Psalm 47; Acts 1:1-12
We spend a lot of time and effort in the church on the
front end of the gospel – the Christmas story – and a lot on
Easter, but not much on the very end. What the Church
calls the Ascension. We breeze past it on our way to
Pentecost and on into summer.
At the start of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which
is a continuation of the gospel of Luke, we are given a
window into the last moments of Jesus. His final words
are an instruction, uttered just before he ascends to heaven
– or “goes up with a shout” in the words of psalmist.
“So when they had come together, they asked Jesus,
‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the
kingdom to Israel?’”
The disciples indicate here that they don’t quite
understand the point of the resurrection of Jesus, let alone
his entire ministry. They’re conflating their own desire for
power in the worldly sense with what Jesus has in mind.
“Jesus replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or
periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come
upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was
lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts
It is a dramatic ending, and clearly not what the followers
of Jesus expected or wanted. You will be my witnesses to
the ends of the earth. Not The kingdom will be restored to
Israel, and you will be back on top very soon.
The words in Acts echo the Great Commission – the other
final, gospel-ending story – at the conclusion of Matthew’s
gospel, where Jesus tells his followers:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey
everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew
Nothing there, either, that would have satisfied the
disciples’ desire for a return to power. Both of these final
scenes offer evidence one last time that Jesus is not
interested in earthly power. His hope is to change the
world in another way – by sharing the reality of the love
and justice of God. Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and
resurrection constitute good news the likes of which the
world had never seen or heard before. The story needs
telling. Who will be a witness?
Christianity is not meant to be kept secret, although many
of us treat it like that. We rarely talk about it. We could
work closely with someone and never know they were
persons of faith and active in a local church. We could go
to neighborhood gatherings over the years and never
mention that we’re members or leaders in a local
Are we embarrassed by our faith? You may have heard
the line: Preach the gospel at all times; if you must, use
words. I’m afraid that lets us off the hook too easily. Of
course, we should show our faith in how we live and in
our decisions, but we can also use words. Why the
reluctance? Would it feel as if we were boasting? Are we
afraid of being taken for “one of those kinds of religious
I admire my Roman Catholic and Jewish colleagues whose
clothing or head coverings give them away. Like a Muslim
woman in a hijab, they have no choice but to be public
about their religion by the way they appear. I can get
away with passing as “normal” and non-threatening.
When I meet a new person, I often avoid saying what I do
for a living because when they hear it, it often cuts off
conversation. Sometimes that can be a good thing. Maybe
we should strategically deploy the mention of our faith.
My dad, who was also a Presbyterian minister, once went
golfing with three strangers in Scotland. He was a visitor
to the course, and they needed someone to complete a
foursome. The three were raucous guys, drinking on the
course, using foul language, telling off-color stories – and
they kept asking my dad what he did for a living. He
managed to avoid the question for the first nine holes.
But on the second nine, they insisted he tell them. Not
being one to prevaricate, he finally said he was “in the life
insurance business.” They asked the company name. My
dad thought for a moment and said, “Eternal Life.”
“Hmmm,” they said, “Never heard of it.”
It was a very close game that day on the course. As they
were teeing up on the 18th hole, my dad finally told them
he was a Presbyterian minister. Needless to say, he won
the golf game.
There’s a time and a place for witnessing to our faith, and
even in that story there’s a kernel of what Jesus was
aiming at: to be a witness to Jesus and his way should
shake things up a bit.
The biblical Greek for witness is martyr. Its original
meaning was simply someone who had seen or
experienced something about which they were willing to
speak and tell others, and in the case of the early church,
that meant talking about Jesus of Nazareth. But as
persecutions of Christians began spreading through the
Roman Empire, the followers of Jesus who were witnesses
in places where that was prohibited were often arrested
and, if they refused to recant, put to death. Martyr then
became connected to dying for your faith.
Witnessing was dangerous business because it pointed to
an alternate reality outside the control of the powers of the
time. The first Christian martyr mentioned in scripture is
Stephen, also known as the first deacon selected to serve
the church. Stephen was simply a witness, and a good one
at that. Read about him in the 6th and 7th chapters of Acts.
He couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, so they stoned him
to death – the first martyr, as we understand the term
today – to try to silence the good news of which he was an
The biblical standard for witnessing to the faith, and that
of the first Christians, is this: Does the story you’re telling,
the life you’re living, challenge the way earthly power is
being used against God’s intentions for human
community? Does your witnessing get you in “good
That standard, which held for the first three centuries of
the Church, changed abruptly for the early church in the
year 312 when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted
to Christianity and decreed that henceforth it would be the
religion of the empire. The church left the streets and
villages and the edges of acceptability and came inside. Its
role, which had been to critique the world around it,
shifted largely to only being about spiritual matters and
theological disputes. It was subsumed by political power
and eventually became indistinguishable from empire –
and the church has been burdened by its association with
empire and colonial power ever since.
