Can I Get a Witness?

7th Sunday of Easter
May 28, 2017

6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.- Acts 1:6-14

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Right before the resurrected Jesus floats away from the disciples, he gives them this statement. You will be my witnesses. It’s not really a suggestion or even a command, but more a statement of fact. You will be my witnesses. And then Jesus is gone. Witnesses of what? How?

In one sense they will be witnesses to all that Jesus said and did. They go and tell the accounts of all the things Jesus has done. They have seen and heard much in the previous years and they go to share it with others. Jesus was a great healer of the sick and injured. Jesus fed the hungry. Jesus proclaimed forgiveness to those weighed down by guilt and shame. Jesus welcomed the stranger. Jesus taught with authority and wisdom, always rooted in the scriptures of Israel. Jesus even raised the dead. They saw one concrete action after another, heard one wise story after another. Surely much was beyond their understanding, but these were things they could report to the ends of the earth.

They were also about to be witnesses to the latest piece of the profound mystery of Christ’s resurrection. They are still in amazement, awe, and disbelief at the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection, now he is about to float away into the clouds. Some of them have witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. They have seen miracles they can’t explain. They have witnessed things that defy the natural order and upend a purely rational approach to the world. So they go as witnesses to things they have seen but cannot understand.

And even though they didn’t know it yet, they will be witnesses to God’s continued work among them. The logic-defying miracles are not yet done. They will become Christ’s body in the world, the foundation of a church that lasts for thousands of years, eyewitnesses to lives transformed and resurrected. Witnesses to things far beyond their human understanding as the Holy Spirit stirs up the world around them.

But what does it mean for us to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth? We, too have seen healing, welcome, and transformation. We have all heard transformative teaching. Many of us can describe experiences that go beyond our usually rational and logical approach to the world. We might, in our braver moments, share with others what we have seen and heard. But I think the idea that we are witnesses is something with a great deal more power than we sometimes realize.

Witnesses are a main part of the strategy for the New Sanctuary Movement in support of immigrants. They are training people to be witnesses in the immigration courts and in local communities when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents lead raids. The witnesses are not there to intervene, to save the day or get all tangled up in things. The witnesses are there because the presence of witnesses tends to encourage the following of due process and humane treatment of fellow human beings.

Sometimes what vulnerable people in our world need the most is to be seen and heard and valued. We as the church and as individual followers of Jesus can become witnesses to the presence of Christ in one another and especially in those who are too often ignored. We are called to see and listen and to name and tell what we see happening in the world around us. We are called to witness the ongoing peril of the earth and its inhabitants, to witness the ongoing rejection and discrimination of people whose skin color is darker than others. We are called to be witnesses of the ongoing problem of gender-based violence in our communities. We are called to see and hear and name the neighbors, literal across the street neighbors who are going hungry.

I think we are sometimes afraid of this calling to live with open eyes and open ears, afraid because being witnesses in the world is sometimes painful and overwhelming. We want to be able to fix all that we see. We want to be able to proclaim not just the reality of suffering and injustice, but the reality of transformation, healing, hope, and resurrection. With Jesus gone from our eyes, we are sometimes like the disciples still staring upwards expecting Jesus to float down from outside our world to subdue all the prowling devils and every manifestation of evil and pain. But we are met there with a message to turn our eyes back to earth, to see Christ living in the midst of all we witness, Christ bearing the pain and distress, Christ transforming the world before our eyes.

Because we are not called to be judge or jury, prosecution or defense. It is not our calling to include or exclude, to lift up or tear down. It is not our calling to condemn others or to live in fear of our own condemnation. It is simply our calling to witness in every sense of the word – to see and hear God at work in the great and terrible events of our lives and of our world, and also to be witnesses in the sense of telling what we have seen – naming and proclaiming the injustice and also the signs of hope. We don’t even have to understand it all. We are witnesses to the concrete and tangible and also to the mysterious and intangible. We are witnesses to the broken body of Christ in the world and the resurrected Jesus rising from the dead and even the ascending Jesus filling all things.

And we are witnesses not because we are really great at the job – sometimes we fail miserably to notice God among us. We fail to be willing and accurate describers of God’s transformation in our own personal lives and in the life of the world. But we are witnesses because Christ himself has made it so. “You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” A definitive statement because the ascension of Christ frees us to understand the incredible broadness of God’s work in every corner of the cosmos. No matter where you are or where you go from here, God is at work doing something new, healing what is broken, finding what is lost, resurrecting what is dead. And whether you are aware of it or not, you have already been and will continue to be witnesses to that work of God for the sake of the world.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!