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You Are My Witnesses – Br. James Koester

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Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5: 9-13; John 17: 6-19

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.

 

1 John 20: 17

 

2 John 20: 18

 

3 Acts 1:8

 

4 John20:25

 

5 Luke 24: 35

 

6 Luke 1: 3,4

 

7 John 21 :24

 

8 1 John 1: 1-4

 

9 Acts 1: 21, 22

 

1 John 17: 11, 15

 

11 Galatians 5: 22, 23

 

12 John 17: 13

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22 Comments

  1. Ellen Nelson on May 14, 2017 at 09:14

    What great words for this time in our history.
    Thank you
    Ellen

  2. CHRISTINA on August 27, 2016 at 07:59

    I don’t think of the things I do as witnessing. I just happen to answer to someone else’s need: a woman weeping in the pew following the worship service – she doesn’t necessarily need me to talk to her, but just sit alongside her; or another woman – also in tears – because a young person in her life has died – we walked down the aisle arm-in-arm. No words spoken – my responses not mine alone. //Then how about the visitors to my city who are standing on the corner of the street, map in hand, trying to find where they are and where they want to be?
    If I was asked to die bodily for my faith, I do not know what I would do. I hope I am never put to the test. In between times, I witness as I can.
    Christina

    • Ruth West on May 16, 2017 at 01:02

      Christina, your post jars my consciousness to remember that one of the best ways to witness is simply that of PRESENCE. Oftentimes, people will say, “I don’t want to go to see that sick person in the hospital, because I really don’t know what to say to them.” Or a similar response to someone who has lost a loved one to death, but words are the important thing. Your presence is. Your post illustrates this so well. Thank you!

  3. Doris on April 2, 2016 at 18:43

    For thousands of Christians today, living in the parts of the world not as safe as ours, their lives are this reflection. They actually die for Christ. They are crucified for loving and proclaiming Christ. It is just, finally, that this has been declared genocide. But these anonymous ones are like the very early Christians, standing firm in Christ, even unto death on a cross at the hands of evil. We read about the early saints and their sacrifices but they ARE the saints of today. What an example of loving and proclaiming Christ !

  4. David Roman on April 2, 2016 at 12:33

    And this is the bedrock on which we stand, if we call ourselves Christian: that the disciples who followed Jesus of Nazareth throughout his ministry, men and women who heard him teach, who saw him heal, who watched him die and experienced him face to face as a human being risen from the dead, were themselves willing to die rather than recant what they knew to be true. To die for a good cause—even a noble idea—would be difficult enough; what could compel you to die for something you knew to be a lie? Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

  5. Norman S "Sam" Steward Jr, DDS on April 2, 2016 at 11:13

    This sermon was especially meaningful to me. I know it was first preached in 2012 by Br James K., but continues to hold true for me today. On Easter Sunday, after 3 services, we went to the home of one of out choir mates. He has missed the Vigil as well as all 3 Easter services (very unlike him). Upon entering his unlocked house I discovered he was deceased since Good Friday (the last time we sang together, the Vierne Masse Solemne ). At first I was of course in shock at such a scene, however once this shock wore off I realized that he was constantly proclaiming the truth through song and chant. I began to see his death, although untimely and unexpected, as his slipping away to be with the Lord. To be with truth and in that I take great comfort. Thank you Brother James.

  6. Pam on April 2, 2016 at 10:36

    Witnessing in the U.S. rarely involves the risk of dying, and isn’t that a blessing? But there are many ways to witness that put us at risk for social ostracism, ridicule, loss of friendships, and so forth. I think it’s good to think about witnessing in closer-to-home situations. I recently had occasion to “witness” to the call we all have to show love to one another, no matter who that is. I was in a meeting with a church group that meets every week, and one of the women “broke down” and revealed the pain and suffering she is experiencing in her life. At a subsequent meeting, when she happened to be absent, I heard lots of criticism of her–we heard much more about her life than we wanted to know; some judged her to be a very “disturbed” woman; she sort of “hijacked” our agenda for the day, and that does not fit the purpose of the group, and so forth. I spoke a minority opinion, which commended her for her courage to disclose her vulnerability and pain and to say that it provided us with an opportunity to show love and compassion to her, which I felt was the most important thing any of us could do in a church. No one spoke up to agree with me, and I could tell that some people were quite annoyed at what I had said. But there were several people who phoned or spoke to me afterward with the message that they were ashamed they didn’t have the courage to join me in what I said; they agreed with me. So witnessing doesn’t always put our life at risk, but there are risks nonetheless, and I believe they are worth taking.

