Sermon delivered at Chestnut St Presbyterian Church - Wilmington, NC
June 1, 2014
I wonder how many people here would be willing to witness for Christ. If I put out a sign-up sheet for people to make a commitment to spend 2 hours a month being a witness for Christ, going out and visiting people to witness to them about the faith we share would you sign up? Would you actually show up at the first meeting for orientation and training? How many would show up the first day we were scheduled to go out visiting? My guess is that only a very few members would actually sign up, and not everyone who signed up would show up. Presbyterians aren't really big on witnessing. The annoying Jehovah's witnesses and the evangelical protestants who are big on witnessing, especially those who ask if you are sure where you would go if you died tonight, these people have given the word and the idea of witnessing a bad name. It doesn't seem like the Presbyterian thing to do.
The problem with the typical Presbyterian attitude is that Jesus clearly commands his followers to be his witnesses. You heard it in the Gospel lesson, Jesus met with the 11 and their companions and said to them “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.” In the book of Acts before Jesus was taken up into heaven he said to his disciples “But 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.”
When we joined the church we affirmed that we want to be disciples of Christ, so why are we unwilling to be witnesses?
I want to suggest that we may have a misunderstanding about what it actually means to be a witness. The image we have of witnessing for Christ is that we should go out and tell strangers what the scriptures say about Jesus, how he died for our sins and was raised on the third day, and if they believe in him they can be saved and go to heaven. This was pretty much what I once believed and I spent a year working part time for our Presbytery as a staff consultant in evangelism, working part time training people to do this kind of evangelism. I learned and taught others how to do this kind of evangelism. We trained people to use a marked up New Testament to explain God's plan of salvation and to urge the people we visited to pray the prayer of faith and be assured that they would go to heaven if they died today. People in our congregation did go and had many memorable adventures, but in truth the most successful and fulfilling visits never used the scripts that we had taught them and involved loving and authentic conversations.
I would not do this today, I think at this point in my life I had a total misunderstanding of what it means to be a witness.
The setting for the word witness comes from the courtroom. I would guess that there are at least a few people who are here this morning who have actually been called to be a witness in court but most of us have not had this experience, but we have some idea of what it is like from books or movies or television. There may even be a lawyer or two here who spent years in school learning about such things. When you are called as be a witness to testify in a criminal case or have been called to give testimony in a civil case, either in a court trial or by deposition the rules about being a witness are pretty much the same, the witness must promise or swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A witness cannot testify to something he or she did not personally see or hear. A witness may have heard many stories and versions of what happened, but with a very few exceptions a witness cannot give testimony about what someone else has told him or her, only what the witness personally saw and experienced.
So how can we be a witness to something that we have not personally seen. We cannot be a witness to Jesus being raised from the dead because we weren't there. We may have read about the empty tomb, but we didn't personally see or experience this.
We may have read about Jesus meeting with his disciples by the lakeside, when they ate fish with the resurrected Christ but we were not there, so we cannot witness to that meeting. What we can witness to is what happened in our life, about the times when we have met with Jesus. I can't tell you what exactly happened in that sea side meeting, but I can tell you about a Sunday morning when we were vacationing with friends at Seabrook, how we fought the mosquitoes to get to the beach and there just after the sun had risen we shared the fish that was left over from dinner, and finished the last of a nearly empty bottle of wine and remembered Jesus and each of experienced the certainty that the risen Jesus was with us in that place – in the fish and the in the wine and in fulfillment of his promise that where two or three are gathered in my name there will I be in the midst of them. I am a witness to that.
I don't personally know what all happened on the Emmaus road and at the inn at the end of their walk; but I know that a few months ago we went to a gourmet dinner and were assigned to have dinner with the people who will be our neighbors when our house is completed. We had already drunk wine with the appetizers, and there was wine and bread on the table as well as beef ribs, and potatoes and vegetables and as every one sat down the hostess said let us pray and everyone joined hands and with simple words the food was blessed and my eyes were opened and I knew that more than neighbors had gathered at table but Jesus was there also. There have been those times – I admit not every time I have partaken of the Lord's supper, but there have been times when my eyes were opened and my heart burned within me and I knew without a doubt that the Lord was in that place, that Jesus was more than a character in a book, but he was alive and in our midst. It might be that some of you will have the same experience and can bear witness to others that you have experienced the a burning within your heart, that your eyes were opened to see that the risen Christ is a very present reality in the midst of our lives.
I cannot be a witness to what happened on that third day morning when the women went to the cemetery and according to various reports found an empty tomb. One of the gospels says they saw an angel who told them that Jesus was raised and they were scared to death and were afraid to tell anyone what they had seen. Another said that the women saw the stone rolled away and an angel told them to go and tell the men that Jesus had risen from the dead. John tells the touching story about Mary who did not believe that he had risen, she thought someone had stolen his body away from the tomb until the man she thought to be the gardener called her by name, saying Mary, and her eyes were opened and she recognized that this was her dearest friend and teacher who was crucified, hung until he was dead and buried in a borrowed tomb, and here he was alive and talking to her. So we have four different stories about what happened that third day morning all sort-of the same, yet each one is different, and we cannot question the witnesses since they have died about 2000 years ago. We cannot be a witness to what happened on the first Easter morning because we were not there, we did not experience it for our selves.
I have never seen Jesus' empty tomb but I am a witness that at one very low point in my life I was buried in a grave of discouragement and depression. I can say for my self that I been buked and I've been scorned, I've been talked about sure as your born. I've had lies told about me and my family, lies so outrageous that people believed them because they couldn't imagine someone deliberately making them up. I've had friends who were silent when they could have spoken up for me. I've had days when I went to the office and sat down at my desk and just sat there almost catatonic with no energy to do anything. I didn't want to call anyone, I didn't want to answer the phone, I didn't want to go and visit anyone because I didn't know if I'd be welcomed or be sent away. I was down mentally, I was down spiritually, and eventually I was down physically to the point that I ended up in the emergency room with the flu and an asthma attack so severe I thought I was going to die.
Thee was almost no one except Kathleen who seemed to care about me, the presbytery committee that was supposed to help mediate the situation came to believe the lies that were being told. In the midst of all the discouragement there was one spot of hope and that was one member, Elaine Williamson, who recognized the depth of my depression and Elaine told me that she was making me a promise. She was going to pray for me twice every day, and she kept her promise. She would call me nearly every day and say I prayed for you today – or another time she would say I prayed for you this morning and I am getting ready to pray again – I just wanted you to know. Elaine's prayers and her faithfulness touched the depths of my soul. When last year one of the members of the MLK choir got up and sang somebody prayed for me, had me on their mind I broke down in tears because I am a witness to the truth of her song. I don't know if it is true or not that payer changes things, but I am a witness that prayer changes people who are prayed for, and I am a witness that prayer changes the people who pray.
I am a witness to the power of resurrection because the Lord lifted me out of the muck and out of the miry clay and set my feet on solid rock. The Lord made a way when there seemed no way. The Lord opened a door of opportunity and led me to a Church whose commitments to inclusiveness matched my commitments to inclusiveness, whose passion for justice and meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed matched my own. The Lord lifted me up out of my depression and enabled me to walk through the door of opportunity, to interview and to persist and to secure a call to this position. I am a witness that the Lord is good and his mercies endure forever. I am witness to the power of resurrection and new life because it happened to me.
Jesus said you shall be my witnesses in Judea, that is where you are now, but also in Samaria, in the land of your enemies, and even to the ends of the earth. Luke says that he said you shall receive power when that the Hold Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses. Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Can you witness to the power that comes from the Holy Spirit?
44Then he said to them, “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.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And 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.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “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.”