Called to be Witnesses
April 18, 2021
There was an interesting news item on CBS evening news on August 25, 2020. A woman was found unresponsive in her home. Paramedics were called, and they worked for a half-hour trying to revive her, but failed. They connected with an emergency room doctor, and the woman was declared dead. More than an hour later, she was about to be embalmed in a Detroit funeral home, when, suddenly the woman opened her eyes. They rushed her to the hospital, and she recovered fully.
Can you imagine the story the witnesses to this event had to tell?
Well, the situation in today’s gospel is even more dramatic and challenging than that. Jesus’ closest followers saw, if only from a distance, Jesus crucified. They saw his blood pour out of him, and the soldier’s lance pierce his heart. They saw, if only from a distance, that he was placed in a tomb, where a heavy stone was rolled into place to seal him inside. Now, three days later, Jesus is standing in front of them, alive, talking…and they think they’re seeing a ghost. As I said, this is far more dramatic than the woman in Detroit! As a matter of fact, Jesus has to prove who he is by showing his “credentials”—the fact that he has flesh and bones, and the wounds of the crucifixion and the soldier’s spear. Plus, he takes a piece of baked fish and eats it in front of them! And at the end, he says to them, “You are witnesses of these things.”
Can you imagine the story these witness had to tell?
Actually, we don’t have to imagine, because we are reading the stories they told—stories preserved and handed on, from generation to generation for two thousand years. In all that time, the stories have not died out. They have incredible staying power.
Why did they tell these stories? How could they not? They went to their death telling their stories. They knew that the people of their day needed something to believe in, something to hope for, and something to live for. Life was pretty tough in the outposts of the Roman Empire, and Christianity spread like wildfire. Furthermore, they wrote down their stories because they hoped we, in each successive generation, would continue to be witnesses to the story of Jesus Christ. He died, and he rose, never to die again. And because of him, that is also our destiny.
Now how are we to be witnesses? Let me answer by sharing a couple of stories. The first incident has to do with two young men, one an American and the other from India, who were roommates at an international conference. During a break in the proceedings, they found themselves talking to each other about religion. The young man from India turned out to be very hostile toward Christianity. The young American tried to discern the reason for this hostility. “Is it something in Jesus’ teachings that turns you off?” he asked.
“On, no,” came the reply, it’s not anything like that. The thing I resent most about Christians is that they do not live like Christians.”
Quite an indictment, is it not?
My second story has to do with a Life magazine article from many years ago (December 1988), when a famous preacher, the Rev. Robert McAfee Brown, was asked, “What is the meaning of life?” He wrote, “I believe we are placed her to be companions—a wonderful word that comes from the Latin cum panis, ‘with bread.’ We are here to share bread with one another so that everyone has enough, no one has too much….There are many names for such sharing companions: the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God, the Communion of Saints. And while the goal is too vast to be realized fully on this planet, it is still our task to create foretastes of it in this world. We are to generate living glimpses of what life is meant to be…to counterbalance the otherwise immobilizing realities of tyrants, starving children, senseless death and just plain greed. We are here to be companions along the journey of life, to share bread with one another, to ‘build up the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven,’ to love one another as Jesus first loved you.”
Those first witnesses who told the story of Jesus’ resurrection were convincing, not just because of their words, but because of their lives. People could see that they were different, that they lived a better way—and they wanted to be part of it.
And what was true for their day is still true for ours: actions speak louder than words. If we are to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, our faith in him has to change us! Because he is the Master of life and death, his words, his truth, his way have to produce in us far more than a nod and a yawn. The story is too astounding to bore us! It’s too life-changing to leave us in neutral! If life truly doesn’t end in a tomb, that’s incredible news that needs to be lived so as to be shared. Otherwise, why bother coming here week after week?
People are desperate for something to believe in, for a truth that will give them hope, for love and companionship that lets them know they are never alone on the journey of life. As Christians, we know Jesus is with us, and he can be with them, as well. All we have to do is live as if it matters. That’s how we become witnesses. That’s how the story will never die.