Eyewitnesses

Did you hear those words? “We are witnesses to these things.” The Apostles had seen an unjust execution and they weren’t afraid to say so. Months earlier, Jesus’ friends gathered on the day of resurrection and said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” They gave a witness to one of their own who missed seeing for himself.

Eyewitness testimony is critical in a courtroom. It is what corroborates evidence that might otherwise just be circumstantial. It has also become increasingly suspect as forensics have shown that memories can be unreliable, easily manipulated, altered, or biased.

What have you witnessed, and how certain are you that what you saw is true?

One of the interesting aspect of trial law is the hiring of “expert witnesses.” They are not people with any personal connection to a crime. They did not actually see something happen, but they are very good at analyzing DNA evidence or handwriting samples. Of course the question can be asked how objective they are when they are being paid for their expert opinion. What makes a witness genuine?

The church environment I grew up in placed a strong emphasis on being a witness. The noun “witness” became a verb as we were encouraged to engage in “witnessing” to our friends. Witnessing meant telling them what God had done in our lives and then urging them to invite Jesus into their hearts so they could go to heaven and avoid the discomfort of hell, just like us. When I think about it now, it seems to me that such agenda-driven witnesses are always a bit suspect.

That’s not to say that first-hand, eyewitness accounts are not important.

Dr. Washington Dodge was a passenger on the Titanic. He and his wife and young son were among the 705 survivors. Within days of the disaster, he wrote a detailed account of the sinking of the ship. It was written on stationary from the Carpathia, the ship that pulled him and his family and others out of the Titanic lifeboats. The quickness and disarray of the writing appears to give insight into his state of mind so soon after the tragedy. Dr. Dodge’s testimony is vivid. He writes of the final moments of the great ship: “We observed the closing incidents, the gradual submergence of the ship. The final extinguishment suddenly of all her lights, the final plunge downward. From this time until shortly after 4 in a sea gradually growing rougher & with a temperature of extreme cold we rowed about.”

Personal stories are powerful.

The disciples who gathered in a locked room on Easter day had experienced trauma. Their leader died a violent death and his body had disappeared from its grave. They were shocked and completely unanchored from the life they had embraced by following Jesus. The Gospel of John is the only of the four gospel witnesses to tell of Jesus entering the secure room and showing them his hands and side. Later they saw Thomas on the street and witnessed to him: “We have seen the Lord!” He didn’t believe, of course, and it took his own encounter in the same locked room the next day to convince him.

I guess we could ask whether the early Christian community that produced the Gospel of John had an agenda in sharing this story. They were certainly committed to the belief that Jesus was divine and showed himself in supernatural ways. Coming through locked doors is an effective way to demonstrate that. But the story also illustrates Jesus’ great “I am” sayings. Jesus said, “I am the door,” so it really doesn’t matter if the door to the room is locked. He said, “I am the light of the world,” and he appears at night and eliminates the darkness of their doubts.

In the book of Acts, some of the same disciples who touched Jesus’ hands and side in John 20 appear for a court appearance. It follows one of several imprisonments recorded in the accounts of the early Christians. The Apostles had been jailed for preaching and healing and attracting crowds, but during the night an angel appeared to release them from their cells and lead them out. The next morning, the prison door was found to be properly locked, just like the door to the secure room on the night Jesus appeared after the resurrection. By then, the Apostles were back in the temple to worship and were re-arrested and brought before the ruling council.

If there was ever a time to try to save one’s neck in a courtroom, this was it. Yet, the Apostles didn’t fudge their testimony or try to win friends when asked to give an account of their actions. They replied, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” There is no nuance or self-protective language there. They went on to share their understanding of Jesus as leader and Savior and concluded by saying “We are witnesses to these things.” I’d like to say that the Council was persuaded, but the verses following our text say that “they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” Thankfully, a wise old gentleman named Gamaliel calmed the waters and convinced the Council to adopt a wait and see attitude.

At the Easter children’s service last Sunday, I talked with the kids about Mary finding the empty grave and then seeing Jesus beside it. Jesus said to her, “Go tell others what you have seen.” The children and I talked about the good news of Jesus’ life and ministry and resurrection and how we can share that with others like Jesus instructed Mary. One of the girls, Amber, raised her hand as I was wrapping up my message. I wasn’t sure if I should call on her, since sometimes kids just want to share about their favorite cartoon or their pet and then get the message off track. She looked really serious, though, and I invited her to speak. She asked me, “What if they don’t believe you?”

What a great question! We can’t force anyone to believe anything. We don’t have that right. Just as important, everyone has their own spiritual path to find. That doesn’t mean that we can’t witness to our faith. It just means that we share our understanding of what is meaningful to us without imposing an agenda or assuming we know what’s best for others. That sort of humility would go a long way toward building bridges with other faiths.

This past week I’ve engaged in conversation with some folks who are very, very certain of what they believe. Specifically, they are certain they know what is best for transgender persons. They are enraged by those who speak out against laws that both permit and require discrimination. They are furious with the idea that transgender persons might use a restroom aligned with their gender identity rather than their birth certificate. In trying to engage persons on this topic, it becomes clear to me that many have been incited by fear-mongering and have never personally known a transgender man or woman. I think people need to be educated about something they know little about, but more importantly, they need to hear a witness about those whose lives are affected by discrimination. I’m grateful for the transgender persons in the church’s I’ve served who have helped me understand their lives and what their challenges are. I want to be a witness, and I guess that kind of witness does have an agenda. But there is a difference between imposing beliefs on others and speaking on behalf of justice?

What are you witnessing about?

Several years ago, a United Church of Christ pastor named Lillian Daniel wrote a book entitled “Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony.” It’s about the church she served in New England and the reluctance of people to talk about spiritual things. Through practice and persistence, though, church members began to share their experiences and found that it strengthened their faith and encouraged others. We’ve done that in our church, although it has usually been in the context of our stewardship campaign or perhaps spontaneously when we share joys and concern. I’ve heard some great stories from our people and I’d like to think we can be even more intentional about that. What did you experience when you climbed a mountain or when a child was born, or a job was lost, or you befriended a person of another faith, and so on? Please let me know if you’d like to give a witness during worship some Sunday. You have a story to tell, and there is probably someone who needs to hear it.

The Apostles said, “We are witnesses to these things.” In the Bahai faith, an obligatory prayers says “I bear witness, O my God, that you have created me to know you and worship you. I testify to this.” There are many kinds of testimonies. What is your witness, and who needs to hear it today?

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