A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 19, 2015 (Easter 3, Year B)
“You are witnesses of these things.”
I’ve never had to take the stand as a witness at a trial. Let alone the star witness. The one who fingers the accused mob boss in dramatic testimony or the one who provides the crucial piece of evidence that puts away the pyramid scheming shyster who’s been preying on trusting pensioners. I’ve watched enough Law & Order to know how these things go down and we’ve had our share of high profile trials around here of late. We seem to be on a continual loop of real life court drama from Whitey Bulger to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Aaron Hernandez.
Jesus, in one of his final post-Resurrection appearances, tells the disciples that they are “witnesses of these things.” It’s a curious word, “witness.” While we immediately think of the legal system, the Greek word for witness shares the same root as the word for martyr. So to take it to its extreme, to be a witness is to hold such strong belief in your account that you would be willing to die for it. The Latin word for witness derives from the word for testimony, meaning to give evidence of.
Jesus, then, as he prepares to take his leave of the disciples, is telling them to testify to the faith they have seen and experienced first-hand. And that their testimony matters so much that they must be willing to stake their life on it.
And certainly many of the disciples would do just that. They would literally be put on the stand for their faith — accused and killed for sharing their beliefs, for “witnessing” to the power of the risen Christ. So Jesus, fully aware that some of his disciples would suffer for their faith, tells them that they are not only witnesses of the faith but that they are to witness to the faith. That these “things” they have seen and heard are not only to be pondered but shared. The disciples were literally witnesses of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection. But they were also witnesses to the cosmic interaction between God and humanity in the unfolding of these events. And thus they cannot remain silent.
In many African-American churches the preacher will invite congregational participation by asking, “Can I get a witness?” If the congregation agrees with what’s being proclaimed from the pulpit, the call-and-response answer is usually “Amen!” or a “Preach it, brother.” In the Episcopal Church, the appropriate response to “Can I get a witness?” is generally awkward silence. And we typically don’t use “witness” as a verb around here. If I asked if anybody would like to come forward and witness to their faith this morning, I’m reasonably confident I wouldn’t get any takers. Though I’m open to it if anyone wants to come up here and finish the sermon…
Fortunately there are many ways to follow Jesus’ invitation to be witnesses to the faith that don’t involve standing up in church and sharing your personal testimony. For those of us who aren’t always comfortable witnessing with words, Jesus also invites us to witness with action. Words are sometimes necessary but action is always required. We witness to the power of the resurrection when we forgive those who hurt us, when we love those who hate us, when we fight injustice, when we work for peace.
So while Jesus was basically asking the disciples, and by extension us, “Can I get a witness?” he didn’t necessarily need a verbal answer. He was looking beyond words to action.
“You are witnesses of these things.” There’s a responsibility that comes with being a witness. If you see a crime being committed, you have a responsibility to report it even when it pushes against your natural inclination to “not get involved.” And if you are called to take the stand, you have a responsibility to accurately describe what you have seen. To truly serve as a witness you can’t keep silent. It doesn’t work that way. Because a witness is powerful only when he or she speaks of that which was witnessed.
The thing is, when it comes to our faith, we can’t just remain innocent bystanders. We must be witnesses. Witnesses to the good news of salvation; witnesses to the resurrection; witnesses to divine forgiveness; witnesses to God’s abiding love; witnesses to Jesus’ presence in the world. Yet when it comes to sharing our faith, far too many of us seem to be members of the Witness Protection program. We would rather move, have plastic surgery, and change our names than talk about Jesus with our friends or invite someone to church. And that must change.
Because, in a sense, your entire life is lived on a witness stand. And God invites you to give compelling testimony to what you have seen and heard about the faith that burns within you. You may get cross examined by those who don’t understand or are threatened by your work for justice and peace in the name of Jesus. But you simply stick to the truth of what you have witnessed and share it honestly and authentically. So help you God.
This week we all encountered a powerful courtroom witness named Ursula Ward. She wasn’t actually on the stand when she gave her testimony. But she offered the world a powerful witness to her faith. You see, Ursula was the mother of Odin Lloyd, the young man murdered by former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. And in the immediate aftermath of the guilty verdict being handed down, she was given the opportunity to speak. She spoke openly, honestly, gracefully, faithfully, and with great dignity.
She didn’t try to hide her pain, tearfully expressing that “The day I laid my son Odin to rest, I felt my heart stop beating for a moment. I felt like I wanted to go into that hole with my son, Odin.”
And then, standing in the same room as the man convicted of her son’s murder, a man who not once ever expressed any remorse, Ursula Ward spoke some courageous and powerful words:
“I forgive the hands of the people who had a hand in my son’s murder…and I pray and hope that someday everyone out there will forgive them also.” And then she sat down.
When I heard it I was personally blown away by this woman’s witness. It wasn’t until I blogged about it and shared a video link to her statement on Facebook that a member of the diocesan staff told me that Ursula Ward is actually an Episcopalian; a faithful member of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan.
So we can do this. As difficult as it may be to witness to the power of Jesus Christ, we have a role model in Ursula Ward. As Christians we have inherited this incredible faith; as disciples of Jesus we have a responsibility to share what we have seen and experienced in our daily lives.
“You are witnesses of these things.” Go. Tell the world.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck