The Sunday Sermon: You are Witnesses of These Things

Sermon from April 18, 2021
“You are Witnesses of These Things”
Penelope Bridges

Each of our Scripture stories today, from Acts and from Luke’s Gospel, starts in the middle of a longer story. Our reading from Acts starts with “why do you wonder at this?” What is this? Let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter. Peter and John were walking in the Temple precincts, and a man who had been disabled from birth was begging at the gate. When he asked Peter for money, Peter instead commanded him, in the name of Jesus, to stand up and walk. The man was instantly healed, and he followed Peter and John, shouting praises to God and literally jumping for joy. This attracted the attention of the crowds, who gathered around the disciples. When Peter saw the crowd’s reaction of wonder and amazement, he seized the moment and started to speak, turning their attention from the spectacle before them to the underlying message of God’s healing power.

As we can see, he doesn’t mince his words. He reminds them of how they chose Barabbas instead of Jesus, and he gives credit for the miracle to the power of the risen Christ. Then he calls on them to repent and turn to God so that their sins may be wiped out.

This is a bold speech, and when we remember how Peter himself had denied Jesus before the crucifixion, it’s quite astonishing. Peter has been transformed into a powerful, fearless preacher of the good news of Jesus. He doesn’t shrink from speaking painful truth to the leaders of his own community. It’s no coincidence that here in the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, Peter uses the very same vocabulary in scolding the crowd as were used in the Gospel of his own betrayal of Jesus. In reminding his countrymen of their shame and assuring them of forgiveness, Peter draws on his own experience of repentance. He has received that forgiveness in his encounters with the risen Christ.

In drawing on his own pain when speaking truth to power, Peter models for us how to grow beyond our brokenness, to mature in our faith to a place where we too can be witnesses to the lifegiving power of God’s sacrificial love. The uncomfortable conversations we’ve been having throughout this year, about economic disparity, race, and politics, are a necessary step in our path to healing as a society.

We cannot serve as witnesses to God’s healing until we ourselves have made progress towards that healing, until we have acknowledged our own failures and embraced the good news of the resurrection. Our recognition of Jesus, wounded but alive among us, is the sign that we are forgiven, freed from what has held us captive, and sent forth to bear witness.

And that brings me to our other story, the passage from the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel; so now we have gone back in time from Acts, post Pentecost, to the evening of the first Easter Day. The setting is the upper room, where the disciples are huddled together, trying to make sense of the first reports of the resurrection.

One of those reports comes from two disciples who were walking home to Emmaus from Jerusalem, grieving the death of Jesus and going back over all that had happened, when Jesus himself joined them on the road. They didn’t recognize him – in these days of face coverings we all now understand how that can happen – they didn’t recognize him until they had invited him into their home and he took bread, blessed and broke it, before vanishing.

The two immediately rushed back to Jerusalem to share their story, and as they are all puzzling over it, Jesus shows up. He isn’t a ghost – he proves that by eating a bit of fish. He isn’t a flawless heavenly body either – he shows them the unhealed wounds in his hands and feet. He is an ordinary, scarred human being. And they can’t process it. Terror, joy, and disbelief leave them speechless with shock. And, as so often in Scripture, the first words they hear are words of reassurance: Peace be with you: don’t be afraid. He invites them to recognize him, even as he also identifies himself with the God who once appeared to Moses, saying it is I, or I AM.

Only after he has calmed their terror can the disciples hear him remind them of what he had said before his death: that he would suffer and die and be raised. And the inescapable consequence of his raising is the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness to all people. That repentance and forgiveness starts with the disciples themselves, who had deserted Jesus, who had run away and hidden, who had not believed the women’s stories of the empty tomb. Even after all that, Jesus comes to them, and with his presence come forgiveness, hope, and new life.

Jesus is present and visible to his friends as an ordinary human being. This isn’t some kind of mass hallucination. It’s a teaching moment about what it means to be part of the church: we will find Jesus in the ordinary person in front of us, the wounded person, the hungry person. Jesus is a living presence among us. Whenever we are together in community, Jesus is here.

Jesus comes to us through the locked doors of our fear. He comes to take away the fear of death, to offer us the peace that passes all understanding, and then, to challenge us to share that good news. You are witnesses of these things, he says – the very words we later hear Peter proclaim in Acts.

The pandemic has created very real reasons for us to stay behind locked doors for a season, but we are social creatures and we long for community and connection. As opportunities open up for us once again to be together in person, I know it means as much to you as it does to me. We did really well holding together through the time of enforced isolation, but we all know that human beings are not meant to be alone. And for Christians, the sharing of physical experiences is central to our practice of faith.

Our sacramental rites – baptism, Communion, unction, marriage and the rest – are actions involving the sharing of stuff – the bread and wine, the water, the oil, the rings; and above all, the body of Christ as embodied in each one of us.  Jesus shares of himself with us, showing that he is God incarnate, because it is the nature of God to share Godself, with the original act of creation as the inaugural demonstration.

And food, too, is central to our faith. Jesus eats bread in Emmaus and fish in Jerusalem as a sign that he is a body, not a ghost. When we eat together in remembrance of him, we celebrate the resurrection and re-experience Easter. The most mundane of actions becomes sacramental when we acknowledge his presence, whether it’s a family dinner, a Thanksgiving feast, or a tiny scrap of wafer. Sacraments are for sharing, just as God’s love is for sharing. So our gathering for Communion, as we are once again able to do, signals that we are people who seek to share what we have with the world. The church exists to support that sacramental sharing, proclaiming the repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations.

Today’s Gospel passage, just a few verses from the end of Luke, looks forward to Pentecost and anticipates the book of Acts, the story of the church’s birth. It reminds us that the Resurrection is not an end in itself but the beginning of the spread of the Gospel across the world; that Jesus and his message are not limited by time or space. Now is the time for us to set aside our fear, to open those locked doors and to bear witness to all the world: Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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