“You are witnesses.”
Witnesses—we know that two sign their name to the marriage license along with the celebrant.
Witnesses—we know that there must be those who put their mark at the end of a will, showing that, yes, this was truly someone’s last will and testament.
Witnesses-- We have spent the last few weeks watching a trial and witnesses who have been traumatized, witnesses who have broken down on the stand, witnesses who feel guilty because they didn’t do more, witnesses who use professional experience to form a judgement.
“You are witnesses.” “You are my witnesses.”
When we say we have witnessed something, we mean we SAW it, we were there. But it goes deeper than that. It means being willing to talk about it, willing to be public about it, willing to “go on the record.” And in our digital age, witnessing has taken on a new dimension. Most of us were not physically present when George Floyd breathed his last—but through the wonder and horror of cell phone video, we feel like we too were witnesses.
Interesting that Jesus chooses witness as the term for what those gathered in that room are to become. He could have said: “You are my disciples”—a statement of fact. Or “You are my followers”—maybe suggesting the path forward. Or “You are my rememberers”—pointing to the need to tell the story, to pass on the knowledge, to keep the faith. But Jesus says, “You are my witnesses”—as if he knows that people need witnesses to extraordinary events or they will not believe, if they have not seen, if they have not heard. It is as if he knows that what has happened, Resurrection, will need to be talked about, publically, will need people to share it, to write about it, to spread the news: Jesus is not dead. He is risen, Christ is risen indeed!
And what have we witnessed?
Look what Luke’s gospel has chosen to present to us. This story of Jesus standing among them (Easter evening) follows on the heels of the disciples meeting Jesus on the Emmaus Road. It is Easter day and two disciples are traveling out of Jerusalem (Why are they leaving? Had they traveled to Jerusalem for the events of the Passover feast and were now returning home? Were they disciples who had traipsed all over Israel for the last three years, and now there was nothing more to do? Had the events just been too much, too sad, too confusing, too hope quashing?)
And they meet another on the way—not recognizing that it is Jesus. We often focus on the end of the story, his breaking bread with them, and their eyes being opened and recognizing him—but Jesus has spent the entire time on the road discussing, arguing, explaining Scripture and God’s actions in our world. In fact, what they say when they recognize Jesus is not, “Wow, that was Jesus who just broke bread,” no, they remark to each other “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
So, when we are hearing our passage for today, when those disciples have gotten up and returned to Jerusalem, that very night, and found the gathered disciples, and are telling their story, and hearing the story of the appearance to Peter, and Jesus is there, and after telling them to touch and see for themselves, and eating a piece of fish, and it says that “he opened their minds to understand Scripture,” we have context.
This is one of the ways that Jesus is revealed—this is one of the ways that we witness—in diving deep into Scripture, into trying to apply truths we see there to what is happening in our world today, to tease out how God might be present, as God has always been with God’s people. To shake the heavens if there is injustice. To lift up songs of praise. To grapple with age-old questions like “’Where did we come from?’ and ‘Who is God?’ And ‘Why is there evil in the world?’”
Witnesses, don’t just see and feel and touch, but they continue to press for knowledge, they continue to try to use their God-given intellect, they continue to try to understand. So they might be better witnesses to others.
We hear in this story that when he appeared, “they were startled and terrified.” Maybe this too can give us insight into what it means to be witnesses. The commentary from Seasons of the Spirit says, “To be a witness, as these texts understand it, is to exist in complex tensions of doubt and evidence, astonishment and faith, terror and peace, disbelief and joy, of distress and hope, of who we are and who we could be. To be a witness is to have an encounter with God that transforms us and compels us to act.”
Witnesses don’t have to have it all together. Witnesses don’t have to have seen it all, or understood it all. Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes and beliefs. So don’t be afraid, Jesus says, “See me, Touch me, Know me.” And to that effect Jesus asks for something to eat.
I know that there are explanations about why this scene of Jesus eating is in the story—they disciples have wondered if Jesus was a ghost, and so, the thinking goes, along with seeing him, and touching him, if Jesus could eat, then he couldn’t be a ghost. What is strange to me is that we hear at first they are “startled and terrified” and after he tells them to touch and see that he is not a ghost it says “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” But by the time that they get to feeding Jesus some fish, the writer doesn’t record any reaction from them at all. It is as if such a common place occurrence, eating a meal, were of no consequence.
