Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Complete the Task

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20.24)


Both Walt and I were reared in evangelically skewed traditions, his more so than mine. (Q: What sect gets the most grief from pundits and comedians for passing out literature door-to-door? A: The one he grew up in.) As kids, we were dragged out for regular “witnessing” excursions. Walt’s weekly forays happened on Saturday mornings, prime cartoon time for kids, explaining why our DVD collection is stocked to the gills with old “Flinstones” and “Jetsons” episodes. My church set aside one Saturday afternoon each month for similar activities. Being the pastor’s son made attendance compulsory, ruling out a lot of things I’d rather have done. Both of us resented being forced to “witness.” Now that we’re older, we laugh at the corkscrew logic in asking total strangers to stop what they’re doing so we could try to convert them. Witnessing in this paradigm disregarded others’ time and beliefs. On one hand, it didn’t reflect Christ’s gentle hospitality. On the other, impinging on people who believed in Jesus (just not “our way”) surely struck them as silly—selling ice to Eskimos, as they say.

There is no doubt we are called to witness. The Great Commission, Jesus’s final charge to His followers, comes down to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28.19) And in His salutary remarks before ascending into Heaven, He explicitly states the Holy Spirit enables our witness: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) Yet neither of these statements—nor, for that matter, anything Jesus says about spreading the Gospel—implies witnessing should be reduced to one-on-one marketing campaigns or neighborhood canvasses. If only it were that easy, we’d gladly soak swollen knuckles after a hard day of door-knocking! There’s more to making disciples and being witnesses than pounding the pavement to distribute magazines or invite people to church. Witnessing is less about telling than showing. That re-centers our focus from what we say to who we are.

Unpredictable Circumstances

While anonymous evangelism sometimes proves successful, compared to exemplary witness, its effectiveness is markedly lower. Speaking as a stranger to strangers removes credibility from the equation. They don’t know if we live by our lines; we don’t know if what we say resonates. Thankfully, though, it’s also fairly harmless. At worst, it creates awkward situations. Witnessing by example, in contrast, often puts us in unpredictable circumstances—in places where actively portraying Christ’s principles subverts popular opinion, among people who read non-conformity as an overt threat. To obey Christ’s commission to enter and live in the world as His witnesses means we won’t avoid this. Nor should we try.

In Acts 20, we see Paul doing just as Jesus commanded: traveling far and wide, making disciples. Being a public figure whose reputation precedes him, he's well known by Christians, their antagonists, and many non-believers. The Apostle's itinerary is grueling. He darts about the Aegean by boat, docking in a new port nearly every day. He plans to travel inland to Ephesus, but it’s soon apparent he’s spread too thin. Hoping to return to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, he asks the Ephesians to meet him in Miletus, a coastal village. During his talk with them, Paul offers a most revealing comment about witnessing. He says he’s “compelled by the Spirit” (v22) to go to Jerusalem, uncertain what may happen there. All he knows is the Holy Spirit warns him he faces prison and hardships wherever he goes. This doesn’t deter him, though. His sole objective is to “finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (v24)

Lives We Lead

Paul’s ministry is extraordinary—unparalleled then and now. His task is not. It’s the same task Christ gives everyone who follows Him. He calls each of us to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. That’s how disciples make disciples. And our effectiveness rests completely how well we witness the miracle of grace in our own lives. In Paul’s case, the spark that sets his witness ablaze is his turnabout on the Damascus Road. His supernatural encounter with the Risen Christ irrevocably changes and redirects his life. Yet his testimony of the event meets with much skepticism, even causing some to question Paul’s apostolic bona fides. Intense awareness of God’s grace constantly fuels his witness. The flame never flickers. That establishes his credentials and accounts for his success. Paul cops to his weaknesses, admitting faults in almost every letter he writes. With outsized ego chief among them, it’s safely said his motives surpass polite self-deprecation. Paul can’t stop pointing out his shortcomings because He’s awestruck by grace.

