Friday, 8 May 2009

Acts 1:8 - The Medium IS the message

The following was preached at an evening service prior to an Easter Vestry (Parish AGM) meeting:

In 1964 a book was published called “Understanding Media: The Extension of Man” by Marshall McLuhan. In it he explores the effect of media and technology on mankind. The book was a cult book of its time and in it we come across the phrase “the medium is the message”. Now I may be completely misunderstanding what this was meant to convey but from my reading of it, it means that often it is not the message people remember first – even though that may be the most important part of what is trying to be communicated – but the way or means the message is put across. In other words the medium is what tends to be the first – and sometimes last – point of impact.

The example I can think of to illustrate this is that sometimes we remember the jingle or the joke of an advert before we remember what it is being advertised. For example two of my favourite adverts are the one with the gorilla playing drums to Phil Colin’s song “In the air tonight” (I still think it is a real gorilla) or the girl and boy making facial expressions in time with a mobile phone ringtone. I can’t for the life of me remember what they both were advertising but I remember the performances – the medium they were presented in.

What has this got to do with Christianity? For years I have been consumed with trying to find different and effective ways of communicating the good news about Jesus. One of my favourite texts – one which has become my ministry Mission Statement along with Matthew 28:19ff – is Acts 1:8 where Jesus tells his disciples that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on them and (they) will be (his) witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

Now I have read and re-read and prayed and preached those two passages dozens of times over the thirty one years I have been a Christian. I have copied them out, meditated on them, discussed them and heard them preached to me over and over again. I have compared different translations of the passages, read the Greek and checked them up with various different commentaries by various different authors and preachers but I have always read them from the same perspective. The need to be a faithful witness through the sharing of the message in as many ways and mediums as I can. But I have consistently interpreted the word ‘witness’ in only one way. I have seen it as someone bearing ‘verbal’ witness to what he/she has seen and experienced. But the word ‘witness’, in Greek (martus) refers not just to the message given but to the type of person bearing witness. He or she is a ‘martyr’ – someone who bears witness by their willingness to give their all, even their very life, for God. In other words it is what they do or who they are that is the primary medium.

This is of interest in several different ways:
First, I find it very poignant that out of the eleven remaining disciples all but one, John, died for their faith:
Peter, according to tradition was crucified upside down during Nero’s reign;
Andrew was crucified in Achaia;
James was put to the sword by Herod;
Phillip was crucified in Hierapolis;
Bartholomew was crucified in Albania;
Thomas travelled to India where he was speared to death;
Matthew was pierced by a sword in Hierapolis;
James the son of Alphaeus was crucified;
Simon the zealot was also crucified;
Matthias was put to death in Ethiopia;
only John was spared to old age although there is an early tradition that he too was put to death by being buried alive. Oh and Paul, the apostle “untimely born” was also beheaded.

So here a witness – in New Testament/Christian terms – is someone whose mode of communicating their faith was their love for Jesus which surpassed the love of their own lives. Their ‘witnessing’ was deed as well as word. And that deed was a willingness to give their all – to die.

Second, as important as the testimony of any eye-witness may be in the case of a crime or accident, it is the character of that witness that is as important, if not more so, than what they say. He or she may be telling the truth about what they have seen or heard but if their character is dubious or suspect then their whole testimony is undermined and held in question. The Christian as witness must always bear this in mind as people are quick to spot hypocrisy, inconsistency and superficiality in those who claim one thing but act in contradiction to it.

Lastly Paul, one of the witnesses or ‘martyrs’ Jesus was referring to , writing to the Colossians uses a phrase that needs looking at more closely in this context. It’s in Colossians 1:24-27:

“To them God has chosen to make known among the gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you the hope of glory.”

“Christ in you. Christ in us. Not Christ alone, but Christ enfleshed in us – you and me – that is the hope of glory. In other words our testimony/our witness, is not just in and through a worded message, but through a medium that itself ’speaks’ with authenticity. It is that, that validates and empowers and most effectively communicates the message. It is the transformed life of the Christian, the one in whom Christ shines through, that provides the hope for others.

Let me give you a rather banal example. If someone said that they had discovered a miracle cure for wrinkles – and I can see by looking at you that that would be good news indeed – they could quote all kinds of statistics at me, explain in detail the science of how it works, talk about all the tests that have been run and the successful trials that have taken place with sharpei dogs etc. They may believe and speak passionately and with deep conviction that this miracle cure really does work. But unless they were an eighty year old former smoker with a face like a babies’ bum, their message would carry no authority or power at all. All the work that had gone into presenting ‘the message’ would immeditaely be contradicted by the failure of that message to make any real difference in their own lives.

So the point I am making in all this is a simple one. To be effective witnesses for Christ we must first ‘go in’ and examine our own relationship with Christ, ensuring that we oursleves are faithful and practice it, before we ‘reach out’ in telling others how it works. Only branches which are attached to the vine can bear fruit that will bring health to others. We must continually abide in Christ and live lives that evidence that, lives that are being transformed daily into his image and likeness. Unless the gospel makes a serious difference to us, then all the preaching in the world, no matter how ‘up to date’ or well presented it may be, will not have anywhere near the impact that Jesus meant it to have on a world in desperate need of his saving grace.

That is not to invalidate Alpha, Emmaus or any other evangelistic enterprise. But unless the medium is right – i.e. the lives of those giving the whole message – then there is, in effect, no real message to give. The medium IS the message. And that is Christ in us the hope of glory.

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