“Witness Protection”

  1. Lk 24

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“You are witnesses of these things.”

So Jesus says to his disciples during one of his appearances to them after his resurrection. The term, “witness” came to be a kind of code word for the evangelism of Christians. Because they had seen the Risen Christ with their own eyes, they were able to testify to God’s miraculous work.

And the Greek word for “witness” is the same as our word, “martyr.” The early Christians who testified for their faith in public often suffered martyrdom.

Now these ancient concepts of “witnessing” may not seem relevant to us, today. We in the West don’t risk our lives for our faith. While Christians in other parts of the world are persecuted, we can practice our religion without the risk of becoming martyrs.

And we might also feel uncomfortable with the idea of personal evangelism. While the people who distribute pamphlets about being saved have confidence in their convictions, their actions would be hard for us to emulate.

Most of us would be shy about approaching strangers to talk about personal matters. We would be afraid to look like we wanted to impose our beliefs on other people.

I can see how an unbeliever might be depressed about the state of the world. He might be discouraged by the state of his own soul. But unless he asks me directly for advice and wants me to share with him what I myself believe, I am likely to keep my religion to myself. I wouldn’t want to intrude upon his privacy.

And, after all, things have changed since the first Easter. Can’t we assume that people around us have already heard the Gospel at some time or another? So will it make any difference if they hear it one more time from us? Those who reject the doctrine surely know what they’re rejecting!

All that said, I don’t believe we can let ourselves off the hook. Human beings, however modern, still have spiritual needs. They still desire meaning and purpose in their lives. They want to be in touch with a Higher Power beyond themselves.

In other words, human beings still need the Gospel—even if they don’t know it! That’s where our witnessing comes in.

My own pet peeve in this regard is the way skeptics don’t recognize that there is more than one interpretation of Christ’s message. Even in the Bible, there are different versions of Christ’s appearances to the disciples after the Resurrection. Some versions have him walking through walls or on water. Today’s Gospel has Jesus eating fish!

And because there are many different interpretations of Christian faith, it’s easy to think that some crude version that skeptics are rejecting represents the whole religion.

Here’s an example of a doctrine that has been getting a lot of attention recently: it’s called “the headship doctrine.” This doctrine follows a Scripture text that states that just as Christ is head over the husband, so the husband is to be head over the wife. That gives the father divine authority over the family.

This curious doctrine has been proclaimed not only by American fundamentalists but also by some Evangelical members of the Church of England. Many of us here, though, would join with skeptics in finding the headship doctrine outdated and sexist.

We witness by showing how love flourishes in the Christian family. This doesn’t demand that we be patriarchal – though we can agree that family relations matter—for example, that wives are to be “honored,” as Scripture says, not cast off when they grow old.

In other words, there are many ways to witness: wearing a cross in public, for example, or standing up for a fellow-worker who is being bullied.

And we can witness within the church community: this kind of evangelism is often overlooked. While we may not feel called to preach on the street corners, we might email someone who hasn’t been to church in a while, to be sure that she is OK.

When we do that, we present Christ’s message to those whom we might call, the “formerly-churched.” With a little encouragement, the formerly-churched can sometimes be coaxed back into the parish family.

We may also find opportunities to encourage those whom we could call the “under-churched.” While these folks worship occasionally, they struggle to find their way into a solid religious practice. Again, a phone call or email can encourage them to think about what God is calling them to do.

“You are witnesses of these things.” What have I witnessed that showed me that Jesus lives?

Well, I have seen changes in people’s lives. Real changes. Lasting changes.

I have seen reclusive folks who learn to value human company. I have seen self-indulgent people who started to give their time to others. I have seen hedonistic souls who began to fast and pray. I have seen the troubled as they found peace.

One person I’m thinking about today is a member of our parish, Basil Elliot. As some of you may have heard, Basil died unexpectedly last Sunday in a nursing home; he was 92.

Basil lived around the corner for many years. He wandered into our church one day in the early 1990’s; I learned that he had come to mourn the loss of his favorite niece who had just died in a plane crash in Argentina.

While Basil had been baptized as an infant into the Church of England, his contacts with Christianity as an adult had been minimal. Nevertheless, as he was grieving, he found comfort here in our church. In the course of time, he was appointed chair of our building committee; he also served as Head Usher and a member of the Vestry.

Admittedly, he had his own ideas about things. For example, I happened to learn that he had never been confirmed. When I pointed out to Basil that, according to church law, vestry members were supposed to be confirmed Episcopalians or Anglicans, he said he wasn’t interested – he was content as he was.

In this case, I let him be an exception to the rule. But I also noticed that he didn’t receive communion, and I informed him that church regulations require members “in good standing” to receive communion 3 times a year. His response was to come up to partake of the bread and wine exactly three times a year—and to make sure I gave him credit each time!

So Basil became a familiar figure in our church. With his clipped British accent and Cambridge University tie and his flashes of humor, he enlivened our parish family. At the same time, our community gave him precious new life.

“You are witnesses of these things.” The Risen Christ brings resurrection. Even out of tragedy, God works for good. Even those most set in their ways can change.

“We, too, have been witnesses to these things.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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