Witness Not Speculate

by Gerald Donovan,

First United Methodist Church,

The time then came for his full enthronement at the Father’s right hand. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is enthroned at the right hand of the Father as Lord and Judge of the living and the dead. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and he exercises that authority fully in preparation for the day when he returns to complete the renewal of all things.

As the Messiah floats above them, ready to be drawn upward into a cloud on the way to heaven, he warns the assembled apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which will follow, as promised. To their question about the possibility that at last the “kingdom of Israel” is about to be restored, Jesus retorts tartly, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Even after the resurrection it is apparent that the earliest followers of the faith are in danger of asking the wrong questions! God has God’s own time for restorations, says Jesus. We have other work to do, as will now be made clear in Acts 1:8: “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.”

You shall receive power – and shall be witnesses to me – That is, you shall be empowered to witness my Gospel, both by your preaching and suffering. Jesus then gives them, and us, our marching orders. And Luke follows in later chapters of Acts that general outline as he tells his series of dramatic tales, beginning with the Spirit’s descent in Jerusalem in chapter 2 and ending with Paul’s open preaching in Rome in chapter 28, the “end of the earth” of the Roman world in which Luke lives.

But do they, or we, head off to fulfill the command? Hardly! We are too captivated by the ascending Jesus, our necks strain as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out “I love you.” But, suddenly, two men “stood near them”(Acts 1:10). “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go,’ and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you don’t need to ask any more questions about when. “When” is simply not the right question to ask.

Why in heaven’s name do so many Christians spend vast amounts of time, excessive amounts of energy, wild amounts of speculation, asking precisely that very question? We have been asked to be his witnesses to the world, not his calculators for his return. It remains a thorough mystery to me why this is so, and has been throughout all Christian history.

But I suppose I do know the answer. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of money, while predicting a certain time for Jesus’ return or the end of the world. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As the first chapter of Acts makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.

I see in my minds eyes as Jesus is ascending to the Father’s right side, Jesus shouting to his disciples, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)…“30 love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31 … love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

Remember this if nothing else!