Witnesses - Week One: "We Are Witnesses"
It's still Easter, dadgummit. Let's milk this. Jesus is Risen!
The Season of Easter has just begun, and we'll be celebrating Easter for the next several weeks, as we launch into a brand new sermon series.
And this is just about the time that those first-century followers of Christ started asking a question--which is the same question you and I ought to be asking, too: "Jesus rises. Now what?"
It's a good thing that we are not alone in asking this very question. Jesus' disciples wondered the same thing, and almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead. We know this because of the book of Acts.
I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.
It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.
It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.
I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you? But how did this happen, really? It was because of witnesses.
That's what this sermon series is all about---a bunch of people living differently. Living a Resurrection life because they witnessed something that changed them forever.
And we have a chance at this. To bear witness to what has been raised to new life in us--to live a Resurrection life. That's what we're going to do for the next several weeks all the way through the season of Easter.
Today: We are living a Resurrection Life when we are witnesses to the Resurrection.
Before we get to the text, let's take a couple of minutes to hear the story so far...
In the opening moments of Acts, the resurrected Jesus ascends into Heaven and the disciples huddle together afterward trying to figure out what to do. As they are praying, the Holy Spirit shows up and blows the place apart and fills them with power and the ability to learn languages faster than if they had Rosetta Stone. They begin preaching outside the Temple on the day of Pentecost.
Three thousand people believed in Jesus that day and were baptized. Peter and John continue preaching and healing afterward and are thrown in prison by the same religious leaders who trumped up charges against Jesus to get him killed. An angel comes and lets them out of the jail in the middle of the night and they go back to preaching right away. This time when they are brought back by the authorities, they are warned to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. And, as we shall see, Peter throws down in the face of what could be certain death.
I have a question for you.
How many defining moments have you had in your life where you experienced a tremendous transformation--and the whole thing was nice, neat and linear?
There's nothing neat about any part of this story is there?
There's nothing linear about the way God goes about bringing new life to our lives. And honestly, if that was how it worked, we might not be as blown away when it happens.
Think about all the things that had to happen to bring you to this moment. I'm serious. Stop and think about them. Was it neat and tidy? Or did it have twists and turns
Let's read Acts 5:27-32
27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Let's focus on a couple of verses in this rather long passage...
First, we need to understand why these religious leaders got so angry and wanted to kill Peter and John---but probably mostly Peter. Peter starts off his mini-sermon by saying, "We ought to obey God, rather than men." This was the proverbial tossing down of the proverbial gauntlet. Most of the men gathered in that room had their positions because they collaborated and cooperated with their Roman overlords. They sold out their own people for power, money and influence.
So, Peter's words hit them right where they lived. Besides, the members of the Sanhedrin, as it was called, had a default mode whenever they encountered things they didn't understand---especially if said things gave the people under their sway a measure of hope and joy outside of the religious institutions: they killed people.
Then after all is said and done, one of the religious leaders, a man named Gamaliel speaks up: "...I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Not a lot is known about Gamaliel. We know that he was the rabbi and teacher of Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the Apostle Paul---the guy who wrote half of the New Testament.
He was a Pharisee, which put him in the minority among the leaders on the Sanhedrin, which was made up mostly of Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect in the Jewish faith that did not believe in the resurrection, and deemphasized human agency within God's plans. The Pharisees were a bit more hopeful---they believed in resurrection, and firmly believed that God's will happened with human help. More or less.
In the Jewish Book of Legends there are only two stories about Gamaliel, both of which are dated around 20-30 AD. One of them involves a situation where the king and queen (Herod & Herodias?) discover a dead lizard in their food stores, and the queen is distraught because she fears that this will make them unclean to eat. Gamaliel is consulted, and advises the queen to pour warm water on the lizard. She has this done, and the lizard "wakes up" and scurries off saving the food stores from being thrown out.
I have no idea why I included that, except it was awesome.
Gamaliel offers a bit of a level head here in the text. He reminds the other members of the Sanhedrin that there had been other revolts and other charismatic leaders that had fallen and failed. He kind of reminds me of the sort of world-weary church leaders who say things like, "That's not the way we do things around here," or "We tried that before and it didn't work, so it probably won't work now."
This, of course, makes sense to the religious elites. After all, they are much more enlightened than the unwashed masses who rush to and fro trying to find something, anything to give them hope and peace.
Here's the major contrast between Gamaliel, and the Disciples:
For Gamaliel and the Establishment their attitude here is "wait and see." These religious elites are confronted by reports that Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciples are performing miracles, speaking in languages they've never studied and converting three thousand and counting over to this new movement that follows the very man they thought they killed.
And they want to wait and see how it all turns out... And in so doing they miss the whole thing.
