Living As Witnesses
“‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:8-10).
And with that, it was already different. Gone were those forty days with the resurrected Lord, who had walked in the midst of His people, revealing the defeat of death and the promise of the New Covenant. Jesus’s ascension into Heaven is a moment in the history of our faith that does not receive enough reflection. Yet, it is a pivotal moment because He continues to fulfill His promises, going to prepare a place for His people; to be the way, the truth, and the life, just as He once made clear to His disciples. Still, in that moment, Jesus spoke an important word, as important as any other that He has spoken, for He reminded those who followed Him that they were now to be His witnesses – living testimonies of the Gospel to their own city, to their surrounding neighbors, and eventually throughout the world.
As believers, this is the same word that calls us into the priesthood of all believers, the call to be living witnesses of the living Christ, sharing the Gospel in word and deed. Our actions should simply reinforce the Gospel that we share, the ways that we live out our faith seemingly indistinguishable from the ways in which we share the loving truth of God’s Word. Sadly, as I reflect on conversations in my life, especially as a pastor, I have become keenly aware of two great failures of the Church that plague our ability to faithfully act as Jesus desires for us.
Of course, when speaking of the Church, I do not mean the institution per se, for it is not only the institutional Church that has fallen into the failures that I’ve noticed. Instead, it is the people, the living bride of Christ in the world, who have not faithfully responded to the words of Jesus, but rather responded in two ways that have become common for pushing people away from the Church and, too often, from the Christian faith. Because of these failures, I cannot recall how many times I’ve heard the following statement: “I left the church because of the way that I was treated.” It is an indictment of too many members of Christ’s Body and it makes it seem as if we’ve forgotten the words of Jesus at the moment of His ascension. Whatever the case, these must not continue.
The first failure is that of assumption. When faced with the sins of others, we often spend little time considering the incredible multiplicity of possibilities that may have led a person to their failure in following God’s design and desire for His people. In no way is such a process meant to excuse sinful behavior, but rather to allow the response of actually “speaking the truth in love,” a manner in which scripture calls us to speak, act, and live. Sadly, though, the response of faithful people has not followed in a thoughtful, prayerful process of reflection and consideration. Instead, it is one of quick decision, speech and action, assuming much about a situation and not considering the best possible manner in which to respond.
This error is one that I’ve encountered in conversation with those struggling in their faith and resisting the culture of the institutional church. Due to their negative experiences, they’ve felt that the Church no longer imitates Christ and thus is no longer representative of the community which God intended. Our own sisters and brothers have felt so unloved, so pushed away in their deepest times of need, that they do not feel that the reaction of God’s people speaks as God would speak: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
In many ways, the assumptions cause others to believe that anger is behind such behavior. Rather than experience God’s righteousness through witness, they experience an unrighteous approach to their sin. Sin cannot respond to sin, yet that is what happens in these situations. The hurting and broken immediately feel pushed away and, in many ways, feel as if they have committed some sort of unforgivable sin, one in which they have become convinced that they are no longer loved and cared for by God. This directly opposes Jesus’s promise at the ascension and the Church becomes witnesses to the lies of the evil one. This is a deep failure that must be addressed.
Now, reading this, you may be thinking – “Well, the Word of God can’t change to fit those who desire to live in their sins. Maybe they just didn’t like hearing the truth.” That assumptive reaction, however, brings forth a second fatal flaw of the church: arrogance. Not only have I heard fellow Christians – even fellow pastors – speak with incredible arrogance, but I find it ever more prevalent in writing, especially throughout social media platforms. I’ve seen it happen on photos and “status” posts, as well as the many other ways of passive-aggressively attacking someone— and, yes, attacking is the word that must be used because this behavior manifests itself as a harmful aggression against another person.
This arrogance, however, has become seemingly synonymous with the behavior of too many within the Church. Unfortunately, it is so prevalent that some might even uphold it as a point of pride rather than as a deed needing repentance. I know that I’ve personally experienced fellow Christians – even fellow pastors – speaking with such arrogance that I’ve found their words unrighteous. Though it may not be their intention, the arrogance with which they respond causes their desire to be faithful to disappear because their actions loudly pronounce an unfaithful heart. As Lutheran Christians, there are times where a tendency to lean upon the confessions appears as the foundation for the arrogance. Regrettably, there is even a connection made between faith and one’s political worldview that causes the arrogance to be spoken with rigid confidence. For many reasons, this is certainly problematic. Most importantly, though, is the reality that such actions become the deadly witness that kills faith rather than being the living witness to which the Church is called at the ascension of our Lord.
Of course, the wisdom which we find in God’s Word speaks to these failures: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28). Hearing our Father’s wisdom, perhaps then this writing is best ended with a loving appeal, an “epistle” of sorts, and a humble plea:
We must repent of our failures and reconsider our witness. We cannot continue in assumption and arrogance, for such an approach opposes Christ’s desire for our witness and His promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit. One might argue that such actions are a rejection of the Holy Spirit, the truly unforgivable sin. Therefore, acting in such a way could be justifiably approached with the same assumption and arrogance by a non-believer, creating a viscous cycle of sinful behavior that cries out for a Savior. As faithful Christians, we already know the incredible Savior that has come for us, died for us, risen for us, and ascended to prepare our place in His Father’s house. If we are going to hope that many will be moved by the Spirit to receive the grace gifted to us, we must trust the Spirit moving us to approach each person with humility and kindness, seeking to speak the truth of our Lord in His amazing love. Only then will we be the living witnesses that Jesus calls for as He ascends, joyfully awaiting His glorious return.