God offers a protection plan for those who witness in the power of the Spirit...
SJF • Easter 2a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Happy Easter! I say that because Easter is not just a single day, but a whole season, and we are now on the Second Sunday of that Easter Season. This season is a time to celebrate something that is too good just to commemorate with a single day — the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is something to celebrate for a whole 50 days, right up to Pentecost. And beyond! For I hope I don’t surprise you further by reminding you that every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a celebration of the resurrection. Even the Sundays that fall during Lent are called “Sundays in Lent” but not “of Lent” — that’s a little liturgical footnote.
Eastertide — those fifty days — is a special season that speaks to us eloquently, because it coincides with the awakening of the world to springtime glory. I often wonder what it must feel like to be celebrating Easter in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is the beginning of fall — that must give it a different feeling. But here we are lucky enough to have Easter coincide with all of those beautiful flowers coming up outside; some of which we owe to our dear friend Monica. After the winter we had, believe me, spring is most welcome. As is Easter.
This is also a time to hear passages of Scripture that describe the birthday of the church and its very beginnings, that emergence of the body of the faithful believers in Jesus as they shared with each other in their experiences of the Risen Lord. The seed that had been planted by Jesus himself began to blossom and to bear fruit, in those days after his resurrection. For the church this was new life in a new world: the world’s spring.
Primary among these believers is Saint Peter. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the first part of Peter’s very first sermon — the one that he preached on the day of Pentecost — and we also hear a brief passage from his First Letter. We will hear more from this sermon next week, and more from that letter over the coming weeks of this Easter season. And I want to spend some time today and in the coming weeks exploring the teaching Peter develops about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be the church in this world’s springtime.
Peter’s sermon to the crowds on Pentecost was more than a sermon, of course. It was testimony, and that is the element I want to highlight today. Like any religious Jew of his day, Peter knew his Scriptures well, and also like any pious believer then or since, he always tried to bring his own experience into relation with Scripture, to place his own experience into the history of salvation to which the Scriptures bear witness.
So Peter does some scriptural exegesis — which is just a fancy word for exploring and explaining what Scripture means. He quotes from the Psalms of David, Psalms that point to eternal life, and the promise that God’s Holy One would not suffer corruption. And Peter has the guts to say to the gathered assembly, “Well guess what, folks. David died! Not only that, but he suffered corruption — he was put in a tomb, and his tomb is right down the street and you can go and see it if you want. So David wasn’t talking about himself, but about one of his descendants. It is this Messiah that David is talking about when he says that he “will not be abandoned to Hades or experience corruption.” Then Peter pulls this historic analysis — all well in and of itself — right into the present: He tells the people there, “It has happened, right here in Jerusalem and not so long ago: this descendant of David, this Jesus — the man in whose crucifixion you all played a part by getting the Romans to execute him — God has raised him from the dead, and of that we are all witnesses!”
+ + +
Now, recall the situation. Just fifty-two days earlier, this same Peter was huddled by the fire outside the court where Jesus was on trial. When people recognized him and accused him of being one of the disciples, he denied it three times before the rooster crowed; and it all ended in tears. Peter, too, you see, had played his own part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet here — now, fifty-two days later — is this same man now boldly proclaiming to the whole community not only that they are guilty of complicity in a terrible crime — the execution of an innocent man — but that this man was and is the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead, and that he and the other apostles are eyewitnesses to this raising. The former coward and traitor has been transformed by his own personal experience and the coming of God’s Spirit into one willing to testify to the truth, even at the risk of his own life — for remember who he is talking to: he knows that those who had worked to bring down Jesus may well still be there among that crowd, and they might do to Peter and his colleagues the same things, to bring them down — as indeed some of them would soon do — and we’ll be hearing more about that in the coming weeks!
+ + +
So there are two parts to this phenomenon: Peter’s actual experience of being a witness to something, and then the action of testifying to that experience. Has anyone here ever served as a witness in a trial or a hearing? (I won’t ask for a show of hands, but if you did you’ll know what I mean, that there are two parts to the experience. Not only have you had personal experience of some event, but you are willing to testify to that event. It means having and sharing first-hand knowledge, being able to deliver your testimony. It isn’t enough to have hearsay — somebody told me this happened — no, it means being able to say, “I was there, and I saw what happened.” And it isn’t enough just to have seen what happened — you have to be willing to be sworn in and to testify to your memories of what you saw. You have to tell your story — a story that happened.
Peter lacked the courage to testify that he knew Jesus on the night that Jesus was betrayed, but in between that and the testimony we heard this morning, two great events took place: Jesus was raised from the dead, and the Spirit descended on the apostles. These two events changed Peter and made him willing to take a risk he had been unwilling to take just weeks before.
