The Third Sunday in Easter
“You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems as though the disciples are a little on edge. It is completely reasonable. The events over the past few weeks have been unimaginable. They are attempting to process it all. I imagine they were experiencing some grief as well.
Jesus had prepared them for the work that they were to do and spoke to them of this work following his death, but like any group of people who has experienced the death of a leader, I imagine that they were in a sort of wilderness phase themselves. They were likely attempting to understand for themselves just how they fit into this whole teaching and preaching thing and working to garner up the confidence to do the work for which Jesus had prepared them.
And then—Jesus appears to them.
This past week on the news has been filled with the Derek Chauvin trial. You cannot turn on the news without hearing it. Many, many witnesses have been called. Witnesses testify to what they have seen and heard - what they know to be true from their perspective. It is interesting the parading of so many witnesses- the lawyers are trying to get them to contradict one another - it is their job. This person’s “expert” testimony says this, this “expert” contradicts the other person’s testimony. Then a jury has to sort through all the expert testimony and decide for themselves what is or is not true.
Our Gospel text ends today with Jesus addressing his disciples saying, “you are witnesses of these things”.
Jesus’ address to the disciples is not, “you will be witnesses. Not, “please be witnesses.” Not, “consider being witnesses if you have time.” No, “you are witnesses of these things.” We are witnesses.
As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.
Of course, exactly to what things we witness requires some interpretive imagination. Perhaps “these things” is the real bodily resurrection of our Lord. Perhaps “these things” is the content of Jesus’ own confession – the suffering of the Messiah, rising on the third day, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Or, perhaps “these things” is the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus’ whole life was witnessing to the “holistic character of God’s salvation.”
And then there is the Acts account by Peter that is also part of our lectionary reading for today - “to this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15).
The people of God in Acts are being propelled forward by the empty tomb to tell through words and deeds what they have seen and what they know.
And they know the same things we know. So the big question is what does it mean to be a witness? What does it mean to proclaim? Jesus says “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”
This is an important command. Faith groups take it seriously as they should as we were commanded to by our Lord. Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed. We are clear on what the instruction is, but how are we to best go about doing it?
Bishop Porter Taylor is going to offer a class this spring for clergy (and a class for laity if they are interested) in evangelism. I have to say I wasn’t very excited to hear the title of the class. Evangelism can drum up so many negative connotations in my thinking - of brow beating someone to Christ. But this is not what this course is.
Bishop Taylor is teaching this course with the idea that evangelism is really just about telling our story. It is about “bearing witness” to those things that we know.
It is in the telling of our stories that lives are changed and people are brought to Christ.
The early disciples had an empty tomb to motivate them to get out into the world - we have the same thing.
So the question is, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting around for more grandiose revelation? Have we forgotten what Christ did for us?
I don’t think so - that is why you are all are gathered here this morning. But, what are we waiting for? What more do we need? What are we afraid of?
Jesus and Peter remind us that while we are busy expecting another miracle to come our way, our silence, our looking the other way, our inaction also testifies — and volumes. How often we forget that our words and deeds, or lack thereof, are indeed giving witness to how we imagine God to be — and we might want to stop and consider just what those words and deeds are saying about God.
Hearing that we are witnesses may not necessarily be good news for everyone.
We remember how often have we declined our identity. We remember how often we have deferred testimony to others. We remember how often we have determined that our witness wouldn’t make a difference anyway, so why bother? But, in doing so, we deny the truth of who we are and who Jesus needs us to be. We give up avowals about God that not enough people get to hear or experience. And we forgo the fact that we are never NOT giving witness to God.
That’s the rub. “We are witnesses” is not only who we are but also then, how others see God to be. “We are witnesses” both points to our calling as well as our commitment to it. “We are witnesses” gives witness to our own selves, our own faith, our own belief.
And that is the hardest truth to hear — that perhaps we don’t believe in the identity God has given us, don’t believe God needs it, don’t believe others will see it, don’t believe that it actually matters.
Defining self and being clear about who we are - as a people, as a congregation, as individuals is one of the greatest gifts we can give to those around us.
“We are witnesses” does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. “We are witnesses” does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. “We are witnesses” just is.
And that is what Bishop Taylor’s class will be about I suppose. Since we are witnesses - how do best tell our story? How do we best communicate our story to the world around us?
There are good witnesses and there are bad witnesses. Witnesses usually go through hours of deposition by good lawyers, to make sure that they say only things that will be helpful to a case and not harmful. Witnesses can hurt your case or they can help your case as we have seen in the Derek Chauvin trial.
That we are witnesses - just as we are - is also the good news.
Left to our own devices, we’d make up every excuse imaginable to relinquish such responsibility. We’d convince ourselves that more qualifications could more certainly justify this calling. We’d find other fissures through which to escape this vocation.
So rather than continue in our ceaseless attempts to convince ourselves we have a choice, that we can carry out this occupation just as soon as we are adequately prepared, that we can graciously, even politely and respectfully, eschew God’s claim on us, why not try it on and see what it feels like? Wear it around, maybe even with “gladness in your heart” (Psalm 4:7).
Witnessing is not optional. It’s not an intermittent activity of faith. It’s not something you can decide to do one day and then resolve to take the next day off. It’s constant. It’s a way of life. It’s who you are. Let us be mindful of the kind of witnesses we are.