Witnessing for God

4-15-18  Scripture:  Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48

Theme:  Witnessing in Christian circles has had an interesting journey – from testimony to speaking in tongues to faith healing to fire and brimstone preaching.  But the original intention of this practice is at the heart of the Christian faith – to live in the light of what God has done in Christ.  Such light need not be forced upon others; it cannot help but be seen, through the acts of genuine, spontaneous Christian love.

         Does anyone here subscribe to the National Geographic Magazine?  My family and I have for many years.  I love this magazine – to open its pages is to take a journey into other lands, visit other people, experience different cultures, and consider other viewpoints. 

         Several years ago, I remember reading a particular edition – this one, May of 2009.   I remember sitting down to read the issue; after a few pages, which contain advertisements and special features, I saw something that caught my attention.  It was a net, covering a child; my mind thought “Africa.”  But then, I caught the word “Church” on the page; not something you usually see in the advertising pages of the National Geographic.  I read on – it said, “What if church could shape world events?”  and I thought “WHOA!  I HAVE NEVER SEEN SUCH AN ADVERTISEMENT IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC!  WHO’S ADVERTISING WHAT HERE?”  I read on, and guess who placed that advertisement in the National Geographic?  YOU DID!  WE DID!  It says at the bottom of the page, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors:  The People of the United Methodist Church.”

         I turned to Terri, my wife, and said “Did you see this?”

         I turned to Emily, my daughter, and said, “Did you see this?”

         I turned to Bee, our Cat, and said, “Did you see this?”

         I went to several of our neighbor’s houses, knocked on their doors, and said, “Did you see this?”

         No, not really – I didn’t go door to door, and point out that advertisement.  But I thought about it, in terms of sharing with the world how the United Methodist Church is a major sponsor of the malaria nets program.  It used to be called Nothing But Nets; now we call it Imagine No Malaria.  It was an organization created by the United Nations Foundation.  Founding campaign partners include the people of The United Methodist Church, Sports Illustrated, and the National Basketball Association’s NBA Cares; here’s their present page of sponsors (see us there on the right?).  The program centers around raising funds to buy and deliver $10 nets that are laced with insecticide to kill the Malaria-bearing mosquitos as they land.  To date, over $65 million has been raised; over 12 million nets purchased; and an estimated 6.8 million lives have been saved.  That’s what that advertisement in National Geographic was designed to express – a witness to our work for Christ. 

There’s that word, a word that has been used, misused, confused, abused, twisted, turned, put upside down and right-side up time and time again within the framework of the Christian faith – WITNESS.  We hear it in both of our scripture lessons today, with Peter raising a witness against those who had rejected Christ, and Jesus reminding his followers of what they had witnessed in him, his life, mission, and sacrifice for their sakes.  Today, in much of Christendom, we hear the phrase “to be a witness for Christ” commonly linked to being a Christian.  But this can mean many things to many people.  It can mean something as commonplace as a advertisement in a magazine; but it can mean other things, and sometimes questionable things, when it comes to its use as an element of our faith.

I remember my old Campus Crusade days on the University of Colorado Campus, where they sent out teams of two people to witness for Christ – which meant to go out to potential non-Christian students, share with them the four principles, and encourage them to ask Jesus into their lives.  I had a team visit me once, these two college guys who came to my door and asked if they could talk with me about Jesus; I said fine.  They sat down and opened up the four principles booklet, and began to talk about each principle:

Principle 1:  God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.

Principle 2:  All of us sin and our sin has separated us from God.

Principle 3:  Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Him we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our life.

Principle 4:  We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

I COULDN’T GET A WORD IN EDGEWISE UNTIL THEY WERE FINISHED!  They were very enthusiastic, to say the least, and I appreciated that.  But when they had finished, they asked me a couple of questions to make sure I had understood what they were saying, and then asked me if I would consider inviting Jesus into my life.  My answer surprised them.  I told them, “Well, actually, I am a Christian, and have been for all my life.  In fact, my father is a minister.”  SILENCE.  They weren’t used to that response, I figured; they had that “deer in the headlights” look about them.  And after a few more words of “that’s good” and “that’s nice,” they excused themselves rather quickly.

