Sermon preached on May 4, 2008, the 7th Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11
“Witness” is not a word we Episcopalians like to use much. We have largely given it to our more evangelical friends along with the whole notion of testimony or testifying. In truth, I think, the average Episcopalians actually spends time thanking God that he or she does not have to give his or her “testimony.”
Yet Jesus says that the job of his disciples—and us by extension—is to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. So my question today is, “Can I get a witness?” Yes, Episcopalians, “Can I get a witness?”
What does it mean to be a witness? There are some clues available to us this morning.
First off, to be a witness does not mean staring up into heaven. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Jesus, I believe, would have agreed. The very point of following Jesus is to do earthly good. Why else would Jesus’ most predominant image have been the kingdom of God? And why else did he teach us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as in heaven”?
Yet when we think of witnessing—because we have given the word away—we think of testifying to our relationship with God, how we know we are saved and getting into heaven rather than the alternative. This is not, however, the testimony Jesus had in mind when he commanded us to be witnesses.
He had in mind our carrying on his work. When he left the disciples they were now his body on earth. We are the eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet and heart of Jesus. We are called to witness in that we are called to continue his ministry: his compassion and help for those among us who are sick or oppressed, his prophetic cry for justice and peace on the earth, and his courageous confidence that relationship with God was possible for all people. Those are the things we are to continue to do in his name. Doing them is being a witness.
Can I get a witness? In this regard the question means, “Can I get a minister?” Can I get someone who is willing to continue to do the work Jesus began?
We don’t need witnesses to tell people how to get into heaven. We need witnesses to tell the story of compassion, justice and love that is the story of Jesus that we have taken as our own story.
This kind of witness is costly, a notion that is buried in the Greek word translated “witness” itself. It is the word μαρτυς (martus), from whence we get the word “martyr.” A witness is one who is willing to give his or her life away.
Few if any of us are called to die a martyr’s death, but all of us are called to give our life away for the sake of God’s kingdom and Jesus’ witness to compassion, justice and love. If nothing else giving our life away means risking our popularity.
It is not popular to stick up for those among us who are poor. The world wants us to believe that they are simply lazy because, of course, our great myth is that anyone can succeed if they really try hard enough.
It is not popular to be critical of the injustices of our culture. We are supposed to be only proud to be Americans. Criticism is not patriotic.
It was not popular for our church to side with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, or begin to ordain women, or openly include gay and lesbian people among us. Since we have begun doing those things we have lost something like half our members. People don’t like their sense of superiority questioned.
It is not popular to witness to the compassion, justice and love of Jesus. To do so is to be a “martyr,” risking one’s life, one’s reputation and success.
Can I get a witness?
I have seemed to mock what we have come to think of as “testimony,” but I only mean to be critical of the kind of testimony that is little more than “staring up toward heaven.” I mean to say that our testimony is primarily in our doing. On the other hand I do want to also say that we have to get better at the telling as well. We need to be able to tell why we do what we do, especially since it just does not make sense to many in the world around us.
We need to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry—his compassion, justice and love, his courageous commitment to these things that got him killed, and God’s vindication of his ministry—and ours—in the resurrection.
We need to be able to tell why we do some of the seemingly crazy things we do—our acting to show we are all one human family: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, foreign born and American. We believe these are expressions of the unity for which Jesus prays and to which Jesus calls us as a human family and church.
We need to be able to tell about how following Jesus makes a difference in our lives—really affects the way we live our lives. We need to be able to tell how our lives would not be the same if it were not for Jesus.
Can I get a witness?
Perhaps the hardest—and, for most of us, riskiest—thing we have to do is to talk about Jesus. We have to get over the fear that if we do so we will be painted with the same brush as our more evangelical and fundamentalist brothers and sisters. We need to claim Jesus for our own. We need to claim following his life and teaching as something we gladly do because it changes life. We need to claim that in serving him we are serving others and making a difference in the world around us.
To be witnesses of Jesus is to be tellers and doers of good news. Episcopalians may be communally the most introverted people on the planet when it comes to their own faith. We act as if we have nothing to tell.
There’s a joke about another denomination that might as well be about us. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and an Episcopalian? Someone who knocks on doors for no apparent reason. We act as if we have nothing to tell.
We do church, we do have something to tell. And we need to start telling it. There are many out there, I believe, who have a hunger for spiritual meaning and who are not attracted to a fundamentalist way of believing. We need not to be afraid to tell about our way of believing and practicing Christian faith for their sakes, and for our own, because we will never grow like we need to grow without them.
I should practice what I preach, so here’s a piece of my personal witness.
I am a Christian because the biblical story in general and Jesus in particular helps me make sense of life. Jesus teaches me and empowers me to be a person of compassion, a doer of justice and a lover of all people, even those very different from me. Following Jesus and living in the church has changed my life for ever. It has given me the strength I need to get through many things life has thrown at me, and it is constantly challenging me to be a better person.
I find Jesus is present with me in his working through other people in my life, both friends and strangers, and in those things we in the church call “sacraments.” One of these, the weekly celebration of Communion, is at the center of my life because in the simple meal of bread and wine shared with my sisters and brothers I experience myself to be fed by God in a way I could ever do on my own.
That’s the beginning of my witness. For the rest you have to join me in living life as I struggle to live as God would have me live—sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. The good news is that God is with me whether I succeed or fail.
Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?
I challenge you to go home and write two paragraphs about why you are a Christian and how it makes a difference in your life. It will help to have done it that next time you are given an opportunity to tell. And, once again, if we don’t get better at telling, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves that nobody knows who we are.
Can I get a witness?