Eyewitness Good News
Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-8
On April 15, 1920, two people were carrying a payroll in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were robbed and murdered, with $16,000 stolen. There were three eyewitnesses to the crime. While they agreed that two men had committed the crime, they differed in some significant details, such as whether the murderers had light skin or dark, and whether one of them had a moustache or not. The police soon arrested two men. One was a shoe salesman named Nicola Sacco, the other was a fish peddler named Bartolomeo Vanzetti. At the trial Sacco presented evidence that he had been in the passport office on the day of the crime, and Vanzetti offered evidence supporting his claim that he was selling fish in Plymouth, Massachusetts on that day. But the eyewitnesses, in spite of their differences, agreed that these two men committed the crime. The jury listened to all the evidence and chose to place a greater weight on the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the crime than on the other conflicting pieces of evidence. As a result, on August 23, 1927, Socco and Vanzetti, still proclaiming their innocence, were executed. I tell you that story simply to underscore the importance of eyewitnesses in our criminal justice system.
But what I want you to know also is that the Bible frequently underscores the importance of eyewitnesses in spiritual matters. Luke, for example, in the introduction to his Gospel, says that he is going to record what has been said by eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus. And in the second of Luke’s writings, the Acts of the Apostles, he notes that Jesus’ final words to His disciples were these: “You shall be my witnesses.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “You have seen and heard and know what my ministry is all about—now, tell others about it.” You see, right from the very beginning, the growth of the Church, the worldwide expansion of Christianity, has depended upon the witnessing of those who know Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit, of course, is the ultimate source of the Church’s growth, but the fact is that the Holy Spirit chooses to work through the witness of Christians like you and me. Today, then, I want us to examine the distinguishing marks of an effective eyewitness for the Good News of the Gospel…
The first mark is character.
An effective eyewitness for the Gospel must be a person of good character. There must be some harmony between the person’s witness and the person’s life. What you say on behalf of Jesus Christ ought to reflect the way you live for Jesus Christ. Good character is a critical element in sharing the Good News.
The incident was so outlandish that it would have been funny if it had not been so sad. You remember the incident, here in Orlando, where there was a case before the courts involving a convicted murderer from death row. The defense attorney, supposedly in an effort to help his client, subpoenaed other inmates from death row to testify as what he called “character witnesses” for his client. So in a circus-like atmosphere of extraordinary security and media coverage, these convicted murderers were wheeled into court to testify. It was ludicrous. It was absurd on the face of it. Here were men whose lives were built on lying and cheating and killing and stealing, and now the court and the general public were being asked to believe that their testimony was truthful. The way they lived rendered invalid anything they might say. Because they lived in darkness, their testimony was clouded and shadowed. A good witness, you see, lives a good life with good character.
I am much taken with the role Lech Walesa continues to play in the politics of Poland. He was just an ordinary shipyard worker, but he started the solidarity movement and has sought to bring freedom to his enslaved nation. In recent weeks, he has appeared on our television screens quite regularly. What strikes me about him is that no matter how the crowds press in about him, no matter how the police heckle him or abuse him, no matter how reporters take pictures of him and throw questions at him, he always remains magnificently calm and composed. I understand that calm composure, having read his testimony of faith in a book called The Courage of Conviction. At one point he states: “Even when I go to church, they take pictures of me. I don’t object to that, I go to church to pray. God is the center of my life and prayer is the key of my life. The clicking of cameras does not keep me from my prayers. Some say that I do this to gain public attention, but it is not so. My religion comes from my heart, and anyone who knows me will see it show through.” It does show through, doesn’t it, in the strength and courage and character of this man. He is just an ordinary man, yes, but he is an extraordinary witness to his Lord. A good and effective eyewitness to the Good News of the Gospel requires good character.
The second mark is conviction.
An effective eyewitness must have a genuine sense of conviction arising from a first-hand experience with the subject of the testimony. In other words, you cannot testify to that which has not happened to you. If you wish to share the Good News of the Gospel with others, then you must have a fresh, vibrant and powerful relationship with Jesus Christ in your own life. There must be conviction. There must be a first-hand experience of Jesus Christ in your life.
One day, back in my first pastorate in Kilgore, Texas, I went to the barbershop to get a haircut. There were three barbers there, and five or six customers. One of the other customers was Dan Morgan, the Disciples of Christ minister in town—an older man whom I came to love and admire. I don’t remember what prompted the conversation, but I remember acknowledging that I was a minister and I remember mumbling something about my faith. It wasn’t much of a witness. Dan Morgan was sitting in the chair next to me, and he chimed in with his own witness. It was a beautiful witness, and he let it out, not subtly as I had done, but with zeal and enthusiasm. When he finished, he got up out of the barber’s chair, the white sheet still hanging about him, and he said to me: “Get out of that chair and come down here with me and let’s pray for these people.” I was so shocked that I did what he said. We knelt down there in the midst of all the hair clippings. He then asked if there were other Christians there. One of the barbers said he was, and so did one of the customers. He got them to kneel down with us. Then he prayed. No one else in the barber shop laughed; no one left; no one buried his head in the newspaper. Everybody listened. Later, outside the shop, I said to Dan Morgan: “I don’t know that I could do what you did, but I appreciated the enthusiasm of your witness.” The old preacher put his arm about my shoulder and said: “Son, those of us who have been there have got to take those who haven’t been there by the hand.” I have never forgotten that. Those of us who have been there, those of us who have experienced first-hand the saving, redeeming, forgiving, empowering presence of Jesus Christ in our lives—we have got to take those who have not been there by the hand. Yes, an effective witness to the Good News is one who testifies to a first-hand experience of Jesus Christ in life.
