Power for Service

The Church - 9

Power for Service
The Mission of the Church
(Acts 1:1-11)

The Christian church does not exist for its own sake, but to serve its founder in making the message of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ known to the peoples of the earth. In this message, ninth in a series on ‘The Church’, preached at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 12 December 1999, Rob Yule addresses some of the fears and misunderstandings of evangelism that hinder believers from being more effective witnesses for Jesus.

‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8). This short statement, part of Jesus’ final message to his followers, corrects three common misunderstandings of our role as Christians and of the mission of the Church.

1. ‘I don’t have the knowledge or training.’

The first misunderstanding is that we have to be knowledgeable and highly trained people, in order to share our faith.

But this passage tells us that our main job as Christians, and of the Church as a whole, is to be Jesus’ ‘witnesses’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 9th. edition, defines a ‘witness’ as ‘a person present at some event and able to give information about it’. A secondary meaning is ‘a person attesting another person’s signature to a document’ - someone who vouches for another’s identity or character.

The first Christian witnesses, the apostles, were those who knew Jesus personally, who experienced and could attest the impact of his life and personality, his teachings and miracles. ‘We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and of Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen - by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.’ (Acts 10:39-41).

The primary event that we Christians witness to is the event of Jesus’ death on the cross for our forgiveness and resurrection from the dead to give us eternal life. The secondary event that we testify to is what Jesus has done in our lives. We bear witness to the impact of Jesus’ life and character, and to the life-changing transformation that his forgiveness has brought about in our lives.

Many Christians think they can’t give a testimony because they don’t know enough, haven’t studied enough, or aren’t eloquent enough. That’s a misunderstanding of what a witness is. A witness doesn’t have to say anything about what he or she doesn’t know. A witness simply gives an account of what he or she does know. They don’t have to use other people’s words - just put it in their own words, and express it in their own way. The more artless and uncontrived a person’s testimony is, the more it reflects their own personality and perspective, the better and more convincing it will be.

2. ‘The task is too big for me.’

A second misunderstanding is that the task is to big for us. We think we have to change the world, or change society, or change people’s attitudes - and because that’s too enormous a responsibility, we give up, and don’t even do what we can do.

A basic planning principle is to break a project down into manageable bits. That’s exactly what Jesus does here. Jesus was a realist. He simply says, ‘Start where you are and reach out from there.’ ‘Begin where you are, and let your influence grow as your experience develops and as your witness becomes more widely recognised.’ He told the disciples to be his witnesses first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. Since they were living in Jerusalem, he was telling them to start where they were and reach out in ever-increasing circles or spheres of influence until the whole world was evangelised.

In effect, Jesus tells us to start modestly, begin where we are, do what we can. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be evangelised in a day. But Rome did get eventually get built, and one day Rome was even evangelised - when the fourth century Emperor Constantine was converted, the persecutions ceased, and his successor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Line upon line, precept upon precept, bit by bit, one person at a time, the world can be reached for Jesus Christ.

The concentric circles of mission that Jesus refers to are strategically chosen:

• ‘Jerusalem’ represents home, family and close friends, where you live and where you are well-known. Jerusalem also represents religious orthodoxy, people who think they know it all already and don’t need to change. Your ‘Jerusalem’ is always the hardest place to be a witness. But it’s where you must start, and earn your credibility. You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of your family and close friends. If you profess to have changed as a result of what Jesus has done in your life, you need to demonstrate and prove it to those around you, who’ve seen all your short-lived enthusiasms before and are waiting for this one to wear off too. Around home is where you must begin.

• ‘Judea’ represents your kind of people, people of your faith, culture, language and basic outlook on life. Your Judea is your local church and your local community. Many want to be missionaries who’ve never learned to serve in the context of their local church or neighbourhood. But if you’re not an effective Christian witness in your local situation, among your own kind of people, in your own culture and language group, you’ll never become one by going overseas. Crossing the Indian Ocean in a Jumbo jet, or the Sahara Desert in a 4X4, doesn’t make you a missionary.

• ‘Samaria’ represents cultural, racial and religious diversity. The Samaritans of Jesus’ day were descendants of the underprivileged people left behind after the deportation of the Israelites to Assyria in the 9th century BC, who subsequently intermarried, adopted other religious practices and in due course became frowned on by orthodox Jews. Today, it is often among new immigrants, people of other faiths, the underclass of migrant workers or new people who’ve moved into your district, that there is the greatest openness to the Gospel. Such people appreciate friendship, and are curious about what you believe. Befriending them will be your quickest and surest way to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

• The ‘ends of the earth’ represents global or cross-cultural mission, going to areas that are geographically isolated, with different languages, cultures and religions to your own. Evangelising them is a huge challenge. You’ll never succeed at it if you haven’t mastered the first principles back home. That’s why Jesus wants you to do your apprenticeship at home base first, to walk before you run.

3. ‘I haven’t got the energy or resources for the task.’

A third misunderstanding is that we have to do this task of witnessing for Jesus in our own strength and in our own understanding. To the contrary, Jesus told the disciples that they would receive divine power for their mission. ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.’ (Acts 1:8). ‘You are witnesses of these things. See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have received power from on high.’ (Luke 24:48-9). The disciples were not to charge off to evangelise the world in their own strength and according to their own lights, but in the energy and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. God’s work is not meant to be done in human strength. It is to be done in God’s strength.

I was baptised in the Holy Spirit on a Friday night at the end of October, 1981. I will never forget the following Sunday night. I prepared the same as usual. I preached as usual. But that night something was different. The power was on. Two Punk girls walked in off the street, and one was converted! I’m not sure who was more surprised - me, the girls, or the congregation! My usual preparation and delivery was enhanced by a mysterious element that made my preaching more effective - the enabling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, God’s appointed resource for witness and mission.

Not even Jesus did God’s work in his own strength. Before his baptism, Jesus was an unknown, a Galilean carpenter’s son. After his baptism, when the Holy Spirit came upon him in physical form like a homing pigeon returning to its loft, Jesus performed miracles of healing and deliverance, people’s lives were changed, and his fame spread far and wide (Luke 4:14-15). Now here’s a disturbing thought: if Jesus, the Son of God, needed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit before he began his public ministry, what about you and me, who are mere human beings?

Rob Yule
12 December 1999

© 1999, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand