I once had a conversation with a lawyer about confession. It’s a word that is used in her world and also in mine. But it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to each of us. It was a fun discussion, and I think we both enjoyed it. It was so fun that we ended up talking about a number of words that religion has in common with the law.
One that we talked about a lot was the word “witness.”
It’s a word that appears in today’s Gospel lesson. On the day of that first Easter, the disciples are discussing the report of those who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus when he suddenly appears to them as well. Giving his usual greeting, “Peace be with you,” he shows them his hands and feet as proof that he is not a ghost. He even asks for some food, and eats a piece of broiled fish right in front of them.
And then, perhaps even more amazing than that, he opens their mind to understand the Scriptures, and they are able to see all that the prophets had to say about him. He summarizes his teaching this way: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Finally, he tells them, “You are witnesses to these things.”
The word “witness” is doing a lot of work there. First off, I suppose in the simplest terms, they are witnesses because they saw his suffering firsthand. And after looking at his hands and feet, not to mention being able to touch him and watch him eat a piece of fish, there can be no doubt that they are eyewitnesses to the resurrection as well.
In a passage from the Acts of the Apostles that is often paired with this one, Peter preaches a sermon that invites his hearers to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and then repent and turn to God for forgiveness. So, in a way, they are (or will be) witnesses to that, too. To all these things, just as Jesus said.
But here’s where I started thinking about my friend the lawyer again. The Greek word that Luke uses here is the same word a lawyer would use to indicate a judicial witness. Judicial witnesses, of course, are required by the judge, or another authority, to tell what they have heard and seen and to be truthful.
Jesus is telling the disciples that their personal experience with the Messiah allows them, and may even require them, to share their truth with the world.
In fact, many Christians call this act of telling the truth about what God has done in the world and in their lives “witnessing.” Some might use the word “testimony,” another legal reference, while some might describe it as “evangelism.” Whatever the word, it’s definitely a thing that we, as Christians, should be doing. We must be testifying to what we have witnessed about the Good News - God’s love shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s just what we do.
History abounds with stories about what can happen when people hear the Good News shared by a believer. You’ve probably heard one. Maybe you are one of these stories of lives changed by an encounter with the resurrected Christ though the witness of someone else.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a foster parent I know who regularly says to those she cares for, “God loves you, and I do, too.” Other times it’s the answer to a question. A person may ask you, “How are you able to maintain a positive attitude in the midst of so much suffering?” And you reply, “I feel the suffering, but know that because of Jesus, we are never alone. God is in it with us.” Sometimes it requires more vulnerability, such as when a recovering alcoholic says to one still suffering, “There is hope for you, just as there was for me, and I can show you where to get it.”
But there’s a little bit more in that word “witness” than just what the lawyers would think of. A little bit more than just telling the truth. That same Greek word that means a legal witness is also the word from which we get our word “martyr.” As Christians, we know that being a witness to God’s saving power isn’t always easy. The truth about Jesus is not always comfortable to tell and it isn’t always comfortable to hear. In some times and places the truth has been downright dangerous, even deadly. Many, or maybe even all, of those who heard Jesus that first Easter would give up their lives because of that truth.
Since that time, many Christians have been killed because of their faith. This week, on April 19, my own Episcopal Church will remember one of those martyrs, Alphege. He lived in the 11th Century and was the Archbishop of Canterbury. An invading army captured him and many other prominent people, holding them for ransom. Knowing how poor his followers were, he refused to allow anyone to pay for his release. His Christian commitment to justice and his concern for the welfare of his people had put him in danger, and eventually he was beheaded by his captors. Alphege was a witness for the power of Christ, and we are witnesses to Alphege’s acts.
Jesus’ disciples were literal witnesses to all that he did and said during his life. They were witnesses to his persecution and his execution. They were witnesses to his resurrection. And they became witnesses for that resurrection, sharing their truth with those they met, and with us, Jesus’ modern disciples. And as those modern disciples we are also witnesses of what Jesus is doing today, and we are called to share that truth with those who need to hear it.
It is as if Jesus and his message is on trial again. The world is the jury, and we - you, me, all of us - we are witnesses for the Resurrection.
Won’t you please join me in a spirit of prayer?
Holy God, we thank you for all your many blessings to us. Especially for your invitation to be witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, our Savior, Jesus. Strengthen our spirits to share your love with everyone in this hurting and broken world. We ask this and all our prayers in the name of Christ. Amen.