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The Rev. Jonathan Holston The Rev. Jonathan Holston

The Rev. Jonathan Holston is senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

St. James United Methodist Church, Atlanta, GA


Can I Get a Witness?

John 20:19-31

Second Sunday in Easter

April 18, 2004

Questions abound in life--namely, what should I do, tell me what to do, or even I do not know what to say or even how to say it. How often have you said, "If I had a dime for every time someone has asked me that question, I would be a wealthy person"?

How often have you participated in a discourse or a conversation similar to this:

"What should I do?"

"Well, what do you think?"

"If I had known the answer, I would not have asked you."

Some of our worst fears and greatest accomplishments are realized at the point of a decision. Often we find ourselves in a place of decision with no answers in sight. Have you ever been at that place-the place of making life-changing moves - without knowing where to go? Maybe it's contemplating a change in employment or could it be choosing to accept that scholarship offer at a school other than the hometown favorite? Maybe it's having to finally leave a dysfunctional relationship for the third or fourth time. Could it be that you're choosing to birth a child knowing it is a risky pregnancy? Maybe it's telling your family about that religious experience that causes a change in your occupation and their lifestyle. Decisions are never easy.

But, take heed, you are not by yourself. We all stand in need of discerning life's directions. These disciples did as well. You and I stand to learn from them. The first day of the week was an emotional rollercoaster; a mixture of despair and sadness had settled upon them. The heaviness of the previous day would numb anyone to hope.

According to John, Mary Magdalene had come early to the tomb and immediately noticed that it was disturbed. Seeing the stone rolled away, she ran. How far is unknown, but she eventually found Simon Peter. Her words conveyed a controlled hysteria, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!" Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb. Arriving and entering and seeing the tomb empty, they returned to their home. Yet, it was Mary Magdalene again outside the tomb, mournful, grieving and crying.

Obviously, the events of the previous day, and, now, the emptiness of the tomb was more than she could bear. She encounters the Lord, mistaking him for a gardener. Jesus commissions her to return to the disciples and tell them, "I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord!" And she did.

It was the evening hour that the disciples found themselves in a room sequestered from the confusion, innuendoes, and rumors of the city. Fear and anxiety fill the air, clearing only to hear the words of Mary Magdalene, again and again: "I have seen the Lord!" Then the miraculous took place. Jesus appeared among them and spoke to them, "Peace be with you." Suddenly, the words of Mary Magdalene were corroborated. Anticipation supplanted anxiety. Gladness shattered the ceiling of gloom. Hope replaced helplessness.

Jesus shows them his hands and his side. Then he breathes into them the Holy Spirit. Like most meetings, perfect attendance is normally the exception. Even at this moment, Thomas was absent and upon his return treated his fellow disciples' announcement of having seen Jesus with the same apprehension and questioning that the group probably had done earlier with Mary Magdalene. For him to believe, he had to share the experience that they had shared with Jesus.

Eight days later, Thomas joined this body of believers, moving from the faithless to the believing. We are reminded that this journey of belief is necessary for us all. Thomas answers, "My Lord and my God!" So what is the point? Why are we told this process story? With intentionality, John shares with us the explanation. Jesus says to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. These words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."

It is the power of the witness that all of our lives can be changed as we believe. I am often reminded about the power received when something is properly explained. My wife and I are proud of our children. Our son and daughter have brought tremendous joy to our lives, as well as the unique challenges that young people give to their parents. Our oldest son is a recent graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. I am sure you can tell the parents are extremely proud of this achievement. Yet, we also remember this young man as a rising senior in high school, wanting a car like his friends. Remembering the counsel of our parents, we strived to do something they were unable to offer us. We searched and found a valued friend who sold us an excellent vehicle-a Honda Civic. It would later be called "The Blue Box" because of its color and shape. It was an excellent vehicle-one owner, seven years old, 6,000 miles, and the oil had been changed every month! The owner only drove the car to work and back home. It was an excellent deal and we bought it. Our task was to hide the car until Christmas day when the celebration would be experienced. On that day, all of us were excited. Having anticipated the gift of a car, our son, full of anticipation, slid down the stairs, found the keys, and ran toward the garage. His parents were excited as well. As he opened the door, I do not believe I will ever forget the expression on his face or the words from his mouth. He said, "Is that the car you bought me?" An uneasy silence enveloped us. I explained, "This is an exceptional car-one owner, seven years old, six thousand miles, and the oil changed every month. She only drove the car to work, and it is a steal!" He replied, "I do not like it, and I don't want it, and I want Mom's car."