For there is a risk in offering testimony. As I said, Peter, in that sermon was testifying to the same people who, as he said, got the Romans to crucify Jesus. Sometimes the risk is so great that people who testify, in a modern setting, have to be offered special protection; sometimes even a whole new identity, a whole new life in a different place. They call it a “witness protection plan.” God had such a plan for Peter, and it too had two parts. First came his own personal experience of the risen Christ, the Easter experience of a new life raised from the dead. But even more powerful was the descent of the Holy Spirit that came on him and the other apostles on the feast of Pentecost — which is when he spoke the words of this bold first sermon to the people. These two events gave Peter a new identity, and equipped him with what Paul would later call “the armor of God” but which Peter refers to as “protection” — a depth of trust and conviction that converted him from fear to faith. And they gave him a new life in a new place — the church that was born on the day of Pentecost, as we’ll hear again in a few weeks. He could boldly preach Christ and him crucified, but also risen from the dead, and he did so in the witness protection plan of God’s Holy Spirit.
+ + +
In addition to our sermon from Peter, today’s gospel passage gives us another story of a witness, the patron saint of witnesses: Doubting Thomas. Thomas is a skeptic — perhaps by nature. John reminds us that Thomas had a nickname; he was called “the Twin.” Now, we don’t know if he was an actual twin, or if he just looked so much like someone that they called him that. But he had probably had to argue many times with people who tell him, “But I saw you at the shop yesterday,” when what they saw was his brother or someone who looked like him. Even people who aren’t twins suffer from mistaken identity often enough — perhaps our twins can testify; have you ever been mistaken for someone else? or each other? I’m sure you have; I know I have! Or have you ever mistaken someone else for someone else; gone up to someone on the street and started to say “hello” and they look at you like, “Who are you?” And then you realize, “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
So Thomas probably had that kind of experience for much of his life. And when you’ve lived with that long enough you can become very skeptical about the eyewitness reports you hear about others. You’ve been there; you know how wrong people can be.
So when the other disciples assure Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he is not persuaded by their testimony. His first thought is that they’ve seen someone who looks like Jesus. Even their eyewitness testimony is not enough to convince him. He won’t accept their word: he needs to see for himself.
So, when Thomas finally does see for himself, he is practically speechless; he is only able to say a few words — how many times have you repeated them yourselves as you knelt at this altar to receive Christ present in the Eucharist — that simple phrase, “My Lord and my God!”
And Jesus does not rebuke him: he merely reminds him that being an eyewitness is not possible for everyone. It is the task of faith to believe those who are witnesses to the truth. We are challenged to test everything, yes, but to we are also called, as Jesus tells Thomas, to give credence when we see the greatest good; to believe not only the testimony, but the good faith of those who testify, who, in their lives and in their works as well as in their words show forth the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit at work in them. That is putting the power of faith to work: not just seeing, but believing, and testifying and bearing witness in one’s life, so that others may see and believe in the power of God, and have the courage to have faith.
This is how the power of God’s witness protection plan works for us. It gives us a different kind of courage — but through the same Spirit that gave courage to Peter. This is the courage to believe that of which we are not eyewitnesses — the resurrection of Christ — yet hold fast to the testimony of those who are witnesses — and to allow that experience of God to work in our lives.
We are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection — but we do have the testimony of those first eyewitnesses, passed down to other believers, and then on to the next generation of those who believe, and who receive the courage of faith through the Spirit, to act on their own belief to do the work God gives them — gives us — to do. And the power of this testimony, handed down through the ages, can still change the world. Our own “witness protection plan” is not based on having seen, but having believed, as Jesus promised Thomas would be the case. This gives us our new identity and our new dwelling place — as members of the church, Christ’s body on earth, and with that new identity, “Christian.” This testimony is as fresh as the day it was first delivered, blooming up out of the soil of cowardice and fear into the light of faith. It comes alive, alive like the springtime, like Easter itself in its continued rebirth, every time that testimony is offered, every time you speak a word of faith to someone who does not yet believe, you help that seed to blossom into life. It is the power of God at work for good in the world that God created, the world God redeemed, and the world God fills with his Holy Spirit.
+ + +
This is the promise and the fulfillment of Easter: the season of resurrection, of new beginnings and new possibilities, when life comes to the dead, cowards become courageous, doubters become believers, and even those who have not seen dare to speak out, dare to stand firm and to stand forth against all that works against the human spirit or God’s Spirit, to testify that they are saved and redeemed by the blood of Christ: witnesses protected by God!
This is our faith; this is our testimony; this is our courageous proclamation in the Spirit; this is our story, this is our song! beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. We may not have seen him rise, but we know he lives.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!