I find that more and more following a commercial on the TV I will turn to my wife and ask “what were they advertising?” Sometimes advertisements fail to convey the message and the watcher is left wondering what it is they are supposed to feel incomplete without. As we consider what it means to be a witness for Christ, we must consider if our message is clear. What is the message that we are to convey? What have we witnessed?
To answer that question it is good to go back and ask “what were the first Christians witnesses to? What was their message?” The book of Acts is a great place to find the answers to those questions and we do well to consider some of the sermons and speeches such as the first sermon of Peter on the Day of Pentecost (see 2:14-36), or Peter’s address to the Jewish council (see 4:8-12), or Peter’s words to Cornelius and the first converts from the Gentiles (see 10:38-42), or Paul’s speech in Antioch (see 13:30-39), in Athens (see 17:31), and to King Agrippa and friends (see 26:19-23).
As we look to the testimonies of the first Christians we can ask three questions:
First: What always shows up in the messages of the first Christians?
“He is risen.” If you take the time to read through the above passages from Acts you will see that the common theme is the resurrection of Jesus. From that conviction the apostles go on with the implications of Jesus’ resurrection: Because He is risen, forgiveness of sins is real and possible. Because He is risen, the Kingdom of God has come and is coming. Because He is risen, repentance is the appropriate response for all. Because He is risen, He is Lord. Because He is Risen, we should pick up our cross and follow. It all starts with the resurrection of Jesus. This is the key item for the apostles and has been the key message of the Church through the ages. Are you and I ready to speak about the resurrection of Jesus to others?
Second: What does not show up in the messages of the first Christians?
“Religion is good for you, especially the Christian religion.” While this can be true (though not necessarily if you are pointing to life this side of eternity), it is not the central message of the Christian. I think that as Canadians we might be tempted to fall back and rely on this one too much, because it is safe. It is safe because anyone, atheists, agnostics, and “once-Christians” alike may be agreeable to it, and as Canadians we tend to love agreement. (Side note on that great Canadian value called tolerance: tolerance actually requires disagreement! Agreement requires no tolerance at all.) Tempting as it may be to say “religion is good for you,” the early Christians never said it. In fact they tended to not talk about religion at all, preferring instead to speak about Jesus. He was their focus, not a religious system. Is He our focus?
“Jesus had some good insights, he was a great teacher.” Again as Canadians we are going to like this one as it is going to be rare that we will find anyone who will disagree. While the apostles shared the teaching of Jesus, they were convinced of something far deeper and with far greater consequences: the identity of Jesus, that Jesus is also Lord and Saviour. We do not call Him “Lord” because he was a great teacher, we call Him “Lord” because He rose from the dead. And we don’t centre our lives on His teachings because they were good, though that they are, but rather because He is Lord. In our discussions with others do we go beyond His teachings to explore His identity?
“Jesus is one way (of many ways) to think about God.” Again, a tempting statement for agreeable Canadians, but something the apostles would never say. We might argue that times have changed and we now live in a pluralistic society, so the message must change. However, the Roman world was possibly more pluralistic than Canada. In fact Christianity might have gone forward without persecution had the early Christians wanted to simply add Jesus as yet another god among the gods. But they didn’t, their contention was that “Jesus is Lord,” not Zeus, nor Artemis, nor the emperor, nor any of the others. Indeed the early Christians were accused of spreading atheism; the resurrection of Jesus being proof that Yahweh was God and the rest were all human inventions. It is interesting that all the gods of the Roman era have fallen on hard times not being able to stand the test of time or reason. Allegiance to the creed “Jesus is Lord” on the other hand has flourished. Are we ready to say with Peter that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)?
Third, what can we learn about the message from the messengers?
Let us take three as examples: Peter was a friend of Jesus, though not a very good one based on his desertion and denial of Jesus. James was the brother of Jesus but appears to have been sceptical about his brother’s activities. Paul was an outright enemy of Jesus and all who followed Him. Yet all three share in common a revolution in their lives, each becoming a strong witness for Jesus.
From the perspective of historical enquiry we can ask three questions about these three:
- If Jesus did not rise from the dead, what might we expect from them after Jesus’ earthly days?
- If Jesus did rise from the dead, what might we expect from them after Jesus earthly days?
- What did we see from them after Jesus’ earthly days?
What we see in Peter, James, and Paul fits best with a transforming experience of the risen Christ. Their actions, their attitudes, their theology – it all makes sense if they are witnesses to Jesus raised from the dead. If they did not meet Jesus raised from the dead, how do we account for all such changes in these three and indeed all the first Christians? Their central message was “Jesus lives” because their central experience was that Jesus is alive.
When the opportunities arise to witness to our faith do we stumble around talking about religion, merely assert that Jesus was a great teacher, or philosophise about pluralistic paths? Or does our witness go deeper because it comes from a deeper place, the experience of the risen Christ? Jesus lives. Dear Christian, of that and all its implications you a witness.
(You can listen to the audio of the full sermon at http://www.churchcloud.com/calvary-baptist-cobourg/ or through iTunes podcast upon release)