“And Jesus said to them, ‘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.’”
Some of you may remember that when I first came to Newport News I was driving a jet black 1973 Ford Mustang... it was the last of the classic Mustangs and I’d spent 20 years restoring it complete with a rebuilt 351 Windsor engine. Was...
It happened one dark night in January on my way home from a dinner engagement with new members of our church. I was making a left-hand turn onto Maxwell Lane from Warwick Blvd., waiting on oncoming traffic to clear. The light turned yellow and the first two oncoming cars stopped at the intersection. A third vehicle was still approaching, and I assumed it would stop too, since two other cars were already stopped. The light turned red and I had to clear the intersection, so I stepped on the gas. I was almost through the intersection when I felt something slam into the passenger side of the car, shattering the rear passenger window. The force of impact swung my car around 180 degrees and I was facing the red lights on Warwick. That third car had run the red light.
I stayed in the car and so did the driver of the other vehicle. A woman from one of the two stopped vehicles came over to check on me. She said don’t worry, I saw everything and got on the phone to call the police. A police car arrived on the scene in about 10 minutes, the woman went up to the officer and they had a conversation and she handed him a business card or something with her contact info. She then got into her car and left the scene. The police officer checked with both of us to be sure we were OK. He asked me if I needed to go to the hospital and I said, “No, I wasn’t injured in the crash.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “OK, well hang tight while I get some information from you both.”
The driver of the SUV that hit me was called from her vehicle first. I don’t know what she said because she was in the back seat of the cruiser. Finally, he invited me into his cruiser, took my license and copied down the necessary information. I wanted to give my side of the story, but he wasn’t asking me much. I said – I had to clear the intersection because the light had turned red already. Of course, you do, he responded. Then he added: “Don’t worry, there’s a witness who testifies that the SUV entered the intersection after the light turned red.” When he said that to me my whole body started to relax. It wasn’t my word against hers... I had a witness!
Witnesses play an important role in situations like that in life. Our justice system relies heavily upon the testimony of eye witnesses when it comes to ruling on crimes, accidents and other infractions of the law. Without a witness, the truth might often be left a mystery or at least in question. So, witnesses play an integral role in our legal system and believe it or not, also in our belief system. Without witnesses for example, the truth about Easter might never have made it beyond that Jerusalem gravesite. Let me explain.
Luke’s account of the resurrection puts great emphasis on the importance of the disciples as witnesses. When Jesus is raised from the dead, there are three separate groups who are witnesses. Mary Magdalen, Joanna and Mary the mother of James is first to encounter him. Then there’s the two disciples he walked alongside on the road to Emmaus who recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Finally, there’s the story of Jesus appearing to all the disciples while they were huddled together in the house in Jerusalem. Luke says that his appearance scared them to death because they thought they were seeing a ghost! But Jesus assures them that he’s the real deal – no ghost:
“Here – touch my hands and feet - a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones.”
“Do you have something here to eat? A ghost wouldn’t eat food!”
Then he does something that was a tell-tale sign of his identity – he has a time of teaching with them! Jesus was always sitting them down for bible study or to share some truth about God’s kingdom. This time he explains how everything written about him in the law, the prophets and the psalms reveal how the Messiah was to suffer, die and then rise again on the third day. Then he completes his study by saying to them: “You are witnesses of these things.” Do you see what he’s doing? He’s prepping them for their role as witnesses to the resurrection. So, his last lesson with the disciples is on being a witness... giving testimony to the truth about the risen Jesus.
Luke, more than any other gospel writer, seems to realize the critical importance of witnesses to the resurrection. We’ve all pondered the deep expression, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Hmmm. Well, Luke takes us even deeper with this thought: “If Jesus rises from the dead but nobody is there to witnesses it, does it matter?” Hmmm.
Luke would say a resurrection without witnesses is a victory without consequence. What would it matter if I shoot a hole in one if I have no witnesses? What does it matter if Villanova wins the March Madness tournament if no fans showed up to see the game? Witnessing is critical - which is why Jesus appearing to three separate groups of people after Easter. Witnesses give the resurrection meaning, and that’s still true today! Without people who continue to bear witness to the risen Christ in the world today, Easter would not be celebrated. Each generation needs witnesses to convey the resurrection faith to others. Remember that the church is never more than a generation away from extinction!
