Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Becoming a Witness

Acts 1: 21-26

Summer can be a difficult time for schedules. I know that in our house the rhythm is different every week, with Joe going to a different camp or experience, one week he’s at his school for a stage performance camp, and another week he’s building robots at Penn State Wilkes Barre, and another again, he’s at sleepover camp at Sky Lake.

If your lives are like ours in the summer, the absence of rhythm makes it even harder some Sundays to make it out of bed. You want to, I know, but it’s just too hard some days.

So, this summer, I would like to offer some small assistance. I will be preaching a series of seven sermons on the book of Acts, beginning to end. I will also be putting in the bulletin the section of the book I’ll be using the following time I preach (it won’t be every week, for one reason or another). There will be some weeks when preparation will cover seven chapters (which really is still not a large burden, that’s only a little bit longer than a good newspaper article). In addition, in worship, Carolyn and Penny will be picking the hymns they like the most.

If you want to study more about the section of the book coming in the next sermon, I invite you to come to Center Moreland on the Wednesday nights before the Sundays I am preaching, and we will get a little bit more in depth about this important book of the Bible, the only book of story and narrative outside of the Gospels in the New Testament. It answers the question: what happens after Jesus ascends to heaven? How do we get to here from there?

Acts doesn’t give the 2000 year history of the church, but it does tell us how the word began to spread about Jesus after he ascended, how the Jewish followers of Christ started taking in Gentile believers and what that meant for Jewish practice, and where Paul, the writer of a third of the New Testament became a follower of Christ, whom he did not ever meet bodily. In a sense, it is the story of how a group of people changed from following a man around Galilee and points near to it, to becoming witnesses to who that man was and what he did after he was gone. In that story, the story of Acts, lay lessons for us as modern disciples and how we can witness to that same man.

Let me give a little background first. Acts is generally thought to be the second half of a larger story, the first half of which is the Gospel of Luke. You could think of it as the sequel to Luke. Both are addressed to a person named Theophilus, and the writing style is generally thought to be similar. Also, the same thoughts about God pop up in both—there’s an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on prayer, there’s concern for gentiles understanding what Jewish meal customs are, Luke wants gentiles to make sure they understand that much of what Jesus did and what comes after are fulfillments of Jewish Scriptures, and most importantly, there are lots of occasions where the disciples, as well as others who did not know Jesus, begin to witness to what he has done, not just while in the body, but what Jesus has done for them after his ascent.
This morning’s text is very short. Chapter one has only twenty-six verses, and three things happen. Jesus commissions the Disciples and his followers to witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, then there is an account o the death of Judas, and the last part is about how Judas is replaced by another follower as a disciple.

The 8th verse is the key to understanding the whole book as the way Luke means for us to understand our role as followers of Christ. The whole rest of the book can be seen as the story of how the witness of Christ went from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. It starts with the simple administrative job of replacing a fallen disciple, and end, with Paul, a man who is not yet even Christian in the story, sitting in a jail cell in far off Rome, the very belly of the Empire, witnessing to Christ.

The lesson for us today is HOW the Disciples decide to pick a new disciple. Let’s look at the story again—Peter stands up and says “OK, folks, Judas is dead, and the scriptures were fulfilled by that happening. Someone else needs to take his place, and that someone needs to have been with us from early on, from Jesus’ baptism. The group of about 120 put forth two names, and they pray over them. Then they cast lots (the closest approximation that we can understand is that they flipped a coin, or they cast pieces of wood that worked like dice) to see what God intended.

It’s an interesting thing, this “casting lots”. Rather than argue about qualifications, or allow politics to enter into the decision, they name two well qualified people, and then allow the element of chance to enter in. In their world, introducing the element of uncertainty actually allows God to enter into the proceedings; it’s a way of listening to God’s will. Who knows that the US would be like now if, instead of taking the case to the Supreme Court, the election board of Florida flipped a coin to see who would become the President in 2000.

I am not advocating the throwing of dice or the flipping of coins as a method of making decisions in your life. But I do wonder what role God has in how we make decisions. How do we provide an opening that gives us way to hear God’s will? It’s more than just a gut feeling, as important as the leading of the conscience is.

I think that it is a matter of praying first, and the Disciples did, picking equal solid choices, as the Disciples did, and then seeking the Lord’s will. Casting Lots would be the way they did that. We can seek opinions from friends and others who know something about what we need, and then sit and think about them, mull them over, “let them ferment a bit, and then listen to instinct. If we are truly led by Christ and seek His will, then the answer eventually becomes clear, and sometimes it’s the kind of answer that slaps us in the head, saying “why didn’t I see that from the beginning!”

Careful thought in a spirit of prayer is the way to discern God’s will. Sober and reasoned consideration is itself a witness, sometimes. Living by wise and moderate means is itself evidence of God’s leading.

So, this week, I encourage you to stop and think, if you have to make a decision. Pray first, find out the best options, and then let it sit for a while. Maybe even flip a coin, if the two seem to be equally good choices. The important part isn’t the casting lots; the important part is the prayer at the beginning, the advice listened to, and the time taken to think.

We’ll see this again and again in these stories of the Disciples and others, as we go through Acts. Prayer first, listening second, and what results ends up being a witness to Christ.

Not a bad witness to us, is it?

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