  7. Rhode on April 2, 2016 at 10:01

    I too believe, as Micheal says above that living in Gods’ name is as important as dying in His name. Is not ‘obedience better than sacrifice?’ It could perhaps be harder? To martyr our will and desires daily to seek and follow the path of Christ; to be willing to live with so much less in order to give so much more; to love unflinchlingly, or hey, flinchingly, in this world of skewed ideologies and grandstanding in the name of public good. On and on.
    A life crucified to the stuff of this world and, yet, lived fully and humbly for the love of Christ and our neighbors is in itself obedience with sacrifice – a life long witness. To live and die with Christ is to get up every morning and have that be my prayer. My aim is to trust God with my life. Surely He can be trusted with my death.

  8. Ferial Etherington on April 2, 2016 at 09:48

    ‘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.”
    Indeed many have died proclaiming with their last breath that they knew these things to be true to the very core of their being.’ [Your words Br. John]
    Actually I believe the world DOES want to know about these things; is actually crying out to hear. I’d have been happier with your sermon if you’d built in some provisionality about that comment. Only SOME of the world doesn’t want to hear those voices. What many don’t want to hear (especially some powerful organisations when they feel threatened) is voices who speak for justice and mercy.

  9. Michael on April 2, 2016 at 08:03

    Living in God’s name is as important as dying in God’s name

    • Ferial Etherington on April 2, 2016 at 09:49

      Amen to that!

  10. Roderic Brawn on May 2, 2015 at 06:12

    We must commit to that in which we believe in order to live with integrity. To live in such a way may require sacrifice.

  11. Marta e. on April 9, 2015 at 06:40

    I think that we never know tomorrow. Only today, now. As a result of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we are so filled with joy and purpose that we can hardly be restrained from going out and telling the good news, the miracles that abound ahead. Yes, there is also fear and trepidation, wondering at the results, consequences, but we have the promise that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age. So. I listen, wait for the urge, sometimes pray for the energy, then thnk of the rewards, either generally, r specifically, that are promised. I try to respond to the timing, the moment, offer it up, and think about how and when to share the News. Surprises abound. The images of the book and the bell are great images to carry us forward.

  12. Muriel Akam on April 9, 2015 at 03:02

    It takes courage to live by the truth and to publicly profess what you believe to be true. May we all find the courage to do so. For me faith in the risen Christ is personal to me but I hope I have the courage to proclaim the good news.

  13. Ruth West on April 8, 2015 at 23:04

    Br. James, this is such a good and timely message. How many modern day martyrs have died lately because they were witnesses to the the truth of their belief in the Christ! The twenty-one who were beheaded, and at least, one hundred forty-seven students who boldly confessed their faith in Jesus Christ! Would I have the courage to stand up in the face of being beheaded or shot dead when the question is asked, “Are you Muslim or Christian?” I think I would be willing to die for my Christian Faith, but what a test it would be! Thanks be to God for those who have been witnesses to the truth!

  14. Lisa on April 8, 2015 at 10:20

    This sermon speaks to a struggle I am in today. If I follow the urgings and prodding of the Spirit I die to the life I have today. I don’t know what lies ahead. Uncertainty and fear surround. It feels true and good to follow those urgings. I pray for courage….

  15. Julie Myers on April 8, 2015 at 09:41

    I am so impressed with the photography which accompanies the daily messages, but am totally baffled by today’s image! What is it?

    • Reviewer on April 8, 2015 at 10:46

      Great question! It’s a technique people often use at SSJE and it is quite effective, I think. It is a close up photograph of the seat of one of the chairs in the monastery chapel. The items atop the seat are a bell and the Book of Common Prayer.

    • Felicity on April 8, 2015 at 15:34

      Yes, the photo caught my eye. It so reminded me of a ministry I was a lay volunteer in, a weekly Eucharist in the Anglican rite at a (mental health and addiction recovery) hospital chapel. One of us read lessons and intercessions, one acted as server for the priest and one rang the sanctus bell. So the bell person always sat in the congregation and kept the bell and the book on the chair next. The text of the liturgy was marked with handwritten stars indicating where to ring the bell!

  16. Polly Chatfield on April 8, 2015 at 09:18

    Thank you, James. Your words are lifting-up words. They also make me see that to be willing to die for something one knows is true means to be willing to live for it, indeed to live it, as well.

  17. Christopher Engle Barnhart on April 8, 2015 at 08:20

    My wife and I are currently members of a Cursillo team. She and I have been asked to give the Marriage Rollo. This has been difficult for me to profess the truth about our marriage of 44 years and to my failures as a husband and father of our children. But I will bear witness to the truth of who I was, what I did and didn’t do twenty five years ago when I broke my marriage vows by commiting the sin of Adultery. I think of the phrase ” You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.”

    • John Gishe on April 8, 2015 at 16:05

      De Colores! from a Cursillista from the East Bay of San Francisco.

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