“Acts of Witness, Mercy, Life Together” (Acts 4:32-35)
As many of you may know, for the last couple of years our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has been organizing its work under the banner of “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.” You can see the symbol that is being used for this emphasis on your bulletin insert, encircled by those three terms. But this is more than a slogan in a marketing campaign. No, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” really describes what the church does, whether on the national and international levels, as our synod operates, or on the local level, as, for instance, here at our own congregation.
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: I guess first we should define what we mean by these terms and how they’re being used. “Witness” means the testimony that is given, specifically, telling the good news about Jesus–bearing witness to Christ and the salvation that is found in him. “Mercy” is the term used to cover works of Christian love and service that benefit persons in need in a very practical way. And “Life Together” refers to the church’s common life as brothers and sisters in Christ, our unity as God’s family in the life that we share.
Now turn again to your bulletin insert, to the other side, and you’ll see a symbol for each one of these three terms, along with a corresponding Greek term from the New Testament. For “Witness” you see the Greek word “Martyria,” because “Witness” or “Testimony” is how that word is always translated. Next you see the word “Diakonia,” which is generally translated not as “Mercy” but as “Service.” However, “Diakonia” still is a good word to associate with the church’s works of mercy, since “diaconal” ministry is practical service done for the neighbor in need. Finally, you see the word “Koinonia,” “Fellowship,” the “Common Life,” the “Life Together” that the church shares. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: “Martyria, Diakonia, Koinonia.” Whichever way you say it, these words describe what we do and how we live as Christ’s church.
But then this is nothing new. In the Book of Acts, we see a church that can be characterized by those very same words. You know, we refer to that particular book of the New Testament as “The Book of Acts” or “The Acts of the Apostles.” But what kind of “Acts” were they? As we look at our text today, I think we will see that these “Acts” are “Acts of Witness, Mercy, Life Together.”
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: The church has operated in these three ways, going all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity. In our reading today from Acts 4, we encounter a brief description of the first church in Jerusalem, which goes as follows:
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: It’s all there, here in this one brief text. Let’s take these three terms, one at a time, and see how that works. As we do, we can also reflect on and realize how these three aspects of the church’s life apply to our own situation, as synod and as congregation today.
First, “Witness,” “Martyria.” We find this emphasis in verse 33 of our text: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The apostles were giving their “testimony.” That’s how the “martyria” word is translated in this verse, as “testimony.” The apostles were giving their “testimony” or “witness” . . . concerning what? “The apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” That’s why this text has been selected for use during this Easter season, because it shows the apostles bearing witness to the resurrection. You will see this in just about all the readings from Acts that are used in the Easter season–they all have to do with the church’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the heart of the Christian message. That Jesus died and rose again and what that means for us–this is the gospel itself. This gospel is what makes Christians. It’s what forms and gives life to and expands the church–the witness or testimony to the resurrection of Christ. You would not be a Christian and saved and going to heaven if it were not for this preaching of the Lord’s resurrection. There would be no church, no congregation or synod of congregations, if it were not for the apostolic witness to the resurrection.
Why? Because Jesus had to die for you if you were going to live. It is Jesus Christ, dying on the cross for you, as your substitute . . . it is the holy Son of God, dying for all the sins and all the sinners of the world, in our place, taking the punishment we deserve, the righteous for the unrighteous . . . it is this sacrificial death of Christ that is the only way any of us has redemption from the fallen sinful nature we share, forgiveness for the countless sins we commit, and righteousness to enter into God’s heaven. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus by definition means that Jesus rose from the dead. He died, and the reason he died was this: to save us from our sins and eternal death. The message of Christ’s resurrection is tied to the meaning of his death. But now has Christ arisen, and we rise with him! We rise to newness of life, and when that happens to a whole bunch of us, there is the church! “Witness,” then, “Martyria,” is essential to the formation and the expansion of the church.
Now this word “Witness” literally has to do with eyewitnesses, people giving testimony to things they themselves have seen and heard. Notice, it is the apostles who are giving their witness, because those men had literally seen the Lord Jesus risen from the dead. Thomas and the rest of the apostles actually saw and heard Jesus in person standing there in their midst. The apostle John starts his letter by speaking of that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands”–John is talking about Jesus himself, in the flesh–“we have seen it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life.” The apostles were literal eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ.
