Jesus said: ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.' (Luke 24.46-48)
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?"
"Well,” 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’.
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. Some commentators believe that Matthew might have been a pub landlord!
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. Their theology is only just beginning to form. But to Jesus – they are just what he needs.
“You 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. If you heard my sermon on Good Friday, you’ll know that Jesus’ suffering has a whole plethora of meaning. If you didn’t hear it…why not look it up after this service? For now, let’s just confine ourselves to this thought about the suffering of Jesus: Evil will always find a way of nailing up the Son of God onto a cross. And yet Jesus will always offer us hope that such suffering can be transformed, transmuted, redeemed.
We are witnesses to that process of transformation (which is the second point of today’s passage). On the cross, Jesus allows the violence of the world to overwhelm him, and then, by the power of Love, he overcomes the violence, and rises from the dead in a resurrected body. The first born of the dead. The first-fruits of those who sleep. Death is overcome, violence becomes irrelevant and has no more power over him. Love conquers all. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Thirdly, we are witnesses to the power of repentance. From the very start of his ministry, Jesus cried out ‘repent’…or ‘turn around’ (which is the more accurate meaning of the word he used). Turn around from human ways of living and turn towards God. Turn away from the myth that violence can defeat 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, with the confidence of the Resurrection that ‘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, as I suggested on Good Friday, a mere heavenly transaction to wipe away an individual’s sin… but a wholesale, full-scale, radical re-ordering of the whole of human life. That’s why we pray “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. We are Jesus’ army of ordinary people, today. That is our vocation and our calling.
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