With thanks to friends & colleagues from the PRCL list, particularly Kathy Donley, for the story of the novice preacher.
You are witnesses of these things
That's what Jesus says to his disciples, as he meets them in their fear and confusion in those extraordinary days after the Resurrection.
You are witnesses
so let's think about that whole calling to witness, handed down from that little group in 1st century Jerusalem to us in St M's this morning.
A witness, according to wikipedia is
“someone who has, or claims to have, knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest”
“Witness are usually only permitted to testify to what they have experienced first hand.”
So to just what are the disciples witnesses...?
First, and most dramatically, to the presence of the risen Christ among them.
He appears suddenly unlooked for, unannounced,THERE in their place of doubt and uncertainty, there with his message “Peace be with you”
When the last they'd seen of him was a pale, lifeless body laid to rest in Joseph of Arimathea's garden tomb, to be invited to touch the still-raw wounds of the living dead does not seem like a recipe for peace to me...
I'm with the disciples who assumed, quite rationally, that Jesus MUST be a ghost, and it seems somewhat unfair that he should ask them why they are frightened.
They've dealt with the terrifying events of Holy Week, have no idea whether or when the soldiers may come for them – and now they are expected to rejoice at an apparition that seems entirely contrary to anything that makes sense in their world.
But this is Jesus – and even as they panic, they are filled with joy – maybe not quite enough to quell all doubts but nonetheless joy...Something wonderful is happening here, even if they do not yet understand it.
And then Jesus proves his physical reality by eating a piece of fish...his is a real body, with real needs...ghosts do not, cannot eat.
This is JESUS – with them in all the wonder of his resurrected body
Once this has been confirmed, he begins to teach them, just as he has all along.
Once more he unpacks for them the meaning of Scripture, shows them the path of salvation history leading to that time, that place, these people...
He “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures” and at last everything falls into place.
All that has happened had always been meant to happen
Good Friday was not a day of unmitigated disaster but the ultimate revelation of God's boundless love – and now they see with their own eyes the wonder of the resurrection.
“You are witnesses of these things”
More, they are witnesses to the sheer joy of knowing themselves forgiven...
I'm sure that each of them in that upper room was all too conscious of his failures, of courage, loyalty and love...each of them must have repented 1000 times as they watched Jesus die on the cross...and now they receive forgiveness and the peace that he promised.
And then Jesus starts that amazing relay that carries on from that day to this...”to be proclaimed to all nations beginning from Jerusalem”
That chain stretches across the centuries...til someone tells someone who tells someone who tells YOU
YOU are witnesses of these things
But remember, you cannot be a witness to something you have not yet experienced...
We witness not on the basis of hearsay but from heartfelt, living faith.
Living faith comes from a direct experience of God's transforming love..that same experience that enabled a small group of frightened labourers to spread the gospel across the known world...
Living faith comes from repenting and knowing ourselves forgiven.
Living faith cannot keep silent – but reaches out to touch the lives of others.
YOU are witnesses of these things.
Just before the passage we've heard today, Luke records that wonderful encounter on the road to Emmaus...We don't get to hear it this year, but I want you to recall it for a moment because I think it's helpful to remember that the disciples on the road did not recognise Jesus at first.
They weren't in a super holy, super spiritual state of enlightenment...they were bumbling along, bewildered and anxious as most of us generally are...
But there, amid their confusion, was Jesus...walking beside them, helping them understand God's purposes, present with them in the breaking of bread.
And their experience is so often ours.
For many of us, our most frequent, most meaningful, most transformative experiences of God happen when we are with other people:when we talk about real life, the issues that thrill or perplex us, when we break bread and share a meal together, when we welcome the newcomer in our midst,when we explore scripture together.
It happens when we share what we can, and when we receive what others have to offer.
YOU are witnesses of these things.
Let me finish with a story.
In a small theological college, a first year student was asked to preach.
This novice worked all night on a sermon, but no words came. At the appropriate time, he stood in the pulpit, looked out at his fellow students and said “Do you know what I’m going to say?” They all shook their heads “no” and he said “neither do I, the service has ended, go in peace.”
Well, the Principle was not pleased. He told the student, “You will preach again tomorrow, and you had better have a real sermon.” Again, he stayed up all night, but still no sermon. When he stood in the pulpit, he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” All the students nodded “yes” so the preacher said “Then there is no need for me to tell you. The service has ended, to in peace.”
Now, the Principle was angry. “You, you have one more chance. Preach the gospel tomorrow or you will be expelled from the college.” Again he worked all night, and the next morning stood before his classmates and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of them nodded “yes” while the other half shook their heads “no.” So the young preacher said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended, go in peace.”
This time, the Principle just smiled. He walked up to the student, put his arm around his shoulders and said “Hmmm…those who know, tell those who don’t know? Today, the gospel has been proclaimed. The service has ended, go in peace.”
Those who know tell those who don't
YOU are witnesses of these things, entrusted in your turn with that precious task of telling, or better still showing, friends, neighbours, family the wonders of love, forgiveness and transformation that you have experienced...to all nations, beginning in Cainscross and Selsley.