But we are not. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, standing in our midst, as those guys did. So does that mean the church now has no witness to give? By no means! We have the apostles’ own testimony in the pages of the New Testament. And we have seen and heard, too, in a sense. We see Christ with the eyes of faith that the Holy Spirit has given us. We hear the saving message that is still proclaimed to this day. Remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So, yes, the church today still gives witness, testimony, “martyria,” to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
And this witness is what fuels these other two aspects of the church’s life and work, namely, “Mercy” and “Life Together.” Let’s go next to “Mercy.” “Diakonia” is the word used, “Service,” but in the sense of diaconal service, that is, works of mercy. It’s right here in our text. Verses 34 and 35: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Now what’s the first thing you think of when you hear these verses? Be honest. That the early Christians were Communists? And that this was some sort of “failed experiment” that didn’t last? Wrong on both counts. The Christians were not Communists, or even Socialists. The difference is this: Communism or Socialism or forced governmental redistribution of wealth, taking people’s money away from them, against their will, and giving it to others: that is wrong, that is immoral, that is a form of stealing–it’s a form of involuntary servitude, really. But that is not what was going on here. No, the Christians’ helping of those in need was entirely voluntary. It was done out of love, the mercy engendered in Christians’ hearts by the mercy God has showered upon us. So this type of “redistribution of wealth” is very good, it is highly commendable, and it is true to the church’s character.
And no, this was not some “failed experiment” that didn’t last. This is how the church has always responded to human needs, with acts of Christian charity and love. We still do this today. Where there are people in need, the church will respond. For instance, when there was that terrible tornado in Joplin last year, our church responded big-time with the love of Jesus in the form of real physical and material help. When there are people in need here in our own community, especially in our own congregation, we help them out in whatever ways we can. Look around you. Do you see people with needs? Whom can you help? How can you help? Look also at the people who are not here this morning. What are their needs? Illness, loneliness, financial need? These are your opportunities, this week, this month–these are our opportunities as church–for putting into action acts of mercy done in Christ’s name.
“Witness.” “Mercy.” Finally, “Life Together.” “Koinonia” is the Greek term. It means “having things in common.” And that’s what we see in the Book of Acts. Verse 32: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
Now we’ve already said that the church “had everything in common,” in the sense of their willingness to give to those who were in need. But their Life Together, their Koinonia, was more than just shared wealth. The things that those Christians had in common, the things that we have in common, start with the things of God. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This is what we have in common. One bread, one cup, the body and blood of Christ–this Holy Communion, this Koinonia, is what makes us the communion of saints. These are the things we have in common–God’s gifts, the things of the gospel–that form us into a united community. And then the love and the mercy and the life together flow from that. “Those who believed were of one heart and soul.” That’s us, because our heart and soul are being knit together with cords of love, the love of God we all have received and believe.
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: It’s not just a slogan. It’s the banner under which we live and move and have our being. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: “Martyria, Diakonia, Koinonia.” Whichever way you say it, these are the “Acts” the church does, willingly and joyfully, in Christ, for the church and for the world.
– – – – – – – – – –
Witness, Mercy, Life Together
Tune: Rex gloriae
Witness, Mercy, Life Together,
Life in Christ, for Church and world;
Witness, Mercy, Life Together–
This shall be our flag unfurled!
Gathered, going, speaking, serving,
New life flowing from our Lord;
He shall feed us, onward lead us,
By His own life-giving Word.
Christ came down and dwelt among us,
Law and Prophets to fulfill;
Sent to save a world of sinners,
Jesus did the Father’s will.
Dying, rising, then ascending,
Christ is making all things new;
Pouring out His Spirit on us,
Christ now gives us work to do.
Witness bearing, Martyria,
Bold proclaiming of the truth;
Tongues of fire on each believer,
Now as in the Church’s youth.
Preaching, teaching, faith confessing,
Gospel reaching far and near;
Lord, we pray that You would open
Mouths to speak and ears to hear.
Mercy works, Diakonia,
Service done in Jesus’ name;
Hearts so moved with His compassion
For the poor, the weak, the lame.
Giving, caring, helping, healing,
Love that takes the lower place;
May our lives of humble service
Show the riches of God’s grace.
Life Together, Koinonia,
Sharing in a common birth;
Fellowship, with Christ the center,
We His body here on earth.
Growing, bearing fruit, forgiving,
Brothers living all as one;
Breaking bread, the Lord’s Communion,
Life eternal now begun.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Triune God, whom we adore,
Source of all the Church’s blessings,
Praise to You forevermore!
Guarding, guiding, still providing,
For our mission is Your own:
Witness, Mercy, Life Together–
Glory be to You alone!
Text: © 2011 Charles Henrickson
Tune: REX GLORIAE (LSB 494, 583) 87 87 D