There is a word, or at least the implication of a word that pops up frequently during these days of Easter. Jesus implies it when he tells Mary Magdalene in the Garden on that first Easter Day to “… go to my brothers and say to them ….”1 And Mary certainly acts on it when she proclaims to the disciples ‘“I have seen the Lord” and [then] she told them that he had said these things to her.’2 Jesus himself uses it when he says to the assembled disciples “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”3
Over and over again the disciples are called upon to be witnesses, to tell others what they have heard and seen, first each other and then anyone who will listen. Think for a moment of the Upper Room after that first Easter night when Thomas was absent and the other disciples had to witness to him that “We have seen the Lord.”4 Or Cleopas and his companion, rushing home from Emmaus to witness to the Eleven and their companions “what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”5
Indeed the whole point of Luke’s gospel is to give witness, or to “write an orderly account … so that you may know the truth ….”6 And John’s gospel of course tells us that “this is the disciple who is testifying [witnessing] to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”7
The act of witnessing is crucial to the early disciples and from the moment they encounter the Risen Lord, they spend their rest of their lives telling others what they have seen and heard:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.8
Indeed the act of witnessing to the resurrection was so crucial to the early disciples that after the betrayal and death of Judas they enrolled Matthias “who had accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us — [he] must become a witness with us to [Jesus’] resurrection.”9 And so by lot, Matthias became one of the Twelve “official” witnesses.
But we have all watched enough television, and had enough life experience to know that the life of a witness is not always easy. Remember Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey standing in the witness box at his valet John Bates’ trial for the murder of his wife squirming under oath trying not to make his words sound as damning as they in fact did. Think of the times in the gospels where Jesus was grilled as people tried to catch him out, sometimes quoting his own words or actions back to him, sometimes holding him up to the judgment Scripture. Imagine what Scripture doesn’t tell us: how the assembled disciples questioned and challenged Mary Magdalene, trying to poke holes in her story, looking for the inconsistencies or revealing her delusion or discovering at last the mistaken identity, who she saw really was the gardener! Remember the times you have been challenged or questioned or grilled about what exactly it was you saw, or heard or thought you saw. Remember those party games when three people are shown the identical thing and how different the resulting descriptions were.
The life of a witness is not easy, especially in the face of a hostile, skeptical or unbelieving audience and Jesus clearly had a sense of this as he prayed for his followers. Because of the opposition he had faced, he knew what they too would face. “Protect them in your name…”1 he prayed so that not one of them might be lost.
Being a witness is not easy and as we know from Scripture and the history of the Church being a witness to the gospel of love is fraught with danger. The world does not want to hear about the things of the Spirit and does its best to stop the voice that speaks of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”11Indeed many have died proclaiming with their last breath what they knew these things to be true to the very core of their being.
And that for me raises a question. As you know the Greek word which we translate into witness is also the root that gives us the English word martyr. A martyr is simply a witness, but as we use it in English is means a witness who dies believing, or proclaiming, or testifying to something beyond themselves. In the Christian context a martyr is someone who is willing to die because they are unwilling to deny something they hold to be true. And that truth is the truth of Jesus.
Tradition tells us that many of the early disciples, except curiously our patron John the Evangelist, died a martyr’s death, and even Matthias whom we read about only briefly in today’s lesson from Acts is said to have been crucified. And therein lies my question.
What do you hold to be true, to the very core of your being, that to deny would make your life meaningless? In other words, for what are you prepared to die? Few, if any, would be prepared to die for a lie. Not many, and I hope none here, will end our days thinking “I wish I were a better liar.” Most, and I hope everyone here, will end our days thinking “I wish I told more people what I know to be true.”
That is what Jesus was a witness to: that which he knew to be true.
That is what Mary Magdalene was a witness to: that which she knew to be true.
That is what Christian martyrs have died for: that which they knew to be true.
That is what God is inviting you to proclaim: that which you know in the very core of your being to be true.
Being a witness isn’t easy. Sometimes is requires us metaphorically or literally to be martyrs but it is only by living upon a truth and loving it, and sometimes dying for it, that we will find the joy about which Jesus speaks: “…that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”12
We are called today to be witnesses, to be martyrs for the truth, to proclaim to all the world what we know to be true to the very core of our being. It is not an easy life, but when we discover what it is that we are prepared to die for, because we know it to be true, we will discover the joy which Jesus promises and the freedom to live in it, and maybe even die for it.
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