Lectionary Year B
May 7, 2000
Luke 24:36b-48

StepVI: Contemporary Address


"As Those Who Have Seen and Heard"

So here we are. It's been two short weeks since we peered into the tomb and found it empty. The dew on the morning grass has long since dried, and our focus may be beginning to slip, to shift to other things now that Easter is in the rear-view mirror and the flames of Pentecost have yet to be kindled. But in our text this morning we meet the risen Jesus once again.

You know the story.
The disciples are gathered together, doing who knows what, trying to figure out what is to happen next - and Jesus comes to them and stands among them and says, "Peace be with you. Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in you hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, and see that it is I myself. Touch me and see. These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you; that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. 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."

You are witnesses of these things.

What does it mean to be a witness? We assume we know what a witness is, right? Some of us who take things literally would be quick, I'm sure, to give a definition. A witness is:

- Someone who has seen an event
- one who can give factual, credible information about some happening
- one who can testify as to what has taken place

It's plain and simple. That's what a witness is.

We are eager, ready and willing to say that the disciples were witnesses - eyewitnesses, if you will. They were there. They may not have had it all together all of the time, they may not have always understood, but they were there - and they saw it all. They were there for the healings, the parables, the miracles, and they were there that day when Jesus came and stood among them and said "Peace be with you" as he showed them his hands and his feet.

The disciples were witnesses.

As a people of faith, we consider ourselves to be witnesses as well. But we have a problem. How is it that we can be witnesses of or for or to something that we've never seen for ourselves? We weren't there. We weren't there. And if being there like the disciples is the only criteria, we've obviously missed the boat by about 20 centuries and we might as well just go home.

In the gospel sense of being a witness, though, we believe that the "there" continues to be present to us, among us and with us "here." The risen Christ meets us and stands among us here today - amid all our doubts, confusions and hesitations, in all our successes, triumphs and rejoicings, and in all our powerlessness, weakness and finitude. The risen Lord stands among us, offers a word of peace and says, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself."

You are witnesses of these things.

I'm reminded of warm summer evenings at camp and Vacation Bible School as a child. I don't remember a lot of the specific details, but I do remember that we sang a lot. And one of the songs we sang was called "Jesus My Lord." The verses - most of which were replete with or at best overwrought with natural theology - went through a litany of ways in which we could or might see and know Jesus for ourselves. But the song, the chorus ended like this:
Have you ever stood at the table,
with the Lord there in your midst?
Seen the face of Christ on each other?
Then I say ... you've seen Jesus my Lord.

Have you seen Jesus my Lord?
He's here in plain view.
Take a look, open your eyes.
He'll show it to you.
You are witnesses of these things.

Frederick Buechner reminds us that "just as Jesus appeared at his birth as a helpless child that the world was free to care for or destroy, so now he appears in his resurrection as the pauper, the prisoner, the stranger, the one who on his hands and feet still bears the marks of finitude and human suffering. He appears in every form of human need that the world is free to serve or to ignore. The risen Christ is Christ risen in his glory and enthroned in all this glorious canvas, stained glass and architecture as Redeemer and Judge. But he is also Christ risen in the shabby hearts of those who, although they have never touched the mark of the nails, have been themselves so touched by him that they believe anyway. However faded and threadbare, what they have seen of him is at least enough to get their bearings by." (Buechner, Frederick, Listening to Your Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), p. 100.)

That is, I would venture to say, at least part of what has lead each of us here today, to this place, as we think and write and study about that One. We have all met him and witnessed his presence among us, and with us.

in the eyes of a new-born child
in the embrace from a friend
in the work we do in class

in worship and in prayer
in the person not like us
at covered dish suppers and in soup kitchens

in the straw of the manger
in the offensiveness of the cross
in the shock of the empty tomb
here, at the table, as we drink the wine and eat the
bread in remembrance of that One

We are witnesses of this risen Lord. We have beheld his hands and his feet, his presence with us.

But part of being a witness of the risen Christ also involves bearing witness to his life, death and resurrection. Our friend H. Richard (Niebuhr, that is, in case you haven't had the opportunity to meet him yet) tells us that "the church's compulsion arises out of its need - since it is a living church - to say truly what it stands for and out of its inability to do so otherwise than by telling the story of its life ... what has happened to us in our community, how we came to believe, how we reason about things and what we see from our point of view." (Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1941), pp. 35, 29.)

We so much want people to know, don't we? I would hazard a guess that that's probably the other part of why most of us are here at this institution. We want people to know, we want to bear witness to the grace and presence of the Christ that has met us.