Conversion experiences are important. But since they’re given to us specifically for us, it’s highly possible they’ll be viewed with reservation when we share them. Our word isn’t reliable. That’s why Jesus calls us to be His witnesses. We testify to His grace with open lives that passionately embrace God’s acceptance and mercy for everyone who believes. The Casting Crowns song posted here last Friday summarizes it beautifully: “It’s not because of who I am. It’s because of what You’ve done. It’s not because of what I’ve done. It’s because of Who You are.” Once that becomes the music of our souls, what it means will emerge in our attitudes and actions. Paul is right. Jerusalem is full of religious types to doubt our conversion. There will always be someone who challenges our faith. We can’t tell them any different, because we needn’t tell them anything. The gospel of grace isn’t imparted in what we say. It’s witnessed in lives we lead. The Lord Jesus entrusts each of us with this. We must complete the task.

Our witness isn’t in words; it’s in lives that reveal the grace God gives.


grant said...

(Please imagine a smile on my face and a gentle tone as I write this - I fear it sounds angry, but it's not intended to be. I guess this is a hot-button issue with me so I do speak rather directly about it:)

When did Christians begin confusing that word "witnessing" with "heralding?"

In non-religious use, a witness is someone who is ASKED to tell what they believe to be true from their own experience. Paul talks about being ready to give an ANSWER, but with gentleness and respect etc...

But so many religionists have turned that into what you describe - this door knocking, interruptive (or worse, in-your-face) thing now called "witnessing." So silly.

Worse yet, many Christians will try to manipulate conversations around to "faith" and "belief" so they can find an excuse to jump into their preconceived patter or conversion formula. They've been told over and over that they must do this to "witness", as if their own salvation depends on it... And to save sinners from burning forever in eternal hell-fire.... That failing to do this is denying Christ. It's all so manipulative.

No wonder people turn and run the other way.

I loved your comment about why you own all the Saturday morning cartoons on DVD! Hilarious. Thanks again for a thoughtful post!

Tim said...

Grant, you make me smile. I've been rehearsing Jesus's ministry in my head. Without picking up the Word and sorting through it, I don't recall Him ever knocking on anyone's door or standing on a corner trying to put materials in someone's hand. He invites Himself to dinner a couple times, but that's about it.

Jesus made Himself available to anyone who wanted to talk to Him. And in the parable of the great banquet, He sends us into to the "highways and hedges" to "compel" people to come to the feast. At first, this sounds a lot like door-knocking--until we note who comes: the sick and homeless, i.e., people who need shelter. That puts us back at availability and need. The Gospel is there for everyone, a standing invitation.

What we hear Jesus say most of often is "Whosoever will let Him come" and "Anyone who would come after Me" and "Follow Me." These are self-starting behaviors.

I feel like I'm dancing around this a bit, but hope you get the gist of it. In a nutshell, compelling people happens when they see grace at work in us; coercing is when we try and force them to come.

Thanks for another insightful reply (as always).


claire said...

I agree, I think, with everything you wrote, which makes it difficult for me to add anything.

Well... two things come to my mind:

1. A Liberian friend of mine likes to say that we may be the only Bible people who meet us will ever read.

2. Our Christian-ness maybe should be like some brownies just out of the oven; the fabulous smell makes you snatch one. Or like a fabulous Chicken Curry: you have to take a spoon to get a taste of it.

Donner envie. ...

genevieve said...

Jesus never forced himself on anyone. Many people came or were drawn to Him. It runs consistent throughout the gospels.

Being available to others is important because it doesn't leave them with no one or nowhere to turn to.

Tim said...

Claire, you're being here is in itself a great addition to the post. I've also heard the proverb about our lives being the only Bible many people will read. It resonates very strongly with me.

I very much like the sensory aspects you bring to the picture. Scripture tells us we should present ourselves as a "sweet-smelling savor" to God--surely some of that should waft others' ways. And being "tasty" is a goal to which we should all aspire. I imagine we've all had the experience of looking a beautiful dish, only to find it surprisingly bland or undercooked or terribly seasoned. There's a lesson there...

Whenever meet someone who's life is filled with aromatic grace and superbly seasoned, I too experience a bit of "holy" envy...

And see? You've added much here! Ainsi j'ai une petite peu d'envie!

Joy and peace always,

Tim said...

Genevieve, you get us to the crux of the matter--gentle availability. If we witness His love and mercy, people will drawn to us much as they were to Him. We become the shining lights He speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount--to use one of your favorite metaphors, lighthouses in the storm.

Of course, this expects a high level of selflessness from us, making time to minister to those drawn to our light. But that's also what makes our witness task a privilege, which I believe Paul would avidly agree with.

Thank you, as always, for adding to this. It's always a joy to hear from you!

Blessings always,