Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
Summer movie blockbuster season is back in full force this year. Movies that have been delayed for years due to Covid such as the new Top Gun are finally being released. Just about every weekend this summer sees a new movie being released that is hoping to be a box office hit. In order to get that result studios are once again pouring millions into marketing campaigns. It is expected that some of the summer’s most anticipated movies such as Jurassic World Dominion, Lightyear, and Thor: Love and Thunder could have advertising budgets around $150 million. It appears in the world of movies in order to make money, a studio has to spend a lot of money. This was not always the case. Especially when adjusted for inflation, some of the highest grossing movies of all time came out before massive advertising budgets were a thing. A good example of this happened about 45 years ago. It was then that 20th-Century Fox released a new movie that premiered in only 37 theaters. The studio considered this movie there “B-Side” summer release so in order to boost those low numbers the studio told theater owners if they wanted to be able to show their planned summer blockbuster, The Other Side of Midnight, they had to order their less popular movie too. This strategy worked because more theaters increased their orders. It turns out though that the studio had it wrong. The Other Side of Midnight was a box office flop and it is largely forgotten about now. Their “B-Side” release a sci-fi adventure movie called Star Wars happened to be something of a success. Star Wars managed to find this success before the Internet and with only modest advertising. The key to its success was word of mouth, as people who saw the movie told other people they needed to go see it. This made Star Wars a cultural phenomenon that is still going strong four decades later, and it is the same strategy that has made the good news of Jesus Christ persist for almost 200 decades.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus commissioned his first disciples to be his witnesses, to be the ones who told others the good news. Jesus also gave them a road map on how they should go about doing that. While our circumstances might be different today this morning’s scripture can also instruct us on what to do and on what not to do so that we can continue to be witnesses that share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.
This morning’s scripture gives the account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Of the gospel writers only Luke writes of the ascension. At the end of his gospel, Luke mentions the ascension but he apparently saved the details of that encounter for his sequel, the book of Acts. While only Luke writes of the ascension the last words Jesus imparts to his disciples in this morning’s scripture have a similar theme to the last words recorded in the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus commissions the apostles to baptize and make disciples of all the nations. Here in Acts, Jesus instructs the disciples to be his witnesses. These are connected, because just like Star Wars spread in popularity from one person to another the way that we make disciples of all the nations is to witness to the life changing gospel of grace to other people. Jesus instructed his disciples to take this good news first to Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. Jesus told his first disciples what to do, and we can still glean from those instructions what we should do today.
However, before we consider what we should do we can learn from the first disciples what we should not do. Jesus instructed his disciples to go and be his witnesses and then he is assumed into heaven, but the disciples do not go. They stand there. The scripture specifically states “they were looking intently up into the sky.” I have to wonder how long they would have just stared if the angels did not show up and ask them, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” The first disciples were not supposed to stand around watching and waiting for Jesus to return, they were to go and do the job that he gave them. They were to be witnesses.
We can learn from this as well, because sometimes faith gets treat as a private affair that is mostly just waiting and watching. Following Jesus is meant to be than just about our personal salvation. Following Jesus should entail more than waiting four our turn to be called home or looking towards the sky to see if Jesus is coming back. Following Jesus is about doing the job that Jesus gave his disciples. To this day, our job as followers of Jesus are to be his witnesses.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus told the first disciples who they should witness to and those instructions can still inform our behavior today. First Jesus told the disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea. This was the disciple’s home turf. Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea was their homeland. It was full of their people. Of people who looked like them, who had similar beliefs, and had similar backgrounds. This is where they were to start being a witness for Jesus. In the same way, many of you have lived in this community for years, decades, maybe your whole life. The people in these parts are your people. Statistical trends point out that even in more rural, less populated counties like this one there are still thousands of people who do not yet know Jesus. Odds are all of us have some sort of interaction at least semi-regularly with some of these people. Jesus told the original disciples to be a witness to the people most like them, and today all of us have people who are like us that we can be a witness too.
