Jesus told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses,” and then ascended into heaven. They had a reason for being, as do all disciples of Jesus.
Jonathan R. Hein
In philosophy it is called one’s raison d’être, literally “reason for being.” It is the activity that justifies a thing’s existence. To put it another way, if something is not fulfilling its raison d’être, it may as well not exist.
Consider the piano sitting in the corner of a living room. You must have some justification for it being there. Maybe someone is taking lessons. Perhaps, at Christmas, your family gathers around it to sing favorite hymns. Maybe no one in your home plays piano. You keep it around simply because it reminds you of your grandparents, to whom it used to belong. In that case, the piano’s raison d’être is to serve as a memento. The point is, something justifies allowing that piano to take up space. If not, you would have gotten rid of it.
Our reason for being
So, what is the raison d’être of your congregation? What is the “reason for being” of our synod? What is the activity that justifies our existence?
Now make it personal. What do you see as your individual purpose for existence? What is the thing that if you aren’t doing it you might as well not be alive?
The answer to those questions is connected to one of the great celebrations of the church—the Festival of the Ascension. When Jesus’ ascended and sat down on the throne of heaven, it was not like me plopping into my recliner after a long day. Jesus did not ascend to relax. He ascended as he took up the full use of his divine power. Now he directs all things for the good of the church as it carries out its mission.
And what is that exactly? Shortly before Jesus ascended, he told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That was their “reason to be.” If they were not going to be witnesses, there was no reason for them to be alive anymore.
Two millennia later, the believer’s raison d’être has not changed. It is the most universal of Christian callings. Not every Christian will be called by God to be a spouse or a parent. Not every Christian will be called to serve publicly as a pastor, teacher, staff minister, or missionary. Not every Christian will serve as a Sunday school teacher or on the church council. But all of us are called to be witnesses as opportunities present themselves. We know those opportunities will present themselves, for Jesus does not lie. “You will be my witnesses.”
Our unique qualifications
“But I’m not qualified,” some will object. Nonsense! Jesus did not say, “You will be my theologians.” Witnesses! Jesus is not asking us to do something complicated. You do not need a Masters of Divinity degree to witness. A witness simply shares what he has seen and heard. A witness shares experiential information.
For example, I understand that the wings of an airplane create lift, but I do not have a good grasp on exactly how that works. However, I have observed planes flying. I have experienced it, as I have flown plenty of times myself. So, while I am not qualified to give a lecture on aeronautics, I am plenty qualified to say, “If you need to travel a long way, flying is the way to go!” It’s experiential information.
So maybe you cannot recite all the books of the Bible. Perhaps you can’t explain the meaning of every one of Jesus’ parables. That does not disqualify you from witnessing. You know Jesus died for your sins. You know that he rose again. Since you know those things, you have experienced peace, certain that hell is not in your future and that the gate to Paradise stands wide open. Witness about that.
You might not be able to give the catechism explanation of what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name.” But you know you can pray. Moreover, you have experienced the comfort of being able to carry your problems to Christ through prayer. Witness to that.
Do you remember what it was like when your child was baptized? You observed God claim that child as his own through water and the Word. You did not understand the nature of faith that the Spirit created in your child. Even one who has his master’s of divinity doesn’t understand that! But you experienced the joy of knowing your child was now wrapped in spiritual armor, perfectly safe for all eternity. Tell others about that joy!
The world needs our witness
“You will be my witnesses.” Why has Jesus made this every believer’s “reason for being”? Because witnessing is what the world needs most. The world we live in is dark. It needs believers to be light. The world is rotting. It needs believers to be salt. This world is nothing but death. It needs believers to share the One who is life.
The world desperately needs witnesses of the power of the gospel. If you are not witnessing—to your children, your friends, your neighbors—then, frankly, why are you breathing? If your congregation is not witnessing—to the faithful and the straying and the lost in your community—then why does it even exist?
Martin Luther said it well:
We live on earth only so that we should be a help to other people. Otherwise, it would be best if God would strangle us and let us die as soon as we were baptized and had begun to believe. For this reason, however, he lets us live that we may bring other people also to faith as he had done for us. Luther’s Works Vol. 30, p. 11.
Luther well knew that Christians can glorify Christ in many ways across multiple vocations. But it would be a gross perversion of the doctrine of the vocation to say, “Because I serve God as a faithful teacher, farmer, or physician, I don’t need to be a witness to my next-door neighbor.” That’s using our vocation to justify refusing to share our faith.
Chances are that at times—maybe oftentimes—we have lived as though our “reason for being” has been something other than witnessing. Ascension helps there too. Do you think Jesus would have ascended if your salvation were incomplete? Unthinkable! Jesus ascended only because he knew he had made atonement for every last sin, including the sin of failing to witness—of denying our “reason for being.” When the Father looks at you, he sees people who have bold in proclaiming his truth.
The faith that embraces Christ’s promise of forgiveness then also embraces Christ’s promise of function. “You will be my witnesses.” He ascended and sat down on the throne of God to make it so! He orchestrates our lives so that we might have the privilege of witnessing . . . the joy of playing a role in his saving work. Moreover, he gives us the power to do what he has asked. More on that next month.
Jonathan Hein, director of WELS Congregational Counseling, is a member at Trinity, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
This is the first of a two-part series on the necessity of Christian witnessing.
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Author: Jonathan R. Hein
Volume 105, Number 5
Issue: May 2018
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