We are all witnesses Psalm 16, John 20: 19-31, Acts 2: 14a, 22-32

April 19, 2020

Having received Jesus’ resurrection at Easter, what does it mean to witness to this Good News in our lives? This is the question that in our reading from Acts today (2: 14, 22-32) Peter doesn’t so much answer but demonstrates? However, before we go too far into Peter’s speech this morning, let’s remember where he is and what is happening: At the beginning of this event, we have the familiar story of Pentecost. We remember that at this time the Apostles were gathered in a house in Jerusalem, wondering what was going to happen next. The Feast of Weeks was going on in the city, and there were people from all over the Jewish world. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit came into the house and gave each Apostle a tongue of fire, and the ability to speak and be understood in the language of all of the visitors to the festival. Here we should read “speaking in tongues” not as the “angelic speech” that Paul spoke about later, but rather speech that was able to be understood; speech that was meant to be understood by different people from different lands. As Peter opened his mouth to speak that day, to witness to the Gospel; he had before him a crowd and an audience that no one had ever experienced: Thousands of people. People from across the Jewish world. Speakers of a dozen different languages. All able to hear and understand as if he was from their own region. It was a large audience, a very interested audience, one ready to hear and believe the explanation that Peter was sure to speak. If we imagine ourselves in Peter’s position, what do we imagine ourselves doing? How to take advantage of such an opportunity? How to reach such an audience? What words to speak? What story to tell them? As Christians, those with faith in the Risen Christ; the Christ fully and gloriously displayed at Easter, how should we approach this momentous opportunity: the first Christian sermon? Well, Peter began by telling them the Good News: Jesus of Nazareth has died and is risen (the Good News of Easter in as few words as it is possible to say). Jesus of Nazareth has died and is now risen. And giving his hearers more; inviting them to consider Jesus in light of the Scriptures they knew, Peter quoted Psalm 16. Here is Jesus! We only did not know it until now: The Lord always before me. The one from whom I will not be shaken. The one who has been faithful to David, to his ancestors, and now to everyone who calls on Jesus’ name. So that now: “All of us are witnesses” to what God has told in Scripture and made true in Jesus. With these words, this sermon, Peter began Christian witness. It was after this moment, this first Christian sermon, that the Good News of Jesus began to be known to those outside of His disciples/apostles, and to travel throughout the world. All of us. All of us gathered in worship this day have learned of Jesus, have heard the Good News, because of a great chain of events began by Peter through the Holy Spirit that day. Following Peter’s sermon people became convinced, people followed the Good News they had heard, people read the Psalms and the Scriptures differently – eventually people formed churches and wrote letters and received Peter and Paul as visitors, and eventually wrote the four Gospels as we know them today – all as outcomes of this first sermon. To hear the Good News of Jesus preached, to hear a sermon delivered with passion and urgency is to hear the continuation of this first Gospel message. Friends, this is where I need your help. All of us need to remind our pastors and preachers of what we need to hear each Sunday: Not to hear a weekly dose of moralizing. Not to hear our pastor’s musings from the last week. But to hear (again or for the first time) a preacher tell of the Good News of Jesus Christ: to encourage us, to challenge us, to equip us with the Scriptures and tools of interpretation we need to continue this discovery and witness to Christ’s resurrection for ourselves. Good preaching should lift us up, it should startle and challenge us, it should make us sit up and take notice to what God has done in the world and in our lives through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “To which all of us are witnesses.” Though the lectionary concludes this reading at verse 32 (“all of us are witnesses”) and so stops Peter (and his sermon about David) in his tracks, this end point is helpful in focusing our attention on the point of this and all other preached words: “All of us are witnesses.” Though we (us here in the 21st Century) were not at the tomb. Though we were not with Thomas when he cried out “My Lord and my God!”, we are all witnesses to the resurrection. We are blessed exactly as Jesus says we are blessed at John 20: 28-29: 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are the disciples/apostles, certainly. But blessed especially are Peter’s audience. Blessed are those who read Psalm 16 and see Christ. Blessed are those in every century who, through that great chain of faith and preaching, have come to faith in the Risen Christ. When we think about what it means to have faith in and to follow Christ, we find that it means: Witnessing to the resurrection we know by faith. Witnessing in our own hearts and our own lives. And finally witnessing it to others to share in this gift. We witness for many reasons: To know God and His purposes. To know Christ’s love. To know His teachings and to follow them. To remember that God is sovereign; that He has designed the world and that its ends are His to wield and know. Witnessing to Christ is counter-cultural, it is rebellious. There is a popular line in our culture when it comes to faith, preaching, and evangelism (rightly understood as the