But we know that the Church, looking back, sees the importance of eating with Jesus. We tell the Emmaus story because he is recognized in the breaking of bread. We celebrate Maundy Thursday around the world because Jesus’ last supper with the disciples was so transformative. The church has even enshrined eating at the table together as one of the ways we gather, we remember, we celebrate our Risen Lord.
So why is there no response to Jesus eating in our story? Why no “Aww, I remember when!” No, “Oh, it really MUST be Jesus.” It doesn’t seem to be anything but a record of he came, he showed us his hands and feet, he ate, he talked. In the absence of a reaction, I find a message as well. What is missing in how the disciples react is a gentle warning that we not gloss over what seems so ordinary.
Maybe witnessing, like much of life, happens in the little things, in the rituals we don’t even know we are doing, in the touch, the smile, the text, the call, the meal, the interaction, in the things that seem so little and yet mean so much. Maybe witnessing isn’t always standing in the courtyard giving a speech like Peter, or traveling to far away places to spread the news like Paul, or doing all those big things that get your name placed in news stories, or in books, or on plaques. Most of us are obscure footnotes in history—we will have just “lives well lived” when we go. But that is witnessing too.
I notice that Jesus said “witnesses”—plural. Is that a clue as well? Is this witnessing, this calling that Jesus attaches to our lives, this somewhat scary stepping out, this willingness to speak of unbelievable things, this way of living, not to be done solitarily, but together. Witnesses, reminds us that Jesus sent the disciples out two by two to preach and heal. Witnesses, reminds us that when Jesus taught us to pray, the first word of the prayer is “Our.” Witnesses, reminds us to gather together, for sustenance, for strength, for guidance, and it reminds us that we are never alone.
And it’s a good thing that we are not alone, because what Jesus is pointing us toward, what Jesus is ushering in, what Jesus is proclaiming as “what we do now” is daunting. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Hold on now, touching and seeing is one thing. Schooling ourselves in God’s actions in our world is more difficult. But repentance and forgiveness? That’s what priests and scribes and Sadducees and Pharisee do. Who are we …?
And maybe this is where the meaning of Resurrection really hits the disciples (although once again, we have no record of their response).
Resurrection means giving up the point of privilege to start with turning around, turning toward God, ushering in a new day, a new dawn, a new way. Repentance, yes, because there must have been so many recriminations—who was at the last events, and which ones? Who denied publically, who slunk away? Even who might have shouted crucify, getting caught up in the mob fury? Who went to the tomb early in the morning, who stayed in bed? Who believed right away, who needed a little more proof?
Repentance needed to be proclaimed, needed to be practiced, needed to be absorbed. And along with repentance, forgiveness. Not just God’s forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of others (going back to that prayer Jesus taught). And where is this ministry of repentance and forgiveness to be done? “Beginning in Jerusalem.”
Starting right here. Starting wherever you are. Starting at the epicenter of hurt and pain. Jerusalem. Where Jesus had come, where high hopes had been dashed, where there had been false testimony, and torture and death. And where Resurrection had snuck into a cold morning’s light. Where Resurrection had stunned and terrified so many. Where Resurrection made hearts burn within, and the impossible stand right in front of your very eyes.
Stuck inside, wondering what should come next, Jesus comes and stands in the midst of them. Stuck in the grief of what was, what never came to be, Jesus comes to stand in the midst of them. Stuck in the paralysis of having to move out into a new landscape, Jesus comes and stands in the midst of them. “Peace be with you.” And by the end of the encounter, Jesus says “You are my witnesses.”
I know this year (this time) has left us like the disciples gathered in that room. Unsure of what comes next. Somewhat fearful of the world out there.
Weary of what we have lost, weary of living in fear, weary of missed opportunities, weary of being weary. Jesus stands amongst us today. Jesus invites us to find ways to see and touch. Jesus encourages us to find those common connections, as common as eating a meal, and discover in them a vehicle for the miraculous. Jesus commands us to turn around, to reorient ourselves, and our world, to what God has in store next. Jesus pleads with us to be proclaimers of forgiveness, and not just proclaimers, but those who live forgiveness, who forgive themselves and those around them before moving out to the wider world.
Finally Jesus renames us. “You are witnesses.” You are my witnesses.
Witnesses don’t stay in a safe cocoon, they touch and see and feel.
Witnesses don’t lord it over other people, they sit down at table and eat together.
Witnesses aren’t allowed to be unconcerned, for repentance and forgiveness mean close contact, face to face.
Yes, we have been swept up into the story. Jesus has stood among us and said, “You are witnesses.”
Resurrection has come to this place.
You will never be the same.