April 19, 2015: Witnesses of What?

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
The Third Sunday of Easter

You’d think the disciples would be overjoyed that Jesus is no longer dead. Surprisingly to us who know where the story is headed, their reaction is quite natural. They’re terrified he isn’t still dead. Oh, they’ve heard stories of Jesus sightings. Suddenly in their midst, as they talk of these, he appears. Yet, they still doubt, thinking he’s a ghost. Seeing his scared hands and feet – eating fish in their presence doesn’t help. We don’t figure out resurrection on our own, if at all. Only when Jesus gets into their heads – ours, opens minds do we get it. “Go. Proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations. Now you are witnesses of these things.”

A few weeks ago, after checking out in a grocery store line, I notice a commotion some aisles over to my right. People turn, staring at a woman who’s hollering and waving her hands wildly in the air, declaring God’s glory and praising Jesus. Folks act annoyed, unpersuaded by her message, probably since she sends those who won’t believe her to hell, in Jesus’ name, of course. To be honest, I was not persuaded to leave the Episcopal Church – just the store. I did quickly pull up my overcoat collar to hide my other collar, and get out – hoping not to be noticed for who I am.

Flannery O’Connor’s character, the Misfit, ends the short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, “If Jesus did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.” What do you think – did Jesus do what he said?

A recent Gallup poll says 53% of Americans believe religion is important. Only a quarter of these report their beliefs change their lives. Those disciples who encounter the risen Jesus do more than believe. They are transformed into empowered, fearless founders of a new understanding of God. They share their goods so others won’t go without. That’s how God’s justice and redistribution system works, by the way. They care for widows. They feed the hungry; don’t threaten anyone with God’s wrath. They invite and welcome the stranger and lost. They are tax collectors, fishermen, who could earn more and live easier than wandering about telling a strange story for which they’ll die. People notice their new beliefs about Jesus change their lives.

Resurrection is more than belief. It’s a new reality apprehending us, showing us that God changes death into life, forgives the unforgiveable, loves us all. We’re to do the same. If this story hasn’t changed you, Jesus is probably still dead for you. Jesus continually raises us up to be witnesses. Too often, we dumb Jesus down, “I won’t invite you to my church. If you want to come, look for directions on the web site, but I’m not telling you. We don’t want to offend anyone.” We may not say it exactly that way. We imply we are apathetic by saying nothing – you know, we do as Jesus and those disciples, invite and welcome. Jesus probably appreciates a “cold fish” witness about as much as the woman shouting his name in the grocery store. Seriously and empowered in God’s love, you are witnesses of these things.

The Easter miracle continues each time we gather in his name. Without resurrection, we’d be at Starbucks reading the paper and sipping coffee right now. At least by showing up at church, people may notice which side you’re on – as a deaf church member once told me. Didn’t hear a word I preached, which might have been a good thing. He shows up anyway. We knew which side he was on.  What does your life bear witness of? Would others guess Jesus is risen by watching you?

You are witnesses – of what things? Did it really happen? To say we have evidence, but lack proof may not exactly comfort you. We are witnesses something happened and still does. Most of us are here because someone loved us enough to tell us the story – of how God comes to mingle among us – suffers and dies, defeats death and comes back for us, inviting us into a renewed relationship of life and joy now. We are witnesses of these things. Many people long for God’s love and grace – to be invited into a place where they can safely ask questions, express doubts – where people will listen to their pain, walk with them, dry their tears, and accept them just as God does. Jesus never boots out anybody for their doubts and fears – just invites all to come see for themselves. Our mission is to love one another. God does the rest.

A young friend, bright and thoughtful, wants to take faith seriously. He’s been wounded by some of God’s people who say religious words, yet act harsh and mean spirited. He tells me he just can’t believe resurrection – he doesn’t see it. I wonder where he looks. Doesn’t he just fit right in with Jesus’ disciples who disbelieve and doubt, those Jesus keeps coming for, just as they are on their journey? Maybe the problem is witness. He can’t see enough evidence Jesus is risen – in the church, by our indifference, lack of passion, lack of care for others. I still think one day Jesus may slip up on my friend, maybe through us who are witnesses of these things.

I have never experienced Jesus as those disciples report, but I have moments when my mind suddenly opens. Sometimes it happens when I listen lovingly to someone I’ve ignored. I realize something greater than am I, is messing with me. Can’t prove it – just sense it. I believe that’s God drawing us into a new place – resurrection, again. We get seven weeks of Easter because it’s more than we can take in on a day – even a lifetime. As the Misfit says, “If Jesus did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him.” I’ll bet the house on that. You are witnesses of these things. Are we, really?


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