You Are My Witnesses
Belmont UMC—May 12, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, the Reverend John Ames, a Congregational Church pastor, the 3rd generation of pastors in his family, writes a memoir for his son. Ames married rather late in life and he has a young son, a seven year old. Realizing that his heart condition will someday take his life, Ames sets out to write down the things he wants his son to know and remember. He shares his family history, stories of his own grandfather, a radical abolitionist and of his father, a pacifist. He shares observations about life, being fully present to all that goes on around him. He marvels at the sense of awe and beauty he experiences as he watches two young men laughing and playing around with one another on the town street—a simple expression of friendship and joy. He proclaims his desire for his son “to live long. . . and love this poor perishable world.”
What words of wisdom, memories, thoughts or words of encouragement would you like to leave behind? If you knew you were leaving this earth soon, what would you want to say to your children or your friends?
Today’s text is for Ascension Sunday. Luke offers two versions of this story: the one here and one in Acts 1. In both texts Jesus bids the disciples farewell, promises the coming of the Holy Spirit and then tells them that they are witnesses to what God has done in and through him. Through the last chapters of the Gospels Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for his departure.
An alternative text for today is from John 17; John 13-17 are considered “farewell discourses,” 5 chapters of last words, words of farewell, words that intend to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ leaving them alone. In John 17 Jesus offers this beautiful prayer for the disciples, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (17:20-21)
For 5 long chapters Jesus bids the disciples farewell. And the disciples have questions for Jesus—they are simple questions like those of children. Imagine that Mother and Father gather their hats and coats and prepare to depart for the evening. Their children look up from their play and ask a series of predictable questions: Where are you going? Can we come, too? Who’s going to stay with us? When will you come back?
And in these moments before leaving this earth, Jesus prays for them and tells them the things they will need to know to continue being his disciples. My understanding of these passages is quite simple. Jesus is saying, “I am leaving and you, the disciples/the church, will be the only evidence that I was here, that I lived with you, that I taught you, that I died for you and that I’m still alive. Here’s what you need to remember to get that right.” He speaks to them about their relationship with each other and their relationship with the world.
In Luke Jesus describes the work of the disciples as the work of repentance and forgiveness. These words describe who we are as the people of God. “Repentance” implies that we are a people who have turned toward God. The Greek word for “repentance” in the New Testament (metanoia) means that we have “new minds” and we think differently about each other and about the world around us. We are the people who have embraced a new way seeing things—we have turned around and now see things as God sees them. It means that we see each person as a child of God. In each person we see hope and possibility and we hear God’s call to love each person as God loves them.
I was reading the story of Will Campbell in the newspaper last Sunday (Tennessean, May 5, 2013). Will is often called the “bootleg preacher.” Will, a white man, was there when blacks were picketing lunch counters in Nashville, lunch counters that excluded blacks. Will was there when Dr. King was shot in Memphis; he was grieving and comforting others who grieved with him. He was there when black children entered white schools in Arkansas for the first time. Will is a prophet who believes God calls us to do things a little differently. Will believes this God calls us to love everybody. And for Will Campbell, a civil rights advocate, that means loving members of the Ku Klux Klan, as well. The Klansmen represent hatred and homegrown domestic terrorism perpetrated toward our black citizens. How can we be expected to love the Klan?
As I read some of Will’s story in the paper last week, I was struck by how high Jesus sets the bar for us. Does that mean I need to love a young man who casually set a backpack holding a bomb in the middle of crowd toward the end of the Boston Marathon? I’m going to carry that question around with me for a bit, but I think I know the answer. I know Jesus said we should love our enemies. That is indeed a radical new way of looking at the world around us. It is the repentant way of seeing things. If we loved our enemies, the world might remember that Jesus was here, teaching, leading, loving in a way that no one had experienced before.
In one church I served we used to invite people to pass the peace of Christ to one another with these words: “As forgiven and forgiving people, let us turn and pass signs of Christ’s peace among us.” The root idea of “forgive” means “letting go” of something we are holding onto tightly. We are people who forgive each other, letting go of grudges and letting go of past hurts and failures. I suspect Jesus knew his disciples, past and present, would have to learn to forgive each other in order for them to be witnesses of God’s love.
I had lunch with a friend the other day. I love this friend very much and we find much joy and grace in being together. But I know there have been times when we have had to forgive each other—it’s not as easy being my friend as one might expect. To be here with one another in this diverse community of faith, we will need to learn the spiritual practice of forgiveness, and as we do we will be witnesses of the One who forgives us and sets us free to live and serve. And maybe the world will remember that Jesus was here, teaching, leading, loving, forgiving and that he continues to do so.
My parents are here today. I grew up in a home where we didn’t sit around talking about theology. In our home we learned that faith is about something we do. We were taught to attend church where we could learn about God and grow in our understanding of who God is and what it means to live as God’s beloved children. In our home we learned that faith meant loving our neighbor, even when doing so was inconvenient or difficult. We learned, “Be kind to one another.” Faith is more than ideas; faith is action. Jesus would want his disciples to remember that.
In Luke 24 Jesus appears to the disciples who are standing around talking about the possibility of the resurrection. A couple of them claim to have seen Jesus on the way to Emmaus. Jesus appears and frightens them. He says to them, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I, myself. . . . He showed them his hands and his feet.” (vv. 38-40)
Later in this chapter Jesus prepares these disciples for his departure. In a way I think he is saying, “Now you must be my hands and my feet. When people see that you believe, see how you live, how you serve, how you care for the least of these, you will be witnesses of my life, my presence, my love.” Jesus sends the disciples to the ends of the earth to be his hands and feet.
I heard the Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School say to the graduating class this week that they are to be translators of faith into action. He used those words of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel everyday, and if necessary, use words.” Our lives must model the life of Jesus and we must be ready to go and to serve where Jesus calls us.
The world must see Jesus in us or the world will not see Jesus. Jesus said, “I’m leaving and you will be the only evidence that I have been here. You must now be my hands and my feet.”
Let us close with these words of prayer, attributed to Teresa of Avila:
God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.