For the Disciples, their attitude is summed up by these two words: "It's On!" They had experienced the Risen Christ. The Holy Spirit had set them on fire, and they were experiencing an unbelievable sense of Jesus' presence, moving them, transforming them and drawing more and more people to them.
"It's on." In the face of death. In the aftermath of beatings. In spite of threats and allegations from the Institution. "It's on."
Because when you are a witness to the resurrection, it changes you...
And the same is true for you and for me. When we allow ourselves to recognize the signs of resurrection in our own lives, it changes us.
When we point to our own stories, the messy, meandering ways that brought us to transformation... to faith... to a church family... to love... to new life... we realize that we ourselves have been resurrected.
So here's a question: Do most churches act like Jesus has risen? Do most Christians?
Or do they act like he's still in the tomb? I mean if you really believe that resurrection is a real thing, and that resurrection is still happening and has happened to you...
Please tell me why you would be somber and grouchy and bored with that... Seriously, why would you not be telling the whole world about this? IF you really believed that this was a real thing that happened to you.
At this point, you might be thinking, "But how do I do this? How do I live into this?" And we very well might be asking this as a church as well: "What do we need to do in order to show that we mean what we say when we say that Jesus has risen?"
I think it comes down to these three things: Uncommon Courage, Unabridged Truth-Telling and Unbridled Joy. Here's what I mean:
First, we are living a Resurrection life as individuals and as a community when we show Uncommon Courage: There's this quote from the Presbyterian Book of Order that describes the mission of the Church like this:
"The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life."I remember meeting a guy once who was one of the last two members of a church.
Every Sunday he would go unlock the doors on the church building, turn on the lights, and then he and one other guy would sit in the pews while the preacher they paid to preach once a week would deliver a sermon.
At some point, that church lost the plot. There were other churches, other organizations who could have used the building, but they stubbornly held on to it until there were only two... and then eventually only one.
Do our structures submit to the moving of the Spirit? Or do they serve to keep the Spirit contained or kept out of our structures altogether? Are we more concerned about our identity within man-made institutions than our identity as a Christ-centered community?
Are we content to be complacent and safe while the restless unpredictable Spirit of God moves to a more receptive place? Or do we need to summon some Uncommon Courage?
Second, we are living a Resurrection life when we engage in Unabridged Truth-Telling. The question we need to ask is: "Do we tell the truth about ourselves and the world around us? Do we do it in love?"
Lots of Christians and faith communities love to talk about the concept of Truth--and how as Christians we should speak the truth, teach the truth, engage in truth... Mind you, they might say that there needs to be Grace along with Truth---but more often than not, it's sort of like (whisper) "grace" and (shout) TRUTH!!
There needs to be both grace and truth in our speech---but not just truth as we understand truth... but the truth embodied in Jesus who proclaimed that HE is the way the truth and the life. Truth isn't it a concept, it's Jesus the Christ.
And we can't be afraid to speak the truth of Jesus to one another and to the world. The truth about how we should love God and love everybody. The truth about God's great love for the world--the whole world. The truth about how Caesar isn't Lord, Jesus is Lord.
The truth about how in perfect love Jesus reached out to those on the margins, the left out, the cast out, the burned out, the turned out... the prostitutes, lepers, blind, lame, mentally ill, spiritually dead, physically dead, Romans, tax collectors, betrayers, men, women, children, people of all races, all manner of sexual issues... That truth.
Come on now! I can do this all day long.
Finally, we are living a Resurrection life when we allow ourselves to express Unbridled Joy. One of the most challenging lines in the chapter of Acts that we were reading from earlier is where it says that Peter and John were flogged, and then rejoiced.
They rejoiced that they were found worthy--to suffer for the Name of Jesus.
And we get annoyed when someone sits in our seat at church... or parks in the parking spot we always park in... or the band plays a song we don't know, or don't like... or the sermon is 28 minutes long...
Or... or... the cashier at Target says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.
Or the Christian artist who has had a top-selling album on iTunes for months in a row says in a radio interview that people who are gay---might actually be born that way, and so Christians en masse decide to stop buying her albums...
I could keep going here, too. A lot of Christians just seem grouchy, and it's a bummer that those are the ones that always get interviewed on TV or quoted in magazines, newspapers and online publications.
All of us followers of Jesus should be asking ourselves, "Can people tell that this is something worth living for?" Are we actually demonstrating joy in the way we live? And we all have to own this... We get more excited over the next Avengers movie, or the Game of Thrones final season, or the next big sporting event than any aspect of our life of faith.
And in so doing we deny the Resurrection. And we deny resurrection in our own lives. We live joyless lives of faith devoid of the surprise of the Risen Christ in us through us and all around us.
Don't you think it's time that we were known for our Unbridled Joy?
If you want to live a resurrection life, you need to live like Jesus has risen.
And we are living a resurrection life when we are witnesses to the Resurrection.