Whether in the creation of feudal systems that oppressed
illiterate masses in the Middle Ages the Church was there,
or in the conquest of indigenous lands the Church was
there, or in the enslavement of African people the Church
was there providing theological rationale, or in the
exclusion of LGBTQ folk or the pushing aside of
differently-abled persons or the control of women and
their bodies, the Christian Church – or at least large parts
of it – has been there, colluding with empire and
embracing power that Jesus simply would not have
recognized, let along condoned.
Maybe that’s why sometimes we don’t want to out
ourselves as Christians. Who wants to be part of such a
The power Jesus refers to in Acts gives his followers the
courage to witness to a reality outside empire – where
dreams and angels are found, where a rainbow is a
promise, where a boy uses a slingshot to fell a mythical
giant, where water springs up in the desert and dry land
rejoices, where a child who is God-with-us is born in a
garage behind a cheap motel to poor unwed parents,
where those shunted aside are now included, where
justice rolls down like waters, where healing happens and
miracles abound and death is defeated by death itself and
life breaks free of the tomb.
That power gives birth to the Church. That power
summons those who would follow Jesus to give witness to
it, no matter what it costs them. That power springs from
love that cannot be kept at bay by forces at work in this
The Black spiritual that asks who will be a witness for my
Lord? was sung by enslaved Africans and their
descendants. They were on the receiving end of abuse by
white society and its churches and economy, but the song
knew something else. The song knew that the power God
gives is beyond the reach of empire. In fact, it resists
empire and subverts it. That story is gospel, and it needs
telling, and in telling it and singing it and living it and
trusting it, hope emerges. And that hope begins to bring
the alternative reality of the reign of God to life among us.
Who will be a witness?
My grandmother, a faithful Baptist woman in small town
Indiana, my mother’s mother, was among the first people
outside my immediate family I was aware of who
intentionally witnessed to the love of God. Like a good
Baptist. She was a bona fide church lady, that is, her life
centered around worship and Bible study and care for
others. After my grandfather died, for the next 40 years
she regularly made the rounds to those in need. Into her
90s she visited the “elderly” and those who were
homebound – all because she felt compelled to tell the
story. She was a witness, and I am here today at least in
part because of her courage to follow Jesus.
At last week’s memorial service for Walter Mondale the
family asked me to speak about the formative influences
that shaped his life and service. Others, they said, would
cover his contributions to Civil Rights and the women’s
movement and stewardship of the earth. My role was to
talk about the source of his commitments.
Like many of his fellow Westminster members, Fritz
Mondale did not wear his religion on his sleeve, but that
did not make him any less a witness to the gospel values
of justice and equity, humility, and mutual love. His life
and public service were steeped in biblical values. When
the Carter-Mondale ticket lost reelection in 1980, Fritz
summed up their administration by saying, simply: We
told the truth. We obeyed the law. We kept the peace. That
may not be a recipe for political victory in America, then
or today, but it is testimony to gospel values.
Because of its position and privilege, Westminster can find
it challenging to follow Jesus – to be a witness. We’re the
largest Protestant church downtown and one of the largest
churches in the denomination. We inhabit a prominent,
iconic building on Main Street Minnesota. We count
among our members public figures, a US senator, leaders
of business, medicine, and higher education. We have an
abundance of resources.
Before I came to serve this congregation Dan Little, the
wonderful, insightful transitional pastor here for two
years was a good friend. One day before I began here, he
gave me advice that I have remembered: “This place can
be seductive. Be careful.”
That was not advice only for me, but for this historic
congregation. What he meant was that a congregation like
Westminster can forget that it is following Jesus, and not
the way of the world. With all the trappings of success we
can get confused and lose our way. The power of the
world extracts and consumes and maintains the status quo
and competes to win; in contrast, the power Jesus gives
opens up and lets go and centers those on the margins and
has love of neighbor at its core.
As Westminster re-opens its building and re-animates its
on-site ministries, and the city comes back to life after twoplus
years of isolation and slow-down, we will need to
resist the temptation to go back to old habits for their own
sake, and instead discover how God is at work in us to
give us the courage to follow Jesus in new ways.
There is no reason for us to be ashamed of our Christian
faith. It should not be kept secret. We can even speak of it
to others. But we must take care not to weaponize it for
purposes antithetical to the gospel.
Who will be a witness? Who will be a witness?
Why not this thriving downtown congregation in one of
America’s great cities, this church that longs to participate
in God’s unfolding love and justice?
Who will be a witness? Who will be a witness?
Why not us?
Thanks be to God.