Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2020 || Easter 7A || Acts 1:6-14
Early on a Wednesday morning last June, I stood in line at a checkpoint leading to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Turning around, I watched the sun rise over the Mount of Olives, turning the distant tower of the Church of the Ascension into a dark silhouette against the thin clouds. And for a brief moment, my heart rose with the sun, and I was transported back to that spot 2,000 years ago. I watched with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into heaven. I gazed up at the sky and felt his final words settle in my gut: “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.”
You will be my witnesses. This is what I want to talk about today, being a witness for Jesus. Before we go there, though, let me back up and set the scene. Our first reading today is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which is Part Two of the Gospel According to Luke. The Gospel ends with Jesus’ Ascension; that is, his rising up out of their sight into the clouds. And then the book of Acts begins the same way with a little more conversation. The disciples have just seen things they never expected, namely Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. They think that now must be the time for the Messiah to do what the Messiah is supposed to do. And so they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”
Jesus deflects their question, then basically tells them they are thinking too small. I want you to set your sights not just here but all the way to the ends of the earth! The Holy Spirit will give the passion, inspiration, and creativity to share my message of justice, peace, and love to as wide an audience as you can. Jesus does this a lot – tells people they are thinking too small. When Peter asks how often he has to forgive, (As many as seven times?), Jesus says, “Try seventy times seven” (in other words, countlessly). When the disciples can’t imagine feeding a crowd of 5,000 people, Jesus blesses a laughably small amount of food and shares it with everyone. And here, Jesus tells them not to set their sights just on Israel, but the whole world. You will be my witnesses.
When we read these words in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus includes us in this same mission – to be his witnesses. So what does that mean? How do we accomplish this role as witnesses for Jesus? Think about the most common use of the word “witness” in modern English. Got it in your mind? You’re thinking about a courtroom, right? The attorney calls a witness, who takes the stand and swears to tell the truth. Right away, we find ourselves in a sticky situation because the next witness will come forward and tell a slightly different version of the events than the first. Then when the other attorney calls their witness, the testimony will completely contradict the others. Where is the truth in that? If the witnesses didn’t willfully perjure themselves, then they all claim to be representing “the truth.”
The concept that there is one definite, capital-T Truth could not survive the horrors of the World Wars of the 20th century. Since then, the idea of truth has been under attack by the forces of relativism and contextualism. Your truth is true for you in your time, in your context. My truth is true for me. While these forces do provide some necessary nuance to the concept of truth, they also open the door for some more injurious elements: political hyper-polarization and denial of science to name two.
And yet, we can’t put the ketchup back in the bottle. When we think of being a witness, our minds automatically think about the courtroom and all the baggage that entails, including the relativistic understanding of truth. So, how do we work with that overriding courtroom image when we take on the role of Jesus’ witnesses? We need to bring three things together.
First, the Greek word for witness is the word martyr. The word came to be associated specifically with people who were killed for their faith, but originally it meant to “testify” (in the courtroom sense). Several of the people Jesus was talking to on the Mount of Olives did, indeed, suffer death because they wouldn’t quit sharing Christ’s love. The lesson for us is that to be a witness of Jesus is serious business, one that we can’t stop doing when it becomes inconvenient. While we might not be called to die physically like the apostles, we can die again and again to those parts of us that urge us to play it safe, to keep our heads down, when we confront something Jesus would have stood against.
Second, being a witness for Jesus means walking into the courtroom of life ready to defend everyone whom Jesus welcomed to the table. So the Truth we promote is one based on justice, peace, and love. We speak out for equity so that everyone has access to what they need to thrive. We speak out in the face of oppression, especially when the oppression doesn’t seem to touch us directly, for silence is tacit consent. We speak out for the dignity of all people and the conservation of our fragile planet. And when we speak, we try, with God’s help, to speak the truth in love.
Third, being witnesses for Jesus is both a communal act and a personal one. We bear witness to Christ’s love together by caring for one another and our community. We bear witness to Christ’s love personally by allowing that love to transform us into the best versions of ourselves, the ones that God yearns for us to become. When we live as God dreams for us to live, we can’t help but bear witness to God’s movement in the world.
When these three elements come together, we find our voice as Jesus’ witnesses: the way we live our lives in God’s love lends credence to our embrace of Jesus’ priorities, which we hold onto even when they become inconvenient. By embracing our role as Jesus’ witnesses, we participate in the very reality that the reign of Christ is bringing into Creation, the Messianic reality of a world built upon justice, peace, and love.
In a world where the concept of truth has been co-opted by malignant forces that have in mind only their own self-perpetuation, we followers of Jesus embrace the truth of the martyrs. Those early followers who died to spread Christ’s message were not concerned with self-preservation, but with living authentic lives of love and service as Jesus’ witnesses. They died, but their witness lived on in the power of the Holy Spirit. Their witness stretched from Jeruselm to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Their witness stretches all the way to us. Before he ascends into heaven during a glorious sunrise on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gives us the mission to be his witnesses. And he gives us the gifts of passion, inspiration, and creativity – the gifts of the Holy Spirit – to enliven our witness to Christ’s reign each day of our lives.
As we continue to live in the reality of the pandemic, we are still Jesus’ witnesses, even as the doors of our church building remain closed. The people who are the church are still open, open to witnessing what God is up to in our midst during this scary and grief-stricken time. We witness to justice by recommitting ourselves to addressing our society’s racial and economic inequities that are made even more visible by the stresses of COVID-19. We witness to peace by banding together to promote the health and safety of our society, especially those who are most vulnerable. And we witness to love by making all the small sacrifices that add up to a life lived differently, more communally, more focused on “we” than on “me.”
This time of waiting and wondering is hard. I miss you all terribly. And I do not know when we can responsibly return to meeting in-person, though we are beginning to form plans. But I do know this. The church is open, even when the building is closed. The church is open because we remain Christ’s witnesses in Mystic, in all New London County and Connecticut, and to the ends of the earth.
Banner image is a picture I took of the sunrise over the Mount of Olives on the morning I described at the beginning of the sermon. The tower of the Church of the Ascension is in the middle of the bottom third of the image atop the distant hill. The dome in the left foreground is part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.