the light of Christ shine through your lives, as you have already done in the 3 years that I have known you.

There are many other things that I wish I had time to say yet this morning. But more importantly, I hope that we will continue discussing and discerning ways that we can witness together as a congregation. We as a congregation have already brainstormed many ways to increase our witness through the visioning process. The Administrative Council, when discerning what steps to take next, thought it would build up the witness of our church if members of our congregation would begin to invite others from the community over to our homes for Bible Study together, to grow together in our knowledge of Scripture and God’s moving in our lives. This would also be a good way to nurture relationships, which is vital for the witness of the church. But what other ways? I have spoken a lot on how our very lives reflect God’s glory, but in the book of Acts, proclamation by words is also central. How are our words giving witness to God? Are we comfortable verbally sharing our faith with others? If not, why not? What would our witness look like if we began to put some of these things into practice? How else is God calling us to witness to this new life in Christ?

May this sermon of witness not end here, but may it continue on long after the pulpit, through the rest of the day and coming week and in the years to come, that all of our lives continue to preach the good news of God’s Reign, that our life together continues to be light for the world to witness to the way of Jesus. May it be so. Amen.

1 Idea taken from Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith and his thoughts on the Latin word “credo” in chapter 2.

2 Lois’ Barrett’s chapter on “Missional Witness” in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell L. Guder.

3 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

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“Who was I that I could hinder God?”

May 12th, 2010 No comments

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”1 (Acts 11:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 9, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Three Strangers at the Gate

Luke isn’t known for being terribly generous with words in his Gospel or in his book called Acts, but he has allotted 66 verses to this story of the conversion of Cornelius – the longest story in the book, and we heard the ending of it.

Last week, you’ll remember, we met faithful Ananias warily making his way down the street called Straight to pray for a certain blind man from Tarsus named Saul – because God had interrupted the ordinary. God had entered reality of human life – the broken and the beautiful – with blinding lights and simple prayers, and called these two men to something new and important.

It seems God must have a habit for doing that sort of thing, because here we are, one week later, and this time, it’s a bewildered Peter meeting three strangers at the gate and trying to find his way from Joppa to Caesarea, to the house of the Centurion named Cornelius. He wasn’t sure why or what it all meant or even what he was really supposed to do, but he was going.

Jesus once said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of if, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Well, you didn’t have to stay up late to catch this midnight conversation to know it was true – not if you’d ever met Jesus. More than once, Jesus would say or do something, and the people would look around amazed, asking one another, “Who is this man?!”

That’s the kind of thing Peter asked himself everyday as he saw Jesus going around healing the sick, casting out demons, preaching strange things like love of enemies, and sticking to it while confronting temple and empire alike with his radical message of God’s Kingdom, even predicting his own death and resurrection, and then following through with it all. Some folks hated this Jesus for what he said and did; others loved him. Just about everybody was puzzled by him at one point or another.

And there was Peter through it all, just as bewildered as the lot of them. Now by this time in the story, I imagine Peter was still puzzled at what God was doing, but my guess is he was at least used to being puzzled at God’s actions. Strangers showing up at the gate with odd requests aren’t so strange after all when you’ve met the risen Lord. You know a thing or two about how the wind blows.

From Joppa to Caesarea

It was quite something, that windy journey from Joppa to Caesarea. There were at least ten of them in all along the road that day – Peter, the three men from the gate who were sent by Cornelius, and Peter’s six friends who got caught up in the whirlwind and were along for moral support. They all noticed Peter was still just as distracted as he was when they had found him at the gate. No doubt, he was still musing over the vision he’d had the previous day, just before the three strangers arrived with their odd story about the centurion Cornelius.

It’s a scary thing, after all, to be asked to give up a part of who you are. Peter was a good Jew and knew that all those creatures on the mysterious sheet weren’t permitted to be eaten. That was how you knew who was a Jew. Give that up, and little by little, they would blend in with everybody else in the empire, and before long, the little minority people of God would be casually forgotten. The details are important when you’re the minority.

But slowly he allowed himself to make the obvious connection – the one he’d been trying to work his way out of the entire journey. As he stepped into Cornelius’s home, I think he was starting to realize in his heart what the vision was about.

Preaching Peace to the Powerful

Of course, he certainly didn’t expect to find a centurion – one of those Romans who were part of the foreign military occupation of the Jewish homeland – wrapped around his feet. But so it was, a centurion bowing in worship before a puzzled and somewhat reluctant leader of the apostolic church.

Now “whatever Peter [had] to offer to this man, it [was] something more than the power of his own personality.”2 After correcting the centurion’s misguided devotion, the questions began to come. Peter wanted to hear it from Cornelius why he was there.

And Peter began to preach to this centurion about the gospel of peace, Luke says. If you read through the book of Acts, you’ll realize it was pretty much the stock sermon Peter had been using all along the preaching circuit.