The third mark is concentration.
An effective eyewitness to the Gospel must concentrate, must focus solely on that which is true. An effective eyewitness must concentrate on speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, that is not always easy to do.
I got a letter from a friend the other day in which she was questioning our church’s heavy emphasis on growth and evangelism and personal salvation. She wrote: “I believe that the way to evangelize which is most compatible and most consistent with our Presbyterian-Reformed heritage is through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. in the name and spirit of Christ.” Now the church ought to be engaged in ministries of compassion. Our church is, and always will be. However, she was wrong about our Presbyterian-Reformed heritage. Right from the beginning, our Presbyterian-Reformed heritage has given priority to our witness with words. John Calvin, our spiritual ancestor, constantly fought against what he called “the problem of Nicodemism” in the church. The label came from Nicodemus, the man who came to Jesus by night, the man who came under cover of dark, the man who did not want anyone else to know his feelings about Jesus. John Calvin said that he despaired of these “Nicodemists” in the church, people who want to believe with their hearts and act with their deeds, without confessing with their lips. John Knox declared that our witness with words takes precedence over all other forms of witness. Karl Barth, the great Reformed theologian of this century, said that the first priority of the church is bearing witness with words to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. My friends, that is our Presbyterian heritage.
The secret of the Presbyterian Church’s strength and vitality in years gone by rested in its ability to put the Good News of the Gospel into words in such a way that the Holy Spirit could use those words to bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. It rested in the fact that Presbyterians in the pews were not afraid to share their faith with their neighbors. Back in the late 1940’s, for example, the Presbyterian Church set out to train 100,000 people to share their faith. They did it! The goal, the motto of that group was this: “A saved soul in a saved body in a saved community.” (Isn’t that great? I’d like to make that the motto for our evangelism in this church.) Well, they trained those 100,000 people and over the next three or four years, those people won nearly 800,000 new people to Christ and to the Presbyterian Church. That is our Presbyterian-Reformed heritage.
Today the Presbyterian Church in this country is in decline. Each year for the last twenty years, we have lost an average of nearly 60,000 members—a total of more than 1.2 million members. That decline is directly attributable to the fact that we have forgotten the importance of our Christian witness—we have forgotten the necessity for sharing our faith with others. If that rate of decline continues, in 30-40 years the Presbyterian Church will cease to exist. That is a matter of great concern to me. I hope it is to you. I want our children and grandchildren to have the same privilege we have—that of belonging to the Presbyterian part of the Body of Christ. It is time for us as Presbyterians to reclaim our heritage.
In St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, if you stand beneath the great dome and look up into it, you will see inscribed around the inside of the dome the words from Matthew 16: “Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” I think there ought to be another verse up there as well: John l:41—”And Andrew found his brother Peter and brought him to Jesus.” You see, without Andrew, there would have been no Peter. That is evangelism. And that should be the great zeal and passion of the church—to proclaim Jesus Christ with power, to lead people to repentance: to invite them to claim His full deity and the power of His resurrection; to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; to speak of sin and the Saviour and salvation as the whole Gospel for the whole world. An effective eyewitness for the Good News needs to concentrate on speaking that truth.
The fourth mark is consistency.
An effective eyewitness must share the Good News and never stop telling the Good News. An eyewitness must have the perseverance to keep on keeping on. We need to remember that, because, you see, many things that we think happen in a moment do not happen in a moment at all. I remember the first time anyone ever responded to my preaching by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. I remember talking with that person afterward and learning all the things that had worked together in that person’s life and brought him to that moment. There had been the influence and encouragement of two close friends. There had been the reading of a magazine article. There had been a visit by a hospital chaplain during a time of illness. God had orchestrated all of the events in that man’s life to prepare him for the moment when he would respond to the call of Christ with his own commitment.
There is a beautiful little story about a sparrow who was talking to a dove. The sparrow said to the dove: “How much does a snowflake weigh?” The dove replied: “A snowflake weighs nothing more than nothing.” The sparrow said: “Well, then I had a remarkable experience this morning. I was sitting on the branch of a fir tree close to the trunk. It began to snow, and because I had nothing else to do, I counted the snowflakes as they landed on the branch where I was sitting. I counted 3,741,952 snowflakes. Then one more snowflake fell. As you said, it weighs nothing more than nothing. But as soon as it touched the branch, the branch broke and fell to the ground.” With that, the sparrow flew away. The dove sat there thinking for a moment and then said: “Perhaps only one voice more, only one witness more will be enough to save a soul or to save a world.” That is the reason we must keep on keeping on with our evangelism. That is the reason we must tell the story of Jesus and keep on telling the story of Jesus and never stop telling the story of Jesus. For it may take only one word more…