But, soon as I (or we) start talking about "bearing witness to Jesus Christ," the hair on the backs of our necks might be apt to stand up, for we've all have those experiences or encounters with people who cram Jesus down our throats whether we want or are ready to hear about what they have to say. "Bearing witness" conjures up visions of crazy people in clown wigs, you know, the rainbow kind - at football games holding up big signs that read John 3:16. Or TV evangelists that rant and rave on almost every network on Sunday mornings - bearing witness by scaring people. Or people who beat us over the head with the Bible in the name of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Stuart Currie, as you know, was a professor here in the late 1960's and the early 70's. He was deeply respected for his depth and breadth of knowledge, for his intellect, compassion and commitment to theological education, and for his genuine humility. The stories that circulated about him were legendary.

One particular story concerns what allegedly happened one day as he strolled across the University of Texas campus on his way to a bookstore. Somewhere near the main administration building, he was stopped by a young Christian zealot - who with a spiritual fire in his belly was a little more than passionate about sharing his faith with anyone who could be detained long enough to listen to what he had to say. With the fury of new-found truth burning in his eyes, he stared into the face of Dr. Currie and proclaimed: "I want you to know something. Jesus loves you man, and so do I."

Well, Dr. Currie tilted his hat back to a more comfortable position, studied the young man's countenance carefully, and replied, "Well, good sir, half of that is good news."

We so want people to know, so we rush head-long into the world to shout the good news from the mountaintops and to whoever will listen. Oftentimes, though, we move too quickly from being a witness of the risen Lord to bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Or we, as preachers, give people a kick in the pants and say something to the effect of: "So you've seen and met Jesus? Great. Now get out there and tell everyone you meet about what it is you know, about what it all means. Bear witness to your faith." But so often we end up - as the church, as individuals - giving answers to questions that people are not asking.

So listen again to the Lukan Jesus: "These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. 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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

The first and formative experience of the church in Luke is to wait, without power. Tom Long remarks that the church always waits without power to be given its mission, its witness (Thom as G. Long, in a sermon preached 7/17/85 at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA ). Before the church is prepared to go into the world to transform it in power, it must sit and wait and watch the world without power, because if there is too quick of a move between the triumph of Easter and the mission of Pentecost, then the bearing witness becomes triumph and ministry becomes condescending. Only when we experience and recognize that necessary tension between being witnesses and bearing witness, and experience that for a season, does our work and ministry taken on true power - for God's church does not have a mission, God's mission and witness has a church - you, me, us (this concept and line about God's mission and the church had its genesis in the Mission & Evangelism class [Spring 1997] at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary). Recognize and live in that tension so that in the power of the spirit you may go to the ends of the earth to proclaim repentance, forgiveness and redemption in the name of Jesus Christ.

Now, we are not called simply to exist. We are not called just to survive. We are not even called to be successful. We are called, as churches, as believers, to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to serve the world as he served it, to love the world as he loved it, to give our lives away to the world as he gave his life away. It is our task, Buechner reminds us, to keep "alive the rumor, to bear witness to the presence, to proclaim in word and deed that all human life is indeed blessed by, accountable to and lived out in the presence of God." (Buechner, Frederick, Listening to Your Life).

As we live and move in the tension between being witnesses and bearing witness, between the already of Easter and the not yet of Pentecost, we know, experience and believe that in every age there rises again the need to tell the story of our life - what has happened to us in our community, how we came to believe, how we reason about things and what we see from our point of view. To bear witness to the risen One who meets us again and again, showing us his hands and his feet, and who speaks to us and to the world a word of resurrection hope.

We tell our children this truth, this presence we know, and want to know and are still learning - when they ask where God is or why we love them.

We tell the story to ourselves when once again we have let another down, done the thing that is hard to forgive or broken the promises and trust of another - the story which bears witness and calls us to repentance and reminds us of God's love and grace.

You share it with a friend who is in a dark place, who finds herself crushed by the weight of the world, unable to see any light on the road that lies ahead.

You share it with someone you visit in the hospital as you and they watch their life slip away, as you pray together and wait.

Or you go to visit another country, our brothers and sisters in faith - to listen and to learn from them about what they have seen and heard and know of this risen Christ.

We bear witness to this risen One even as we stand at the foot of an open grave, mud on our shoes and tears on our faces, when all we're able to do or say save a shred of faith and hope we have left is to point to the one who defeated death, who rose from the tomb to meet us.

As ones who have seen and heard, as ones who live in the glorious tension between being witnesses and bearing witness, we tell, share and live our faith.

You are witnesses of these things.

We all have that to live and to tell, until at last, "the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright. And Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light." (The Hymnal, The Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1955).

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