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You are witnesses

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 18th of Fourth Month, 2021

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Luke 24:36-48

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

Good morning, Friends!

The last time I spoke, I mentioned a little bit from my experience as a young adult working and worshiping with the Chicago Fellowship of Friends, an interracial Friends church in a public housing project in Chicago. My experience there was made possible through a volunteer service program that Friends United Meeting ran at the time (the mid-1980s), that was called Quaker Volunteer Witness (QVW). I believe there were also QVW volunteers in Richmond at some point, and so some of you long-timers here might remember it for that reason.

So, whether or not I was ready, QVW made me a “witness.” At the time, I didn’t really have any way to understand that meaning of the word. In the unprogrammed Quakerism that I had grown up in, “witness” usually meant participating in some kind of public action; a demonstration or vigil for a cause, or against some evil. “Witness” and “witnessing” were bound up in social concerns—witness for peace, witness against poverty, and so on.

The phrase that I used to describe what I hoped to do in my time with the Fellowship of Friends is one that will be familiar to many of you, I think: I wanted to “let my life speak.” Specifically, I remember saying that I wanted to “let my life speak to urban issues.” The city was in focus for me because my first two years in college in Chicago had demonstrated how much racial segregation was still in force there; so the chance to work with a group of Quakers who were mostly African-American was too much to pass up.

At the time, nobody asked me, “Let your life speak—OK! What will your life say, to this situation of incredible complexity and deep need, where you have some knowledge but no lived experience? What will your life say, to people in a public housing project, that you have never met before, that you have no personal connection with, and whose situation you really don’t know anything about, at a deep level?” No one was that direct with me—for which I am thankful. Because that allowed me to discover that my life speaking to something was not the important thing; in fact, my experience with the Fellowship of Friends spoke to my life in a number of profound ways, over the course of almost two decades. So I was not so much a witness, as I was witnessed to.

And in that phrase is a second meaning of the verb “to witness,” which I learned in my first year with the Chicago Fellowship of Friends. When many Christians speak of “witnessing,” they mean telling the story of how Christ has transformed their lives; giving testimony—which is what witnesses do—of what God has done in and for them; and usually, this is with the idea that the person to whom they are witnessing needs to know this, so that they will make their own decision. Some species of this kind of witness can be manipulative, and if you’ve ever been on the receiving end, you might have felt like you were getting a sales job. I was certainly witnessed to in that way a few times in my early years with the Fellowship. But what was much more effective was being allowed to live and work alongside people whose lives showed the power of the Risen Christ. Over time, it was that demonstrated transformation, more than any particular words, that encouraged me to ground my own life in Christ Jesus. That was the more effective witness.

In today’s Scripture passage, Luke shows us the disciples in their decisive moment with the Risen Christ. In chapter 24 prior to this, the resurrected Jesus has appeared to some of them, but there is still uncertainty, and even terror when he appears here, in the upper room. I love the phrase in verse 41 which seems to encapsulate the extreme mixed emotions that they are negotiating as they look upon him: “ their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”. Joy, disbelief, and wonder, all together. Nonetheless, touching him and seeing him eat make them more sure that it is in fact their beloved Master, and in his own flesh and bone—in a resurrected body.

And at that point, Christ “[opens] their minds to understand the scriptures” (v45) concerning his suffering, death, and resurrection, and presumably the disciples for the first time really understand things fully. And he sketches out the work that they will do, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. And where we’ve ended the passage today, his final words are, “You are witnesses of these things” (v48). You are witnesses.

By this, he does not mean that they will be passive observers; the disciples are to be witnesses in at least two senses. I haven’t actually looked at the verb in the Greek, but I think the verb is in the present tense, but it also includes the future: “you are, and you will be, witnesses of these things.”

So we have the term “witness” meaning at least two things here: First, those who testify to facts as they have seen them. This is the very commonplace meaning that we see, even today, when we talk about what a witness does in a courtroom, or for a legal document—when someone is to be married, you need to have a witness that signs that document (in the Quaker wedding ceremony, of course, everyone signs the document as a witness). So that’s the conventional sense, and that conventional sense shows up many, many places in the Scriptures, both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The job of a witness is to testify to what they have heard and seen and experienced.

There’s also the sense of “witness” in those who proclaim or confess truth, on the basis of faith. That is the sense in which these disciples will do it—but these disciples are actually able to do both: they are able to testify on the basis of what they have seen and heard and experienced, but then also what they have apprehended by faith. So they have been and will be witnesses. All of the church since bears witness primarily in the second sense—of faith; of proclaiming or confessing on the basis of what we trust to be true.

It’s worth noting the etymology of the word that is used here: the Greek is marturon, which is also the root of the word “martyr”; the development of faithful witnesses beginning in Acts as we read the story of the early church, and through the [later]history of the church, is a history, in part, of martyrdom; of people being willing to endure suffering for the faith. It was not very long after the first century of the church that the Greek word for “witness” acquired this sense of martyrdom.