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the last century was once asked why he adopted the Christian faith. “With all your intellect and erudition, how is it that you believe in the gospel?” Barth replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Because my mother told me!” Now on the surface that sounds facetious, but I think that answer may hold universal meaning. Each of us believes the gospel message because our mothers, or someone we know and love was a living witness to the risen Christ. They didn’t just say it, they were absolutely convinced of it, they staked their lives on it and embodied the truth of it each and every day. And that’s what it means to be a witness!
My mother was one of 13 children growing up, so you can imagine the size of the Miller clan by the time children started to come along. We had the best family reunions each summer with aunts and uncles and cousins everywhere! In fact, the cousins still have occasional reunions together.
My grandmother was a very religious lady – started out a Baptist but became a Presbyterian after marriage but maintained the best elements of both those faiths. She loved all her children but for some reason her last born, Bev, held a special place in her heart. When she was on her deathbed, she called him in for a heart to heart talk. I don’t know what was said in there, but I suspect there was some witnessing going on! I think grandma shared the most important thing in her life with him – her faith... the one thing she treasured above all else and asked him not to neglect that aspect of his life. I don’t know, but whatever was said, it changed my uncle. It wasn’t too long after that he joined the Presbyterian church in Hanover and volunteered to organize and run the youth group. The church saw his leadership potential and ordained him as an elder and he became a very good support and friend of the minister. Perhaps my grandmother’s only regret is that she didn’t have that talk much earlier because she didn’t live to see the change her witness had in his life. And that is a lesson to us all as witnesses - we have more authority, more sway on people’s lives than we probably know... we don’t have to wait till we’re on our deathbed to change people’s hearts.
Last Wednesday we held our monthly committee meetings and I attended the Worship Committee meeting, as I usually do. The meeting went on longer than usual because we did a little goal-setting for our committee. We continued a conversation we started earlier about goals for the next three years and we ended up setting some. We’ve had some success with holding worship in different venues – the outdoor services, a chapel service in January, the monthly breakfast services in McKeithen Hall, so we decided to continue to experiment with these – not only venue but liturgy and style of worship, hoping to appeal to a more divergent group of people.
I suggested that we think about ways to draw the worship circle even larger still. Instead of thinking of worship in terms of what happens for one hour each week in the sanctuary, think of taking worship as something that can happen anywhere. Let’s think of ways we can make our committee meetings more worshipful. I mentioned King’s Grant Presbyterian church that has chosen a monthly scripture passage that every committee reads prior to their meeting each month. Those passages help unify the various committees and remind everyone that they aren’t just doing committee work, they are engaged in Christ’s ministry. That led to a conversation about how to take worship to the homebound and those who cannot make Sunday worship services. So, a goal was set to explore ways to broaden Worship’s reach over the next 3 years.
I got thinking about that goal this week and it seems to me that the boundaries of worship really are limitless. Yes, we can help make our committee meetings more worshipful, but why stop there? Perhaps there are ways that we can take worship/witness to our scout groups too! Maybe our scouts would be open to having a chaplain who would occasionally offer devotions to the troop or pack on stewardship of creation or being helpful to others. Maybe we could put up banners in the Fellowship Hall that proclaim God’s word to our basketballers and those who are sports-minded. Banners that preach the gospel without being too preachy. Maybe our website should have a changeable verse of scripture on the front page so when anyone check us out they receive a little devotion. Our playground is very well used by children and young families in our neighborhood, so maybe we should be piping faith songs out into our playground so that the children learn about the love of God while they are running and playing. And maybe our TV screens around the building could be used as a worship or witness venue rather than just promoting our programs!
And most of you have children, maybe not 13 of them, but you have some, and they probably don’t all attend church either. Have you ever had a heart to heart about that with them? And some of you have neighbors that don’t attend church, and wouldn’t it be great if they came here? But how will that ever happen unless someone invites them.
Luke lifts the importance of witnesses in today’s passage. They are vitally important to the resurrection. Without them the risen Christ would have gone largely unnoticed. It’s still true! Without witnesses, who’s going to know the truth about Jesus? Who’ll know he’s even risen?
It’s a call to speak up. That lady at the intersection saw everything that happened. She spoke up and told the truth to the police, I’m so grateful she did. But the truth about Jesus is even more important... so who’s going to speak up? Any witnesses?