October 30, 2016

“FaithBuilding Through Our Witness”

 

Scripture: Luke 24:36-49

36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 37 They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost.

38 He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? 39  Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 40 As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of baked fish. 43 Taking it, he ate it in front of them.

44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things. 49  Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

 

The amber light flooded the sanctuary as the sun began to set.  The humid August air proved too great for the ancient air conditioning of the old building. The slow, steady murmur of uncomfortable, shifting bodies signaled that the service was dragging on a little too long. After five hymns and a bunch of announcements, the guest preacher had not yet spoken, and I knew that – even at a young age – the restlessness would quickly evolve into grumbling before long. The young man, dressed to the nines in spite of the heat, stood up, walked up to the pulpit, placed his Bible firmly, yet not dramatically, onto the wooden surface. Just enough weight to go “thump.”

He began to talk, the room settled, and all felt right. After a couple of minutes, his tone grew urgent, peaking at a crescendo, finalized with the phrase, “Can I get a witness?!” Bodies shifted. The group from his own congregation served as the literal “amen corner” that our church did not have. He said it again, “CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” “Preach on, brother,” they said again. On the ride home, my mother seemed energized. I didn’t want to interrupt her excitement by asking what getting a witness meant.

Years later, the knowledge of the phrase came through education and experience. In the Southern dialect, witnessing holds a special place in the language of both the wordsmith and the simple speaker. To us churchfolk, it’s a special word, but a misused one, nonetheless.

 

As much as I have enjoyed playing Grand Funk Railroad, Marvin Gaye, and the Rolling Stones to dig in to what we mean when we ask for a witness, it still pales in comparison to what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to be witnesses.

Here, in the final section of the final chapter of Luke, we see the Christ as he plans to ascend to heaven. The bonds of death have been broken, and the prophecy of his resurrection have been fulfilled, but what about all those guys who are still living and had not experienced it yet? They saw it all, but Christ isn’t asking them to watch: he is sending them with a message.

To illustrate the gravity, the heaviness, of what he means, all we have to do is look at the focus word: witness. In the Greek language Luke was written in, the word witness translates to martous. You probably recognize it. It is the same root as the word martyr. That is why, if you ever decide you want to read ancient church history, the word for those who died for their faith are often called witnesses. It’s a direct translation.

With that in mind, what is it we are saying in our final promise in the baptismal vows that we’ve covered this past five Sundays? We covered prayers. That’s easy to understand. We covered presence. Also easy to understand. We covered gifts and service. Those make sense, too. If you notice, it is like those promises build in the order of difficulty. Prayers are easy; as is presence. We struggle with doing them, but it isn’t due to lack of ability. Gifts and service require a little more effort but are still doable.

Offering our witness, knowing it connects to the m-word that we don’t want to explain to kids, feels like a black cloud hanging over our head. We know what it means: are we willing to give our lives for God and the church? I’ve seen enough war and hero movies to have heard many people promise to give their lives to something when they actually mean giving their deaths. Giving our lives is a slower process. It defines who we are over the long haul.

We give our witness to so many things. For some of us, we are proud of our nationality or our family name. Maybe a sports team or two. For others, our witness is what we do for a living or what we do to serve people. Some weirdos really like posting about their witness with Crossfit. A large swath of people gave their witness to Team Valor, Team Instinct, and Team Mystic. If you don’t get that reference, find a youth. They’ll explain it.

People give their witness, their life’s message, to so many things and seem to put their religious beliefs on the sidelines. Sure, they’ll say they are Christian first but their time, their money, their work, and their thoughts all seem to point to a variety of other things. When we promise our witness to Christ, we promise our lives to him.

No one is perfect, and we all get misdirected often. I spent far more time this week doing church work than actually focusing on Christ. I spend a lot of my money on hobbies that are mostly for my benefit. But I do my best to remind myself that I made a promise at my baptism that my life would point to Christ.

As we welcome new families through affirmation and baptism, think about what the liturgy is saying. Read it as a conversation with God. You have been washed by water, and you are being taken back into that life each time you affirm new members. You repromise to give of your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and service, and witness each time you repeat these vows.

In the liturgy, we evoke images of the waters of chaos, the flood of the earth, the baptisms in the River Jordan. These waters were all formed as a witness to the power of the living God we worship now. Are we ready to join that great cloud of folks who felt that the ultimate understanding of faith was to offer their whole selves to God? Or are we too comfortable, too complacent, too concerned with temporal and temporary things to grab hold of the promise God gives back to us when we actually take our vows seriously: life abundant.

We have spent five weeks talking about what we are saying when we take part in our baptisms. I hope you have been challenged to think more deeply about your faith. Living in unity with God may not bring us the maximum luxury or the perfect score or the highest status. When we align ourselves with our faith and let it build, we get a life much better, much sweeter than what we could ever hope for on our own. Continue building on your faith. Take it seriously. If we ever expect to be welcomed into heaven as God promised, we must own who we are and what we are called to be.

God bless you and keep you. Amen.

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