Growing up as an evangelical Christian in the southern United States, I got to experience a unique style of performance art that originated in churches. It’s called the Testimony.
Here’s how it works:
Every so often, the pastor would invite certain members of the community to come before the church and share their stories of how they became Christians (or “got saved” as they used to say). These were always exciting services. We heard stories of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that ended in disaster but rebounded with glorious tales of redemption at the last possible moment.
While there was never any official competition going on, you could always tell when two or more “Witnesses” were trying to outdo one another in their ability to testify. Testimonies were typically evaluated according to three criteria: 1) the popularity/fame of the person who spoke, 2) the intense passion with which the story was told, and 3) the depths of depravity to which one stooped before embracing the light of salvation.
The most memorable testimony I ever heard came from a veteran named Clebe McClary. He had been an officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. During combat, he lost an eye and his left arm. After returning to the States and enduring years of recovery, he became a motivational speaker, encouraging people to press on in life, despite their difficulties and setbacks.
Even though these testimonies can quickly become outlandish in their content and presentation, I still think they serve a useful purpose: they get ordinary people involved in telling their own stories of God’s presence in their lives.
Human beings love stories. We tell stories around campfires, we sing songs about them, we write them down in books, we make movies about them, etc. Story is how we communicate truth to one another. Aesop told fables. Jesus told parables. Ask any religious person to tell you about his or her faith, and that person will probably tell you a story.
Our Scripture readings this morning from the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke come at a very critical turning point in the Christian story. Now, the first thing you should know is that Luke and Acts, while they are separate books in our Bibles, actually form one complete story. Most scholars agree that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, although the author’s name is never signed on the paper. Likewise, we know that they were written to the same person, Theophilus. Acts follows Luke in much the same way that Return of the Jedi follows The Empire Strikes Back in the original Star Wars trilogy. We read this morning from the very end of Luke’s gospel and the very beginning of Acts. At this moment in our story, traditionally referred to as The Ascension, two major shifts are happening.
The first shift is geographical:
Most of the action in Luke’s gospel follows Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry in far-away Galilee to the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, the action begins in Jerusalem and continues “to the ends of the earth”. Acts ends with the Apostle Paul awaiting trial before Caesar in Rome.
The second shift is personal:
Luke’s gospel focuses primarily on the life of Jesus himself. The story begins with Jesus’ birth and ends with his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The book of Acts focuses on the lives of Jesus’ followers in the years following his earthly ministry. To be sure, Jesus is still central to the story (in a divine sense), but has taken a step back from the immediate action (in a human sense). To put it another way, Jesus has become the director of the play, while the Apostles are the actors on the stage. The story of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension into heaven but doesn’t have a climactic end in the way you and I are used to thinking. I like to think this is because the story hasn’t ended yet. It goes on and on through the generations, right up until today. As followers of Christ, you and I have become the actors on the stage at this point in history!
Twice in today’s readings, Jesus calls his followers “witnesses”. What does that mean? Who qualifies as a witness? First, a witness is someone who experiences something important. Second, a witness is someone who tells others what she or he has seen and heard. In a courtroom, this is called a “testimony”. Sound familiar? It should.
As followers of Christ, you and I are witnesses to the things he has done. In the Scriptures, we already have the testimony of Jesus’ earliest followers, who knew him in the flesh. Two thousand years later, you and I haven’t had that opportunity. We know Jesus by faith, not by sight. Does that disqualify us from being witnesses? I don’t think so.
I believe that you and I can find our testimony as witnesses by paying attention to what Jesus has done (and is doing) in our lives. We can tell others what Jesus means to us. For some of us, our testimony might look like a dramatic conversion story. Maybe you have been “saved” from a life of self-destruction in a sudden way. If so, I encourage you to tell that story sometime. You never know when someone else might need to hear exactly what you have to say in order to make it through a crisis in their own life!
Those of us who haven’t had a dramatic conversion experience (including myself) still have a testimony to give. Many of us have experienced spiritual growth slowly over a long period of time. We may have had moments of sensing God’s presence with us in subtle ways. Gradually, we have learned (and are still learning) to trust that loving presence in our lives. If that’s you, I encourage you to tell your story as well. It might not be as dull as you think. Keep track of those little moments with God. Write them down. Like spare change in your couch cushions, they add up quickly!
Finally, some of you might be sitting there this morning and thinking, “I haven’t had any conscious experience of God in my life! What’s my testimony? How can I be a witness?” Well, there’s no time like the present to start looking for an answer to that question. If you want to have a deeper sense of God’s presence and activity in your life, you should ask for it in prayer. God has a tendency to answer that kind of honest prayer, provided that we keep an open mind for the unexpected ways in which God’s answer might come. If you would like to try an exercise in awareness, I suggest writing your life story in as much detail as you like. Then read back over it at a later date, asking God to show you where and how God was present in the events of your life. You might be surprised at what pops into your head as you begin to see old events in new ways!
You might not feel that your story is all that important, but I assure you: it is. As witnesses, our testimonies are the means through which God intends to spread Good News and transform the face of this earth. Jesus left this planet because he wanted to involve each one of us in the work of redeeming it. By telling your story about what Jesus means to you, you are allowing God to keep the Gospel alive in you.
So, go forth from this place today in the power of the Holy Spirit, as witnesses of our Savior Jesus Christ. Go to the very ends of the earth and testify to what you have seen and heard. Tell the world what Jesus means to you and watch the story continue for another generation. Amen.