Pastor Amy's Blog Homepage
Witnesses to the Resurrection
April 22, 2012
This week I meet with some other ministers in Northwest Philadelphia. We gather every month to talk about what’s happening in our congregations, to reflect on our faith traditions, and share our stories. This week, we talked about a book that a local pastor had written about the story of Jonah. He talked about his process of researching the work of a 16th century reformer and this reformer’s understanding of the four chapter book of Jonah. One thing he stressed was that the way we understand words in the 21st century were not necessarily the way the 16th century reformers used the same words. The words of each generation are imbued with meaning, context, and their own stories. In reading words written 500 years ago, we must take that into consideration. That small but significant linguistic point, is—quite often—forgotten.
This conversation was on my mind as I read the gospel lesson this week. The text for this week is full of “spooky stuff.” Jesus is back—in resurrected form—and the disciples are pretty freaked out by it.
The disciples were gathered in this week’s text, and they were talking about how they had just encountered Jesus in their travels. The disciples talked together about how they didn’t realize it was Jesus when they met him on the road, until he broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with them. Then their eyes were opened and they understood. And as they were talking, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” And scared them about to death. The text says they were startled and terrified, as if they’d seen a ghost.
If you’ve ever had one of those moments where you think you’ve seen something that you are pretty sure is not there—it’s terrifying. And a little embarrassing. Because rational minds do not believe in the spooky stuff. To say that it happened to you, that you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, is to risk folks thinking that you are not all there. Or that you are terribly impressionable.
But all of them in that room saw Jesus just appear and heard him say those strange words of discomfort, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus must have sensed that the disciples were trying to decide if this was really happening to them, because Jesus said to them, “Look at my hands and feet—it’s really me! I’m not a ghost—I’m flesh and bones. This is really happening.”
And while the disciples were happy to see Jesus, they were still skeptical. So Jesus asked for something to eat, and he ate it in front of them, as if to prove that he was not a ghost. And he talked with them, and connected the dots. He told them why his death happened, and what it meant. He helped them understand.
Jesus finished up by saying “You are witnesses to these things.”
So many words have taken on new, unintended meanings in our culture. Sin, for example, has become a matter of personal piety—something, or someone to avoid—rather than communal failings. Sin has become more about law than relationship.
There are some words in this text that bother me. The last sentence is most troublesome. Jesus says, “You are witnesses to these things.” That last sentence sounds like I have to do something really uncomfortable —like hand out chic tracts on the street, like stand on a box in the middle of downtown Philadelphia and declare that everyone was going to hell unless they believe. Witness. Witnessing has come to mean that we must pound people over the head with the “good news”. At a certain point, after being pounded repeatedly on the head, the news is no longer good. The news hurts and is quite unwelcome. Witnessing does not speak to the person’s needs—I’ve seen the witness become hurtful and judgmental.
This is what “witness” has come to mean in the Church.
And because we progressives have seen the destructive results of that kind of witnessing in the church, we’ve decided to reject the whole notion. We’ve decided to not witness at all. Not tell the story. We’ve decided that we were going to stop doing anything that remotely looks or sounds like anything related to this bad thing—witnessing.
But this is not what Jesus is talking about. We are not taking our bibles and banging them against people heads. We are not insistent that we know the whole truth, or that “this is the way it is.” We are simply saying what we’ve seen. That is quite different from the certainty of street preachers and the condemnation of chic tracts.
So, what is it that we are seeing? What do we see that says to you—God is here. God has made God’s self known to us. Christ is alive!
On Good Friday, I attended an interfaith service commemorating all the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia this year. While we remembered the death of gun victims, we remembered the death of Jesus, who also died violently.
This is the second year I’ve gone to this service and I’ll confess that I do not it. It’s hard to go because there are always counter demonstrator that do all they can to break up the peaceful gathering. Last year, they hired an ice cream truck to come and play the ice cream truck music while we prayed and sang and mourned. It was very clever, I thought. But really distracting.
This year, the counter protestors decided to turn their car alarms on at the same time. It provided a difficult obstacle up against our meager sound system. But, in the distraction, and in the fear and anger towards the counter protesters, at some point in the gathering, I sensed a calm about our group. We were focused, prayerful, alert. It felt as if Jesus had breathed, “Peace be with you” on the community. We began a little spooked and nervous by what we were seeing around us, but as we prayed, we sensed calm, even as the counter demonstrators screamed and taunted us. We were empowered to witness to God’s holy peace in the world. We prayed for a day when God’s peace was fully known, and we began to hope together that it could happen.
Even on Good Friday, when we wondered why Jesus had to be killed at the hands of the empire, we had a sense of hope, a sense that we were seeing God at work, we had seen the possibilities of what could happen, should we all raise our voices together and witness to the hope we have in Christ.
Last week, I had an opportunity to speak at Princeton Seminary with John Linscheid and Randy Spaulding. We led seminarians and a few Germantown Mennoniters in singing together songs of hope—we sang some favorites—“My life flows on” and “Praise God from whom all Blessings flow” and “God of the Bible.” And Randy, John and I gave our testimony. We talked about the power of the story here at Germantown Mennonite, of being removed from conference, of being removed from the body of Christ. John and Randy talked about no longer having ministerial credentials because they decided to live their lives in the light.
I was a little nervous to speak—I have been intimately aquainted with these stories for so long that I forgot that they had power. I forgot that our stories were meaningful, that our witness meant something. But, that evening was a powerful reminder to me that we need to keep witnessing to the resurrection.
We need to keep pointing out those places where we see God at work, where we notice Jesus’ breath of peace on us, and God’s presence at work among us.
We do not need to stand on street corners, or beat people over the head with our bibles. In fact, I’d recommend against it. But Jesus calls us to witness to these things, to testify, to point out, and to make known those places where we have seen Jesus.
This is truly what this season of Easter is all about. We witness to the resurrection. We identify the hope we have because of this story. We keep telling it. And telling it. And in doing that, we open each others eyes to more hope and more light and more signs of the reign of God all around us.
Being witnesses to these things—it’s like a muscle. We must keep using it, or the muscle becomes weak. Witnessing to these things is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first—perhaps because we are living by this false definition of “witness” that we have come to accept. But Jesus calls us to share our story, to remember, to be witnesses to what we have seen.
In a few weeks—on May 6th, we’ll have an opportunity in worship to share our own stories of hope and resurrection. I invite you to think about your own stories of hope and come ready to share them. There will be no sermon on May 6th—your stories are the sermon.
Let us together, during this Easter Season, resurrect our witness, redeem that word from those that seek to overpower with their certainty. Let us together, during this Easter season, witness with fresh eyes and confident loving voices, to the incredible ways God is being made known to us. AMEN.
What can I do?