When you hear the word “witness”, what’s the first thing you think about? For most of us it’s about some sort of a trial. The witness for the prosecution. The witness for the defense. Or maybe someone quoted in a newspaper as the witness to some news-worthy event. Witness is generally just a term for us that means, “someone who saw what happened”.
I had to be a witness once. It wasn’t for a criminal trial or anything that serious. I had stopped to help someone after I saw a fairly minor car accident. No one was hurt, but the two drivers disagreed about who was at fault and the police asked me exactly what happened. I stood there trying to remember every little detail. I didn’t want to give the wrong information and then let the wrong people be at fault.
It’s a hard job. You know that you have the responsibility to tell the truth about what happened, and you want to make sure you’re doing it right.
What’s true for minor traffic accidents is even more true when it comes to our faith. Last week we read one account of what happened when Jesus appeared to his disciples. We read about how he appeared to them and showed his wounds, and they all believed. Except for poor Thomas who showed up late.
That was John’s account. This morning we read Luke’s, who mercifully let’s Thomas off the hook. Instead he talks about how Jesus came and, far from the instant belief the disciples professed last week, they were terrified. They acted like they had seen a ghost. And Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened?” He reassures them that he is not a ghost and he even has them give him some fish so that he can eat and prove it.
And then, when they’ve started to believe it’s really him, he goes back to doing what he had done the whole time he knew them. He teaches. He tells them why what happened happened, and how his life and death fulfilled the Scriptures. And he tells them that he is the Messiah and is risen, and that now forgiveness should be proclaimed to all.
And then he tells them one last thing: “You are witnesses of these things.”
Now being a witness the way the disciples were asked to be a witness is a little different than the witness I was. The police officer came and I gave the report of what happened, and she asked how they could call me if the case went to trial. I gave my number, but I never heard from them again. That day I got back in my car and went about my way, and I assume it all worked out. I haven’t really thought about it since.
But for the disciples, when Jesus told them that day that they were witnesses, something else happened. They couldn’t walk away. They couldn’t forget. They couldn’t just give their police report and wait for a call to testify that may or may not come. Witnesses couldn’t be passive. They were now a part of the story.
The Biblical word for witnesses, the word in the original Greek, is “martureo”. It’s the same word that we know today as “martyr”. Originally to be a “martyr” was to be a “witness”. And through the centuries we’ve come to associate the word with dying for a cause, usually dying for the faith.
There’s a reason for that. So many of the early Christians, including many of these disciples, ended up dying for their witness, literally dying for their belief. And so when we hear martyr now we think of someone who paid the ultimate price.
But this isn’t about being killed for your belief. Thankfully we live in a country where we have freedom of belief and no one is going to kill us for being Christians. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t still hard. Because this is about you or I dying. Not in the literal sense. But it is about a death of another kind. This is about dying to our own selfishness, our own passiveness, our own pursuit for lives of comfort instead of lives of meaning. This is about dying to the worse parts of ourselves and instead finding life in Christ.
This is about choosing to live your life as a witness. Not the kind of witness who can go home and forget about it after the police report is filed, but the kind of witness that the disciples were called to be. The kind that not only sees what happened, not only tells what happened, but who is so transformed by what happened that they can’t help but become a new person because of it. They can’t help but act like a person who has seen this risen Lord. And their lives and actions reflect it.
When you think of witnesses to Christ, who do you think of? Are they the early disciples? Are they figures from church history like Martin Luther? Are they Christians from the last hundred years who have done great things like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King?
Those are all witnesses to the risen Christ. No doubt. But they aren’t the only ones.
You don’t have to get front page headlines to be a good witness to Christ. In fact, in most cases those might work against you. Instead, you just have to do this: you have to live your life in such a way that others look at you and see God’s grace and love at work in you.
You don’t have to do something great in the sense of feeding a nation or winning civil rights or starting the Protestant Reformation. You just need to do the small things with a great love for Christ.
Your purpose in life, in everything you do, is to remember Christ’s call to the disciples, and to you: you are witnesses. You are the ones who tell the story of Christ’s grace and love.
That’s true in the way you raise your kids, and the way you love your family. That’s true in the way you work, and the way you volunteer. That’s true in how you treat your neighbors. That’s true in the way you decide to use the things God has given you. How you use your talents. How you spend your money. How you share your excess. That’s true in every choice that you make.
It’s going to look different for each of us. Growing up I’d hear about classmates of mine in more fundamentalist churches who would go “witnessing for Christ” door to door. They’d knock on doors and try to convert whoever answered, usually by preaching fire and brimstone That wasn’t the kind of witness I wanted to be.
Later I come to understand that being a witness to Christ seldom involved words, but always involved actions. I understood that being a witness to Christ meant living into the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
It means that in this world that so often feels like Good Friday, I’m supposed to witness to Easter with my life. I’m supposed to witness that the destruction and hate and fear of the world do not win, and that God has created new life where there was no hope, and grace where there was none.
That’s my calling. And that’s yours too. Because that’s the calling, that’s the job, of every Christian.
The other night the deacons met and we talked about how we could be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our community. We talked about how we want to be a church that exists not just for ourselves, but for everyone here in the valley, whether they worship with us or not. We talked about mission. Mission is at the heart of every church and those that do it well usually thrive spiritually. No church has ever thrived by focusing only inwardly. And they shouldn’t because those aren’t churches. Those aren’t communities of witnesses to Christ.
The good news is we have a heart for mission here. We financially support the food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, and others. We donate books to Kurn Hattin. We open our doors to 12 Step Groups and youth activities. We volunteer our time locally. We do a lot.
And we can do more. The other night we talked about what it would look like to offer a free meal here at the church once a month or so. A meal that would feed our community both in body and spirit. One that would fill both those who don’t have quite enough to eat and those who feel isolated. One where we would join our neighbors at the table as well. I think it’s a great idea. And I think there are probably dozens more just like it.
We are about to enter this visioning process. One of the core areas we will be looking at is mission, and how to do it well. And really, mission is about telling the story. It’s about Christ appearing to us and telling us to spread the news with our lives.
As Christ said, “you are my witnesses”. That’s true for us all. And that is good news, because when we put our hands and voices together, Christ’s love can be heard and felt through this whole valley. I’m ready. Witnesses, are you? Amen.