The second group of people that Jesus instructed his disciples to be a witness to was Samaria. The Samaritans and the Jews shared a common culture, but they did not get along. There was a lot of distrust, bad words exchanged, and bad blood between the two people groups. The Jews and the Samaritans had a common background, but they did not see eye to eye on a lot of issues. Yet, Jesus still told them to be a witness to those people as well. Not only are we to share the good news with people who are like us that we get along with and connect with. We are supposed to share the good news with people who might look like us, but who we do not necessarily agree with. In our constantly polarized culture, this means we are to be a witness of Jesus to all of our neighbors even the ones who put out yard signs in November that support different candidates.
Finally, Jesus tells the disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is a step further than the Samaritans. The disciples at least had some common ground. Jewish culture of the 1st century and Roman culture or Persian culture of the 1st century was worlds different. To take the good news to the ends of the earth required going to people were different from the disciples in every sense of the world. After the first few chapters, the book of Acts shifts to focus on how Paul took the gospel to the gentiles, but church tradition remembers that the original disciples also were witnesses to parts of the Roman Empire, Africa, and even as far as India.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus instructs his followers to be a witness to three different groups: People like them, people like them who may think differently, and people who are completely different than them. In essence, Jesus tells his disciples they are to eventually be a witness to everyone but they are to work their way up to it. There is an intentional flow of starting with the people closest to us and working out to the people most different from us. This is what Jesus commanded his original disciples to do, and if we read the book of Acts we learn that is exactly what happened. Starting in Acts chapter 2 the gospel is shared with the city of Jerusalem and it Acts ends with the gospel about to be shared in Rome itself. The instructions to be his witnesses was not just for the original disciples, it is for us as well. I think there are two key takeaways about how we can do that.
First, I think this is a rare instance where we can learn from what the scripture does not say. Jesus instructed the disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Jesus told the disciples where to go, but he did not tell them how to be a witness. How to witness to the life-saving, good news of Jesus Christ is open ended. There is not just one right way to do it. We are witnesses of Jesus when we proclaim that Jesus has changed our lives, and we can do that in so many ways. Sure, we can testify to that fact. We could even do that in a very public forum, but all witnesses for Jesus do not need to be gifted public speakers or incredible evangelists like Billy Graham. We can testify to how knowing Jesus has changed us for the better on an individual level. We can share our story with the people who we have relationships built on trust. To be a witness for Jesus we do not have to be a scholarly theologian who has three point answers for every deep questions. To be a witness for Jesus we simply need to be sinners who have been forgiven, lost who have been found, and people who have a story to share. If we are willing to share our story with others then we can be a witness.
We can also be a witness without ever talking, because actions do speak louder than words. When we live a changed life, when our actions clearly reflect the love of Christ, when we treat others with the same grace we have been shown then we are also a witness for Christ. If we consistently and authentically live a life that demonstrates how we have been redeemed and loves others with the love of God, then we are also a witness for Jesus. While I do not qualify as an expert on modern day culture, I think perhaps today the most effective way we can be a witness is through our actions. This is especially true when it comes to witnessing to those people who are different than us. In a polarized society that constantly seeks to create an us vs. them dynamic, the most effective way we be a witness for Jesus is to show the world what grace and life changing love looks like through the ways we love those who we may not agree with and who are different than us.
The second takeaway is what this scripture does say about how to be a witness, because Jesus starts his instructions to be a witness by saying “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” In word or action, we do not have to go at it alone when it comes to being a witness. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, and we can rely on the Spirit to lead us and guide us in being a witness for Jesus. Again, if we read the rest of Acts we the Holy Spirit is always present. Acts is short for Acts of the Apostles, but a strong case could be made that it is more accurately Acts of the Holy Spirit because it is the Spirit that empowers and enables every act an apostle does throughout the book. The same is true today. Our ability to make disciples and transform the world is dependent upon the Holy Spirit. To be an effective witness for Jesus Christ, we first have to be willing to believe and trust that the Spirit of God will work through us to enable us to live like that and be an effective witness.
This morning’s scripture has the final instructions that Jesus gave his disciples, and that was to be a witness for him to everyone. Those instructions still stand today. Our Lord and Savior still has the open question of, “Can I get a witness?” May our answer be yes. May we be witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ. May we be willing in both our words and in our actions to share God’s love and grace with other people. May we be willing to be a witness to how knowing Jesus has changed us to both people who are similar to us and to people who are different than us. May we trust and follow the Spirit’s leading as we seek to be a witness wherever our testimony is needed even if it takes us to the very ends of the earth.