He was getting close to the end, when he discovered what he knew in his heart, what the spirit had been teaching him, was true. The Holy Spirit had interrupted his sermon to fall upon all who were gathered. Outsiders were becoming insiders; enemies were becoming partners in the Gospel. And in his heart, Peter knew it, and was amazed. It turned out God had a different sort of identity and security in mind.

On the Road from Caesarea to Jerusalem

But his Jewish friends back in Jerusalem were skeptical at best. Funny how we’re often skeptical when God chooses someone unexpected. Philip Gulley tells it perfectly in his fictional novel, Just Shy of Harmony, about a pastor of a small-town Quaker congregation. One of the people on the fringes of the congregation was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The pastor and the congregation prayed earnestly for healing, but healing didn’t come.

Well, some of the members were avid disciples of a greasy televangelist named Johnny LaCosta – the kind of guy who would claim to heal someone for you if you donated enough money to his organization. They were all to happy to recommend ways the pastor could be more like their dear televangelist. So they sent off a donation with their request for the woman to be healed.

A few days later, in a big production, Johnny LaCosta declared that the woman had been healed. When the pastor heard about it, he wouldn’t believe it, but sure enough, the leukemia was gone. Flustered, all the pastor could say was, “God didn’t use Johnny LaCost to heal Sally. God doesn’t use people like that.”

I don’t know about you, but I can sure identify with the Quaker pastor on this one. Even with all the hype and the commercialization of the Gospel, and the scamming of the folks who didn’t know any better, it looked like God had gone and chosen a fraud instead of the earnest people who’d been praying for weeks.

But as Peter knew so well, justice isn’t so much a question of people getting what’s coming to them, as it is God’s awesome power to redeem. God used bewildered Peter, who didn’t completely understand why he was there with Cornelius, reciting his usual sermon, but God redeemed Peter’s faithful response, interrupting it as the Spirit blew into the lives of those Gentiles who had gathered. The Gospel made the surprising leap from the Jewish people of God to the Gentiles. Where would it go next?

I recall one evening at the homeless shelter in Newton. A woman who was trying to break her drug addiction was struggling with the temptation to leave and get another fix. She was weeping as she was telling her story, and just then, another resident walked in and immediately knew what was going on because he’d already been through it. I watched as he comforted her and sat with her in a way that no one else could, and I was amazed. Here were all these cradle Christian volunteers, ready to step in to the rescue, but God chose to redeem this man’s broken past for something beautiful.

Now I don’t believe that God desired this man’s past self-destructive choices any more than I believe God desired Rome’s brutal occupation of Caesarea or the rest of the Holy Land. But God took this man, all that he was, poor choices, good choices in all, and used him to minister to someone in need, and I can assure you, what I saw was a witness to the risen Lord’s presence with us.

Graduating seniors, today we congratulate you and send you along your journey with our blessing and prayerful support. Like everyone else here, you’ll likely get it wrong a frustrating part of the time, or you won’t even get it at all, but God will still redeem you, God will still use you in amazing ways, just as God already is.

Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Peter didn’t really understand what was going on with his vision and the strangers at the gate, but he went, and God used his faithful response. Cornelius wouldn’t have bowed down to worship Peter if he would have really understood about God, but God met him where he was and sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to nurture and redeem the spark of faith in his heart.

So here we’ve met Paul and Ananias, Cornelius and Peter – four people, one hostile to the faith, one steadfast, another seeking but needing a lot of direction, and one perpetually puzzled – all being continually converted and called into God’s purposes. And all they could do was get out of God’s way – “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter wondered aloud.

That’s the puzzling picture of conversion in Acts. People encounter the gospel and experience the Holy Spirit at work in their lives, and they respond. Ananias didn’t win Paul over because his apologetic was bulletproof; God did as Paul encountered the risen Lord. Peter didn’t convert Cornelius with his preaching prowess; God did as Cornelius encountered the risen Lord. In fact God interrupted Peter’s speech to send the Holy Spirit.

Now of course as God’s people, we have a purpose and a calling. After all, God worked through Peter’s and Ananias’s faithful responses, but they could only respond faithfully because they had seen where God was already at work.

I know a lot of us have been thinking about things like evangelism, outreach, and witness here of late, about how to do it best, what will be most effective, who to reach out to and when. And these are all great questions that we need to continue asking. But what if we ask a slightly different question first? What if we ask, where is God already at work, and where is God calling us to join in? The challenge to Peter wasn’t to find Cornelius, but to hear the strangers already knocking at the gate.

And I imagine that as we respond in faithful witness to what the risen Lord is doing, God will continue to convert us as well, to redeem our faithful attempts, and to give even to us “the repentance that leads to life.”

[Improvised conclusion I can’t remember – Sorry!]

Notes:

1Acts 11:17.

2William Willimon, Acts in WJK’s Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching/Preaching series, 97.



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