I appreciated their enthusiasm, but was troubled by something – and to this day, I’m not really sure what.  Maybe it’s that I worried they had an agenda to convert X number of people, and I didn’t fit the bill.  Maybe it’s that I wanted to go deeper with them, into theology or application or something, but they didn’t seem interested after my revelation; they just wanted my profession, that’s it.  Maybe it’s that I had become suspicious of a formulaic approach to faith, and knew that anyone could say those words of profession and have them mean nothing.

But I think the main reason I was troubled is that I think of witnessing in a different way, not as getting someone to profess a certain creed but to invite someone to live a life with God at the center.  This, to me, is what Christ is all about; AND TO ME, THIS IS WHERE ACTIONS SPEAK MUCH, MUCH LOUDER THAN WORDS.

John Wesley would agree; his form of evangelism, of witnessing, was centered on love in action.  He had heard too many sermons that sounded eloquent but were irrelevant, to the poor, the hungry, the unemployed, and the otherwise marginalized of England.  He came up with three simple rules to guide and nurture his faith – do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.  He more than preached the gospel, he lived it in his particular way, journeying through the countryside, sharing the good news, and then demonstrating that news in action.  It is estimated that John Wesley “rode or walked 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds (in today’s capital, that would be around $42 million!), and preached more than 40,000 sermons; he was constantly visiting prisons, raising funds for orphanages, working to abolish the slave trade, working for prison reform, forming societies, opening chapels, examining and commissioning preachers, administering aid charities, prescribing for the sick, helping to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness, and superintending schools and orphanages. It is also estimated that he received at least £20,000 for his publications, but used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means. He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle if he could help it.  On his gravestone is carved the phrase “Lord, let me not live to be useless.” (from historian Stephen Tomkins)

Now, do you understand why Methodists are known for AN ACTIVE FAITH?

Here’s where we come to one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Methodist emphasis upon faith – ours is an active faith, active in charity, outreach, invitation, dialogue, relationship, philanthropy, caretaking, visitation, and justice, NOT AS FORMS OF WORKS RIGHTEOUSNESS, BUT BECAUSE IT IS ONLY AS CHRIST’S LOVE IS PLACED INTO ACTION THAT IT BECOMES REAL.  You’ve heard the old phrase, “people won’t care how much we know unless they know how much we care.”  Wesley didn’t say it, but he might as well have.  Demonstrating Christ’s love in action was indispensible to his witness, for he recognized how easy words ring hollow when they don’t lead to what they profess.  And the Word of God was meant to see action in this life, towards the transformation of individuals through personal faith.

Most likely you’ve heard the story told of St. Francis d’Assisi.  St. Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be given the invitation, the monk readily accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets, byways, and alleys, and even into the suburbs. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people. At day’s end, the two headed back home.  Not even once had Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he talked to anyone about the gospel. Greatly disappointed, his young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.”

Francis responded, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!”

         You and I are called to preach Christ everywhere we walk – and to use words only if absolutely necessary.  Words of faith ring hollow without the substance of a directed life.  I don’t know about you, but the best sermons I’ve ever heard were lived more than spoken.  The best sermons are lives directed by faith, lives that express the kind of unconditional, contagious love that God is all about.  And that’s the challenge of Christian witnessing, regardless of its form – to translate the love of God to others IN PRACTICAL, LIFE-NURTURING WAYS.  Jesus did so at every opportunity; and he invites us to do the same.    It is the application of the love of Jesus that is our greatest witness.

         I close with the prayer John Wesley himself penned that says all of this so well in the Covenant Prayer.  Let us pray:
“Gracious and Heavenly Lord,
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put met to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by you or laid aside by you,
enabled for you or brought low by you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.