A wonderful gesture had turned into a big failure. He wanted the vehicle with all the comforts we come now to expect. As a father, I fought back the displeasure of the moment, seeking insight for that time. It is in these moments that we need intervention. Truly, I believe the Holy Spirit enveloped that particular time with gracious understanding. In the midst of the conversation, I heard him ask, "What about me? What about me?" And I reminded him that a yellow school bus stopped at our house each morning, and I invited him to ride it. I shared with him the driver would take him to school and return to bring him home. Suddenly, a different countenance enveloped him. He replied, "Dad, why didn't you explain it that way before? This is an excellent car! One owner. Seven years old. Six -thousand miles. And the oil changed every month!" He continued, "It may not have all the bells and whistles, but I can get plenty of exercise by rolling the windows up and down and manually moving the seats. Dad, if you had explained it this way before, you could have saved us all of this heartache." Oh, the power of an explanation!

The good news of the Gospel is that Christ has come that we may have life. We must believe. Our creeds remind us:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. The third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. For thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. Amen.

Today, we are on the edge of a new spiritual frontier. In a companion lectionary text for this day, the writer records Peter's affirmation of faith from Acts 5: 29-32. Questioned for teaching in a day of Jesus, the Christ, he unashamedly responds: "We must obey God rather than men. And we are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit who God has given to those who obey him."

That's it! Peter's affirmation says it. Jesus' question to Thomas and the explanation confirms the Father has been hoping for us to realize the gift of faith. The risen Christ becomes the ultimate gift of love as a witness to that faith-believe and live.

For me, the question remains, "What obstacles have I placed in the way of receiving the gift of love and grace? Is it selfish pride? Is it the I-know-it-all syndrome? Is it envy of others for their witness of faith, their testimonies? Or is it guilt over some mistake or confusion over what is required?" Remember, there were a lot of emotions in that room: fear, apprehension, bewilderment. Yet Jesus the Christ reminded the disciples that they are witnesses to the power of their faith. Thomas trusts what he sees and responds. Thomas believes and replies. Jesus reminds him that there is a blessing for those that have not seen and yet believed.

It was in China that I experienced that trust. On a mission team I shared with members of a congregation in Beijing, an elderly gentleman told his story of faith that included his congregation. When the Red Guard had taken power, the churches were closed and the pastors sent into the countryside to work in factories. The church buildings were used as warehouses. He and other members of their congregation had made an agreement to study the Scriptures in private and tithe during their forced absence from corporate worship. He said sadly, "We did not realize it would be 13 years of exile from worship." He said after those years of Bible study and fear, the churches reopened and on that first Sunday of worship, the people returned to the altar to pray and brought their tithes and offerings-all 13 years' worth. Indeed, blessed are those that have not seen and believed.

The decision of God's grace for us is our willingness to daily make a decision to witness, obey, and trust.

At the foot of the mountain of questions in life is the ever-waiting valley of decision. In your point of decision, allow the one who will abide to help you. Can I get a witness?

Let us pray.

Lord, open our minds and our hearts to hear your message. Pronounce peace to our chaotic lives. Breathe your Holy Spirit into waiting souls. Allow us to accept your sacrifice of love that we will believe your word. And let our lives be a witness to the power of a loving God. In the name of Christ. Amen.


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