I wonder whether any of you have ever had to be a witness in a law court. It’s something I’ve been asked to do on quite a few occasions. It comes with the territory of being a pastor; sometimes to people who have got themselves into strange and difficult situations!
As a result, I perhaps have a slightly unhealthy obsession with court-room dramas, and especially court-room stories. Like the one I heard last week, in which a lawyer was questioning a Doctor, who was a witness in a trial. The lawyer asked the witness, "Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?"
The witness replied "No."
"Did you check for blood pressure?"
"Did you check for breathing?" asked the Lawyer
"So,” the Lawyer asserted, “it is possible that the patient was still alive when you began the autopsy?"
"No." said the Doctor
"How can you be so sure, Doctor?"
"Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar."
"But,” asked the lawyer “could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?"
"Yes, replied the witness, “it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere."
The legal system depends on witnesses. We need people who can give reliable accounts of events so that proper judgments can be made. And we need those witnesses to be credible. Time and again, when I’ve been a witness, people that I’m supporting with my testimony have routinely asked ‘You will wear your dog-collar, won’t you?’. Poor things – they seem to believe that someone with a clerical collar is likely to be more credible than someone in a suit. Probably because they don’t know me very well!
Jesus needed reliable witnesses too. He knew that the best way of spreading the Good News of his resurrection was to get people talking about it – people whose credibility could not be in doubt. So, let’s look at the people whom he chose. Strangely, these were not lawyers, judges, policemen or even priests! Jesus’ disciples were a rag-tag bunch of ordinary, everyday people – or what English politicians keep calling ‘hard working families’.
By the way - I wonder what our main political parties would have made of Jesus in their notion of society. He was a wanderer, who lived off the charity of others, and who generated no income by his labour. I don’t think many English politicians would have liked Jesus very much. To them he would have been a scrounger, who deserved no support from the rest of society. We should perhaps be a little concerned when the only value we place on someone is the question of how hard they work to pay taxes. Our politicians need to remember, I think, that there are many ways of contributing to society…being ‘hard working’ is only one of them.
Anyway – back to the disciples. Hard working men and women. Many were fishermen. Some were civil servants. One, Simon the Zealot was thought to be a Canaanite…a non-Jew…a foreigner who travelled with Jesus living off the charity of others! (UKIP wouldn’t have liked that!). Some commentators believe that Matthew might have been a pub landlord! Ordinary men and women. Men and women with jobs and families. Men and women, in fact, just like you and me.
It was ordinary people that Jesus chose to be his credible witnesses. Ordinary people who had, only days before, abandoned him to his fate, and run away. Ordinary people who still didn’t understand the reasons for Jesus death and resurrection. Ordinary people who were not theologians. Even now, in today’s story, Jesus has to patiently explain the Scriptures to them. They haven’t got it yet. They are not complete. Their theology is only just beginning to take hold. But to Jesus – they are just what he needs.
“You will be my witnesses” he says – to them, and to ordinary people, just like us.
But what is it that Jesus wants them to be witnesses about?
Well, in the passage we just read, there are four key ideas that Jesus says his disciples are witnesses of. Let’s hear it once more:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer(1) and to rise from the dead on the third day (2), and that repentance (3) and forgiveness of sins (4) is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
So, disciples are first of all witnesses to the idea that the Messiah is to suffer. Jesus’ suffering is key to understanding Jesus’ mission. It is through his willing self-sacrifice – even to the point of torture and execution – that Jesus points us to the way that the world will be saved. The world will not be saved by political power and military might – the very things that nailed him to the cross. I think it may have been Rowan Williams who first introduced me to the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. In other words, the world is locked into a myth, that somehow we can make the world a better place – that we can redeem it – through violence. The ‘myth of redemptive violence’ is what drives us to keep on creating ever larger war machines. We somehow delude ourselves into thinking that if we can just get more guns than the bad guys, we will be able to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pacifist. If you try to shoot me after the service, I will shoot back! We need our armed forces, and I praise God for every peacemaker among them. But, I hate to say it, the use of force will never be enough to overcome evil. Evil will always find a way of nailing up the Son of God onto a cross. If you need evidence of that statement – just look at how a million Christians in the middle east are currently fleeing for their lives from the Islamic State hornets’ nest that was stirred up by our ‘righteous war on terror’.
Jesus calls his witness to shout out from the hilltops that violence is not the way. He reminds us in the garden of Gethsemane that ‘he who lives by the sword will die by the sword’. On the cross, Jesus allows the violence of the world to overwhelm him, and then, by the power of Love – the Love of a parent for a child – he overcomes the violence, and rises from the dead in a new a resurrected body. The first born of the dead. The first-fruits of those who sleep. Death is overcome, violence becomes irrelevant. Love conquers all. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
So the second thing we are witnesses to is resurrection. And the third and fourth, in a last few minutes, are that repentance leads to the forgiveness of sins. At the very start of his ministry (when you remember, he was living off the charity of others) Jesus cried out ‘repent’…or ‘turn around’ (which is the more accurate meaning of the word he used). Turn away from human ways of living and turn towards God. Turn away from the myth of redemptive violence. Turn away from economic systems that keep the poor in poverty and keep the wealthy in power. Turn away from political ideas that shut-out the stranger, and those which propagate the Dickensian lie that charity begins at home.
Then finally, the witnesses of Jesus can say, there is forgiveness. Forgiveness for seeking more than our daily bread. Forgiveness for trying to make our Kingdom on earth instead of God’s. Forgiveness for our lack of forgiveness to those who have trespassed against us.
Then, and only then, will the new heaven and the new earth promised at the very end of the Bible come to pass. Then, and only then, will the true power of the death and resurrection of Jesus be known. Not some heavenly transaction to wipe away an individual’s sin… but a wholesale, full-scale, radical re-ordering of the whole of human life. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
That’s what Jesus called his followers to be witness too. That’s what we are still called to witness to. That is our vocation and our calling.