Dr. Donald F. Morgan
In our readings from Acts and Luke this morning, the disciples and those who have been in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and post- resurrection appearances are labeled as “witnesses,” folks who have experienced new, and different, and unexpected things. To be sure, something has happened—and it seems impossible not be affected. Surprise and the unexpected, either through appearances of the risen Christ or miracles done in his name, like the healing of a man lame since birth—all of these things create feelings of joy, wonder, and amazement, on the one hand, as well as doubt and fear, on the other.
In light of these new experiences and our legitimately conflicted responses to them, it seems appropriate to ask: “What does it mean for us to be witnesses to these things?” Does it mean, for example, we actually had to be “there,” wherever that was? Clearly, as our lesson about Thomas and his doubt told us last week, we don’t need to be there to experience the risen Christ in our midst. Still, as witnesses, we have heard about and been touched by these new things. We, like the disciples of long ago, have lots of different feelings—some that may motivate us and energize us, some that may confuse us and make us fearful.
So again, in the midst of our joy and wonder and praise, on the one hand, and our fear and doubt and lack of understanding on the other, how can we be good and faithful witnesses—as both Acts and Luke commend us to be?
In trying to answer this question, our lessons provide some clear direction, some help. To begin, an understanding of what has actually happened and what it
all means is surely a significant part of being a good witness. Scripture—an all- important repository of the experience and learning about the story, norms and values of the people of God-- provides a critical piece of our understanding. In Acts, for example, while addressing the people, Peter presupposes they know the God of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and all the stories about them and God)—declaring this God to be the primary actor in this post-resurrection healing.
“You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” In Luke, Jesus teaches the disciples, once again, the stories and laws and prophecies that make it clear what God had promised and accomplished through him. “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” So, studying and learning , remembering and recalling, asking questions and being open to the ways in which new revelations are foreshadowed and foretold in the experiences of God’s people recounted in scripture—this is a critical part of being a faithful, and good, witness.
For Peter and all the disciples, then, what has been seen and experienced and witnessed to is ultimately rooted in mystery, in God’s action. Why a Messiah, a chosen one, has to suffer and die; How such a One rises from the grave; How further miracles are accomplished in his name—all of this points to something beyond our comprehension, if not our grasp, to an affirmation of power and control and purpose lying with the One who creates and destroys, who brings new life and healing. In everything from table fellowship to study and prayer, we are witnesses to all this. It is grounded in both scripture and in our own experience.
But there is yet one more dimension to what it means to witness in Luke and Acts this morning. And, despite the many different ways in which we experience the risen Christ, this dimension of witness, this action mandated by scripture, Jesus, and God, is the scariest one of all. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells us, now go and tell others. After all our study and prayer and experience of things old and new, after all of this witness involves a faithful response to a mandate, to a commission, to a vocation—a common calling for all Christians. Whether we are filled with joy and energy and motivation, or sorrow and doubt and fear—we are all called, as witnesses, to proclaim the story in his name, the story we have seen and been a part of, to everyone. Being grounded in scriptural learning, open to the new, to surprise and the unexpected, accepting the many ways in which the risen Christ is experienced, we now live into our vocation as witnesses and proclaimers of the risen Christ.
In this Easter season it’s sometimes easy to become a little distracted, just listening to all the voices, the disciples and our own, filled with questions, with sadness, with disbelief, with fear, with joy. But witnessing requires a commitment to look at our experience clearly and with focus, ready to be truth-tellers about what we see, regardless of whether we can understand it or whether it might have adverse effects on us or others. We are asked to be both bold and confident as we look carefully at our world, finding the risen Christ in places unexpected and sometimes unexplained. To do this well might from time to time demand that we let go of the voices “in our head” of joy and doubt and fear and just focus on the task at hand: to look carefully at our world, to be open to seeing and embracing mystery,
ready to testify that “it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Amen.