Apr. 8, 2012 Easter “The Testimony of Witnesses”

Never believe anything just because you read it on the internet, or hear about it on television, or most especially because you see it pictured on the front of those newspapers in the checkout line at the grocery store. We live in the information age – there are facts in abundance; both true and completely fictitious – we’re bombarded with facts from the time we get up until we go to bed at night. We are told everything from what’s going on on the other side of the world, to what’s going on inside the heads of our political leaders and everything in between. And there is no way for us to verify all these facts, is there? I find myself having to mostly navigate a course between faith and semi-educated guesswork most of the time. The only way that we can really know the truth about all these things, if we really care to know the truth, is to find a witness, someone who has seen and heard and felt what happened, someone who has spoken with people face to face, someone who was there.

John’s writing is all about witnesses – from the beginning to the end his purpose in his writings was to tell what he had come to know from personal experience about the man Jesus Christ. In the first chapter of the gospel John wrote ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. And the first letter that he wrote to the church in Ephesus begins “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” That is John’s long and very beautiful way of saying I was there – I knew him.

And John wrote, later in the same chapter from which we read today, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”

Living as a Christian is about living by faith, but faith is not some disembodied feeling that we decide to embrace regardless of reason or evidence. In fact, Christians aren’t called to have faith in a religion at all, or in a code of morality, or even in the Bible. We are called to have faith in a person, Jesus. And that is really the way faith works in all the rest of our lives, anyway. To have faith means that we put our trust in someone – in Greek the word for faith and trust are one and the same. You trust your wife or your husband or your friend because you know them, because you have seen the way that they live. And because you have that relationship of trust with them, you have faith in them. Faith is all about relationship.

And that is the reason that God has made himself known to us through the words of human beings, not in a divine proclamation or some blinding revelation from the skies. He called plain old people to know him and then to bear witness of him to the people around him, because we need the witness of people whose words we can trust in order to believe, people who have seen and touched with their hands the God who came to live among his own people.

John’s account of the first Easter morning is just that kind of human witness. Of all four gospel accounts, only John was actually there at the empty tomb. John must have been a very young man at the time, because he lived for almost another 70 years as a guide to the church in Ephesus, and as one of the most important writers of the New Testament. And John, who knew Jesus as well as any man on earth, tells us what it was like on that Sunday morning at daybreak. He doesn’t try to spiritualize or explain anything. John says that they didn’t understand anything yet, so that after they had come to the tomb and seen the grave clothes rolled up and the body inexplicably gone, all they could do was to go back home, scratching their heads in bewilderment.

This is so clearly the memory from his young manhood. “When Mary told us that Jesus’s body was gone from the tomb, Peter and I (he refers to himself as “the one that Jesus loved) Peter and I ran to the tomb – but I ran faster than Peter. He remembers that fifty or sixty or more years later – I got there first. And I looked in, John remembers, but Peter went in first, and there it all was just like Mary said, empty and the grave clothes lying neatly laid aside. So we went home, because we didn’t understand yet that Jesus must rise from the dead.”

But John tells us that the first witness was Mary Magdalene, and that was important, because the teaching of the Scriptures for centuries was that anything really important needed to be verified by at least three witnesses. And God chose for his first witness a woman, and not any woman, but a woman from whom he had cast out seven demons, a woman whose life had been a disaster until she met Jesus. Mary ran to tell the other disciples, but when they had gone away she stayed, weeping, looking into the empty tomb because all that she loved, all that she had lived for, all that she put her hope in, had gone into that dark place and when it was all gone she didn’t know where else to go.

It was to Mary, as she wept, that the angels appeared, and then Jesus himself, the same man but somehow completely transformed so that at first she didn’t even recognize him. And it was Mary who was first given the words of witness to all the other disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”

It’s a wonderful story, but all that happened two thousand years and more ago. Those first eyewitnesses, Mary and Peter and John are long dead and turned to dust in their very real tombs, and how are we to know whether it’s true, or just the wishful thinking or spiritual imaginings of a few fanatical Jews?

There is another kind of witness, and that is the witness of history. We know that something happened because we see today its effects that can’t be explained away. No-one doubts that the revolutionary war happened because we see that we are no longer ruled by Britain. No one doubts that Rome once ruled the whole civilized world because we see the ruins of Roman roads and fortifications from Palestine to England. No one claims that the media invented the attack on the World trade Center because we can go to New York City and see the place where the buildings used to be.

Something happened in Palestine over two thousand years ago that is very hard to  explain by anything less than the unthinkable truth that a man who died on a Roman cross and was laid away in a tomb walked out of that tomb two days later and talked and walked and ate with the people who knew him. How else can we explain that the small band of Jews that knew Jesus grew like wildfire in no time, that within a century his followers had established churches all over the Roman Empire, and that his followers were willing to risk everything, even torture and death, because they had entrusted themselves completely to him?

The church is Jesus’s witness in the world now, and full of real human beings as it is, it’s far from a perfect witness. We seem to disgrace our God as often as we bring him glory, or maybe more often. But we are the ones Jesus has chosen to make him known today. Like the fishermen Peter and John, like Mary, whose life had been such a complete mess, Jesus calls us to witness to his presence in our lives. All we have is his love and work in our messed-up, human lives; all we have is our own stories. But that is enough, because the Holy Spirit is able to use our stories – it’s how he chooses to work. The people around you will not come to faith because you are brilliant or persuasive or a genius Bible scholar. They will come to faith because they see Christ living within you, in the reality of your story. It is God who changes hearts of stone to hearts of flesh and brings light into dark minds. Our job is only to tell our story, the story of the risen Lord. We are to tell our stories to the people around us, our families and friends and neighbors, so that, as John wrote, they may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, they may have life in his name.

I wish you all a blessed and holy Easter.

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