practice of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ), that you have no doubt heard: “Believe whatever you want just don’t force it on other people” “Don’t force your faith on me” “Don’t expect me to listen to your witness” “Keep it to yourself” It’s a broken world, friends, that sees faithlessness and hopelessness as the default positions of life. It’s a broken world that requires people of faith to keep their mouths shut about the life-saving Good News that they are called to witness to. It’s a broken world that says it’s better not to bother people (by entering into conversation and community with them) than to tell of a God who loves them and died to save them. These days: in these days of COVID-19 many things have been disrupted. The official rules of the world are bending and changing. Faced with illness, faced with death, faced with unemployment and doubt and fear about our futures we cannot help but talk about what scares us, about what keeps us up at night. And something seems to be happening because of that. The rules around talking about fear, talking about death, talking about insecurity are relaxing. And so too are the rules about witnessing to the one who took all of these things upon Himself on the cross. As a young man, in my pre-Christian years, scared and critical of faith, I was a good ambassador for the official rules on talking about such things. I would say (and mean) things like: “Religious people should keep it to themselves.” “Religion is nothing but a fairy tale to comfort people who are afraid of dying.” Like I say, I was a good ambassador of Western Culture, and also a deeply unhappy young man. It wasn’t until I actually began to listen to these people I was so critical of, that both of these things began to change. And of the hundreds of things I have discovered since then, I would like to make just two plain: One, faith in Christ or even “religion” is not a “minor aspect of life”, like what car we drive or what our favorite flavor is. Our view of God is not inconsequential, it is who we are, and there is a reason that we cannot leave it at home. Second, Christian faith does not (in-fact) make death friendlier. As I mentioned, I used to think that being a Christian was all about becoming friendly with death; believing in the afterlife so that death wasn’t so scary. In actual fact, I have found that I hate death more as a Christian than I ever did as a follower of the religion of culture. Christian faith isn’t about becoming cozy with death, rather it is about witnessing to a God who has taken on the horror of death and defeated it for our sake. And not just death but also the smaller deaths of hopelessness, apathy, depression, fear, anxiety, panic, and all other states which do not come from God. Christ took on every sin, every doubt, every fear and died to them on the cross, before rising on the third day to show us that neither He nor we shall ever be slaves to them again. “We are all witnesses to this.” All of us who have believed, all of us who have lost our faith and re-found it, all of us who have felt God’s hand upon us telling us not to give into fear or the imprisonment of sin. “We are all witnesses to this” resurrection: Christ’s and our own. Returning to the text: as Peter preached, he made the claim that even David (Israel’s great king) was a witness to Christ; that because David proclaimed to God, “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption”, and yet died, this was David’s testimony not of himself but of Christ, as Christ’s prophet. Peter invites us to follow David’s lead. Peter invites the crowd (and us) to consider what is offered through faith in Christ and to witness to it: that though we may die, God does not abandon us. Just as death was not Christ’s end, nor will it be ours. Recently, I read a story of this Christian witnessing by a doctor in Italy during the devastation caused by COVID-19. This doctor described himself as one who had a modern view of death: death was natural, it was the outcome of predictable, though not always treatable conditions – loss of oxygen, loss of blood, the failure of vital organs. To this doctor death was less a mystery and more the eventual outcome of every life; some sooner, some later, but one that was eventual, not personal. Finally though, as the COVID-19 outbreak spread across Italy, killing thousands and devastating communities, something began to change within this doctor’s heart. Faced with so much illness, so much death, his sense of it became overwhelmed. It wasn’t that the formula for death had changed but that there was just so much of it that he began to lose hope and meaning in his work and life. It was at that point that the doctor took notice of a peculiar patient at the hospital. Every day this man, this priest in-fact, would leave his bed to sit with other patients, to talk, and to hold hands with those who everyone else was afraid to touch. This priest didn’t cure anybody, he had no medical training, no special equipment, just a Bible, and a story about a God who sent his son to die so that we should no longer be afraid. Eventually, predictably, this priest’s condition worsened and he eventually died. But rather than add to the doctor’s heartache, to his hopelessness, to his lost sense of meaning, it actually gave him hope and courage. That if someone could live his whole life, even to the bitter end, in service of a story about God’s Son who did the same, why couldn’t he believe and witness to this story in his own life. Friends, we are all witnesses. To the Christ of history we have not seen. To the Risen Christ we have. And to all who carry on this great chain of witness: to comfort, to give hope, and to speak the truth of faith that death no longer has dominion, because He is Risen. Amen.