Witnesses

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Have you seen Jesus?

 

A few years ago, a woman in Missouri found Jesus in a bag of Cheetos.  She was reaching into her snack bag while watching TV and pulled out what appeared to be a miniature orange sculpture, an exact likeness of Jesus himself.  She has carefully protected the tiny, highly preservative-laden snack that she refers to as “Cheesus.”  Meanwhile, a man in South Carolina slapped a slice of Velveeta on a piece of bread and placed it in his toaster oven.  When it popped out, there was an image of Jesus burned into it.  He says he keeps it in a Tupperware container on his bedside table as a reminder that Jesus is always with him. 

 

The Epistle for today that was not part of our readings says “We will be like Jesus, for we shall see him as he is.”  We just don’t expect to see him in a bag of Cheetos or on a slice of cheese bread.

 

People who see something amazing and then tell others about it are called ‘witnesses’, right?

 

Twenty-five years ago, shortly after making the first “Indiana Jones” film, Harrison Ford starred in a movie simply titled “Witness.”  It was about an eight year old Amish boy traveling by Amtrak with his mother to see relatives.   He became the sole witness to the brutal and senseless murder of an undercover policeman in a train station.  The film is fascinating because of the clash of cultures and the intersection of personal faith and public responsibility – all because of what a small boy witnessed one day while traveling.

 

Jesus said in Luke 24: “You are my witnesses.”  Witnesses of what?

 

We are told that the eleven who huddled in a secret place that day had seen Jesus heal sick people.  They saw him stand on a hillside and speak the Beatitudes.  They saw bread and fish multiplied.  And they even saw Jesus bring a dead man back to life.  Barely two days earlier, those who hadn’t already fled saw Jesus brutally and senselessly murdered.  Now, to everyone’s surprise, they saw something else.  They became witnesses to the resurrection.

 

One of the common Jewish beliefs of the time was that spirits hung around the bodies of dead people for a few days.  So it’s not surprising they thought this was a paranormal event and that they’d seen a ghost!  The text indicates that Jesus made sure they understood that he wasn’t just an apparition.  He showed them the nail marks.  They touched his hands and side.  Jesus ate a piece of fish and remarked that ghosts don’t usually eat dinner.

 

The Gospel of John tells a similar story that we reflected on last Sunday, but that story is mostly about Thomas and his doubts.  Actually, each of the four gospels has its own slant on the resurrection.  Matthew, Mark, Luke & John are sometimes called the ‘four witnesses’ and to be honest it’s a little hard to harmonize their different accounts.  What did the women find at the tomb?  An angel?  A man?  Two men?  It depends which gospel you read.  What did the women do when they found Jesus had come back to life?  Matthew and Luke say they rushed to tell the disciples.  Mark says they told no one.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke each give a different list of the women who went to the tomb early in the morning.

 

Does this mean the witnesses gave false reports?  I guess that depends on how look at it.  We might expect to hear the same story from each witness – especially in the Bible, right?  But people who observe witnesses in court settings say discrepancies are normal and important.  They expect there to be differences in reports of the same event.  Otherwise it’s like when you were a kid and you conspired with your siblings over a broken lamp to make sure everyone told the same story.  Differences actually bolster credibility.  The point is, do the witnesses all basically give witness to the same experience?  The answer is ‘yes.’

 

Many people struggle with what is meant by the resurrection of Jesus, and I believe there is plenty of room for differences here as well.  As I shared on Easter morning, it is helpful to remember that the resurrection – no matter how we understand it – is not ultimately about the resuscitation of a corpse.  Think about it.  The Gospel of John says that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, but that was something else entirely.  Lazarus eventually died again.  The resurrection of Jesus is about his perpetual life.  In our doctrines and discussions of the resurrection, and especially in our differences, we can lose sight of its ultimate meaning.  Marcus Borg, a Christian theologian and writer, reminds us that “the central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that his followers continue to experience him as a living reality, a living presence after his death.”

 

Have you seen Jesus?

 

We are like those Gospel witnesses.  We all have a different experience and perspective on the same Jesus.  But our voices are all valid and valued.

 

Jesus said, “You ARE my witnesses.”  A witness is something that we ARE and it’s something that we DO.  If I’ve seen something happen, then I am a witness.  If I tell about that event, I am giving a witness.

 

The disciples were the same.  They saw something.  And they were about to tell the world about it.  They were standing on one of those hinges of human history.  They were swinging on that hinge into a new era of grace and hope and love as the Realm of God was breaking forth.  They were moving from a personal experience to a public presentation of the Gospel.

 

When I was a teenager, many persons in my church were involved in a program called “Evangelism Explosion.”  They were trained to ask questions like “If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain you would spend eternity with God?” Then they were sent in pairs to the homes of virtual strangers to share their witness and ask their questions.  The goal was to get people to say a prayer asking Jesus into their hearts so they could be saved and go to heaven.  That is one way to understand the concept of witnessing.

 

I was blessed early in life with a friend and pastor named Jim.  I met Jim when I was nine years old, and I remember the first Sunday I shook his hand after worship.  He had no thumb!  My hand slipped past where it had once been and he enthusiastically shook my whole arm.  We remained friends for the rest of his life.  I had planned one spring to ask him to fill-in at the church I served in Buffalo when I had to be away.  Before I could call him, I received the sad news that he had suffered a massive stroke.  He died soon after, and I attended his funeral at the same church where I met him almost 40 years earlier.  Several hundred people gathered to give witness to Jim’s long and good life.  They recounted how he started a church from scratch, how he had served a large university congregation, and then how in the last years of his ministry he left traditional pastoral work to serve the poor of the inner city.  His six grandchildren read Scripture and sang songs.  The man who served as his pastor related how just before the tragic stroke, Jim asked him to come to his home, saying “I have something very important to talk to you about.”  The pastor went, wondering what it might be.  After serving tea and making small talk, Jim said “I think what Jesus was trying to tell us is that we really need to love one another.”  That was it!  The big, important, urgent thing he needed to say.  That pastor talked at Jim’s funeral about the witness of Jim’s whole life, and the important reminder in his last days of loving the way Jesus loved.

 

We all have a witness:

 

When we assure one another that we are all the much-loved Children of God, we are witnessing for Jesus.

 

When we work and pray for peace, or feed someone who is hungry, or fix their house, we are doing the work of a living Christ.

 

When we take an unpopular stand for what is just and right, we are proclaiming the truth of the resurrection.

 

I will always remember Jim’s wounded hand.  He lost his thumb in an unfortunate accident as a child.  But his grip was strong and his witness was unfailing.

 

The nail wounds in Jesus’ hands, related by John, were the visible symbols of his self-giving love in his glorified, resurrected body.

 

With our hands, too, we demonstrate the love of Jesus for every person.

 

Have you seen Jesus?  What story does YOUR life tell?  Our stories our different, but together they relate the whole gospel of Jesus.

 

Jesus is alive!  He spirit is alive in us today.

 

Your witness makes a difference in this world!

 

Amen!

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