April 18, 2021 - 3rd Sunday of Easter
We are to be witnesses.
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Thus 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’” (Luke 24:46-48).
We are to be witnesses.
A witness is someone who has seen something, who has been a party to something, who has expertise about something, who shares their testimony when called upon. There are witnesses to accidents, those who may have simply been in the area, or who may have been involved in the accident. There are witnesses to a crime, those who may have been an accomplice, a victim, an innocent bystander. Witnesses can then take multiple forms: those who actively participate, those who participate passively, those who do not participate but are among the crowd. In fact, there’s an old say that there are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who tell about what happened. Witnesses tell what happened, but their story and their testimony come from the perspective of their participation in the event.
The disciples received accounts of the events that they missed. Most of them were not present for the arrest, trial, or crucifixion of Jesus. They heard about it from others. Earlier that morning, the account of the women proclaiming the good news of the resurrection would have left them stunned and wondering what to do next. It’s easier to know what to do with a dead leader than a resurrected leader!
In this text, we observe the disciples responding in the way many witnesses do when they observe something extraordinary. Shock and fear fill them as they initially view Jesus as a ghost, the spirit of a dead person entering their midst. The disciples assumed that the Christ before them was without body, either as a spirit or an angel. He refuted this notion in two different ways. He invited them to touch him - his hands and his feet - and he ate a fish. In contrast to the Jewish understanding that angels do not eat human food, Jesus reveals his humanity by partaking of human sustenance.
The risen Christ is alive, among them, resolving the story. This chapter of Luke focuses on eyewitness accounts, each serving its own purpose. Within today’s reading, there is the dispelling of myths that have arisen. This important work occurs when the witnesses bring the truth of their experience or expertise to light. Jesus also explains his situation in light of his prior teachings and God’s promises. At the same time, Jesus extends peace to his disciples as a greeting, blessing, and commissioning. This peace proclaims, promises, and manifests God’s good news in the world. The peace has come at a terrible cost, displayed in the scars that remain on the body of Jesus.
It’s all well and good to understand this 2,000 years later, but what implications does today’s reading have for us today? The current trial for the killing of George Floyd opened with powerful testimony of witnesses, who in some way participated in the even, if not in the actions that directly caused Mr. Floyd’s death. The witnesses consistently conveyed not only grief and regret at the death of Mr. Floyd, but most also regretted their participation and openly wept as their sorrow overwhelmed them. These were not disconnected, dispassionate observers; their inability to stop the events from unfolding haunts them. Distant observers who watched his death through the videos recorded by some of the witnesses led to a spreading of the Black Lives Matter movement around the globe, making room for the worldwide awareness of racial injustice, suppression, and violence in a way never experienced before. The names and stories of Armaud Aerbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and (most recently) Daunte Wright represent a fraction of those victims who entered our collective awareness.
Friends, Jesus did not - and does not - call his disciples to dispassionate or disconnected observation of human suffering. We Christians are witnesses.
One of the realities of the George Floyd witnesses is that some of them knew that what they observed would need to be documented. They understood that there would be some who would not be persuaded by a retelling; some would need to witness it for themselves. Today’s story from Luke predates video or cell phones, but Luke is also aware that not everyone will believe without physical evidence. The disciples -- who touch and see Jesus for themselves -- are representatives for those who weren’t privy to this special moment. We enter the story to find that Jesus has shown up with the gift of peace after the worst has happened. We hear Jesus challenge our fears and doubts by offering reassurance of his presence in our midst. We’re encouraged to face our truths as Jesus displays the marks of the trauma that he endured.
Then Jesus gives us the opportunity to display hospitality. Just as the dying Jesus was thirsty, the Risen Christ seeks sustenance among us. Jesus’ eating of food has become the primary focus. He has now taken the role of the guest and the recipient of the disciples’ hospitality. They will now become hosts and providers of hospitality in Jesus’ name.
The disciples get to try out this new role on Jesus, who identifies with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor. They give him fish, reminding us of the modest portion of fish and loaves that multiplied to feed a multitude once placed in Jesus’ hands. How much more plentiful and fruitful will our hospitality to our neighbor become when our standard and model is providing a meal to the Sovereign One?
This act of serving Jesus a meal may be as humbling for the disciples as having him wash their feet. The One who transformed death still conforms to the routine requirements of life. Breath, food, and water remain necessary and holy in the resurrected life and for resurrection people. Jesus, who began his earthly ministry by embarking on a fast when he comes out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, begins the resolution of his earthly ministry by breaking bread with his companions after coming out of the tomb.
Surely, there were those who believed upon the testimony of the women or when Jesus appeared in front of them. Still others were convinced by the evidence of his scarred hands and feet. But, for some, they needed those to have the disparate parts of the story tied together. God is revealed at each step, and we travel this journey with Jesus no matter which stop we used to get on board. But once we get there, we receive the call to be witnesses. The early church celebrated the resurrection every Sunday; the Risen Christ was their focus and emphasis. The cross presents a moment of helplessness that triggers no action. All the work is on Jesus at the cross. And while Jesus tells us to pick up our cross to follow him, it’s all too easy to metaphorically satisfy that decree. We glorify the cross. But the cross was a means, not the end. The point of picking up our cross is not to stay there, but to get to the resurrected life through transformation.
That life requires something of us. As resurrection people, we cannot be content to be idle bystanders. We are witnesses, compelled to touch and see the world and participate in its transformation into the kingdom of God. When Luke writes that Jesus said, “You are my witnesses,” Luke names and appoints the disciples as witnesses. Because of its shortness, this sentence receives strong emphasis and is directly addressed to the present-day listeners, “You.”
Luke ordains the readers of his Gospel by beginning with the greeting, blessing, and commissioning of “Peace be with You.” We are witnesses to and of God’s peace in the world. We are called to be carriers of that peace, transmitting it and transforming spaces by it. We are to reside within, finding our rest within the embrace of God. We are to be co-creators of it, providing fresh and new evidence of it to the idle bystander, the curious recorder, and the interested observer so that they too, when encountering followers of Jesus, may touch and see.
Our charge for this coming week is to consider ways to increase our public witness of God’s peace. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you are called to peace. May the peace of the Lord be always with you.