Last week I wrote of the need for the church to find its voice in the search for value and meaning in public life, of our need to contribute our perspective to our community’s efforts to define and enrich our life together. We are needed as participants in the public dialogue. A world that looks for reason to hope needs us to account for the hope that’s is in us (1 Pet. 3:15).
That’s more than the world’s need; it’s our sacred mandate as Christians. “You are witnesses of these things,” the risen Christ said to his disciples before he was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:48), “witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8b).” And in saying that, he gave us our mission as the church, a mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace” and by living as examples of love toward God and our neighbors.
It’s a mission we cannot afford to leave unfulfilled. Our church’s organizing document puts it plainly. “The people of God,” the Book of Discipline states, “who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.”
When we lose our vitality as the church, when we lose our voice in the public square (as we seem to have done) and our influence in the world around us weakens, the first and most important thing we need to do, I believe, is ask ourselves the hard question: Are we faithful as a witnessing and serving community? We don’t need to look first at how we balance our budget, or maintain our building, or gain new members. We need to look first at how we are witnessing and serving in the world.
“You are witnesses of these things,” the risen Christ says to the church. You have “a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right,” a great hymn says, “a Savior to show to the nations, . . . that all of the world’s great peoples might come to the truth of God.” So today we have two questions before us: Of what are we witnesses, and how are we witnesses?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. The gospel of which we are witnesses is just what Jesus said it is, that our waiting is over, and the reign of God has come near (Mark 1:15). All of our visions for God’s creation restored, all of our waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises, all of our hopes for the perfection of life, are complete in Christ. “Whenever anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away [and] everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17)!
Your hope for meaning and purpose in life; your hope for peace and contentment; your hope that you will make a difference in this world; your hope that your children and neighbors will enjoy these same things; your hope for a world where people live in harmony with each other and with creation –your waiting for these things is over and all of them are in your hands, if you will only receive them. That’s the good news. That’s the gospel.
And that brings me to the more difficult second question: How are we witnesses of these things? The word for “witnesses” used here is the Greek word from which we get our English word “martyr.” You are martyrs for these things, Jesus said to the church. Are you living every day for things worth dying for? And is your physical death what that word “martyr” or “witness” is about? Or is there some other way you can lay aside the life you’ve been living, the life of the world, so you can live the life God promises and is already giving you?
There are many ways to be a witness. Some are as extreme as Thomas’s readiness to go with Jesus to his death (John 11:7-16); others as simple as publicly accounting for your hope with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15) or giving a cup of cold water to another disciple (Matt. 10:42). Maybe your witness is to march in a picket line to protest the damage to community being done by the Del Lago casino just down the road. Maybe it’s to stand up and, in every way possible, say “no” to an administration in Washington that has built its whole agenda on value after value that are exactly contrary to the gospel of Christ. Maybe it’s simply to step over a social boundary to invite the homeless poor into your house and share a meal with them, or to donate some of your good clothing to people who have too little (Isa. 58:6-9).
Maybe the simplest thing of all that can be said, and the most complex and life-changing thing to do, is to live every day, every moment, as if the good news is true, as if all you hope for is already yours, to be enjoyed and shared with others in God’s grace.
Lay aside the life of the world, and take up the life of the gospel. Receive the gift of life God offers, and embrace it with all you are and all you have. Be the message the world needs to hear. Be the witness that your profession of Christ says you are.