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April 22, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
You Are Witnesses
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The Word is near to us now in our hearts, and it is in our hearts now in the present that the Word is made flesh, suffers, dies, and is raised from the dead.
H. A. Williams
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
You may not know that’s how to respond unless you have been a regular part of a congregation that says that every Easter. We don’t always say “Christ is risen!” at Fourth Church. But you may know the response to “Lift up your hearts”: “We lift them up to the Lord.”
There is a congregation that is accustomed, at the beginning of every worship service, to respond to the pastor when she says, “Peace be with you.” They know their response so well they said it even when the PA system wasn’t working. One Sunday the pastor went to the microphone to greet them as usual but said, “There’s something wrong with this mike.” And the congregation responded, “And also with you.”
“Peace be with you” is how the risen Christ greeted his disciples who were huddled behind a locked door. They didn’t know how to respond. In fact, they weren’t sure who or what was speaking to them. They were terrified; they thought they were seeing a ghost. It’s easier for us, who know the whole story that’s been told for more than 2,000 years that Jesus was raised from the dead, to grasp the mystery of resurrection. But try to put yourself in their time and place—all those disciples knew was that a couple days before they had seen their beloved Jesus die on a cross. The man with whom they had lived for three years, listening to him talk about God, watching him heal the sick, experiencing their prejudices against outcasts crumble, sensing a growing purpose for their own lives—that man had died.
All that insight he conveyed as he taught, all that hope he instilled, all that compassion he showed, all that authority he commanded as he confronted the world with a new vision of God’s reign on earth—all that seemed over. Jesus had died, not from a long illness or sudden accident, but by an intentionally planned and violent execution. The disciples didn’t know how to make any sense of his death—what it said about Jesus or God or about who they were. They didn’t know how to make sense any more of his life, either. They didn’t know now what to do with their own grief or faith or futures.
Shock, despair, fear, confusion. Luke shows that Jesus moved the disciples from that place to a totally new place of peace, understanding, conviction, and courage.
We may struggle in our scientific day with how the Gospel writer Luke wants to make clear in no uncertain terms that Jesus was raised from the dead. Luke underlined the physicality of the risen Christ by going into emphatic detail, using graphic, pictorial imagery. When the disciples think they are seeing a ghost, Jesus says, “Look at me with your eyes wide open. Use your senses. Touch me to know I have flesh and bones. I am not a ghost.” Then Jesus ate in their presence, an additional proof that he was not a ghost, for everyone knew ghosts did not eat or digest food.
For those who balk at the formula “resurrection of the body,” Luke’s story takes that to the extreme. Other New Testament post-resurrection stories are different, distinctly nonphysical. At the tomb, Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t touch me” (John 20:17). On the road to Emmaus, they don’t recognize Christ even though they walk and talk together for miles (Luke 24:16). And the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians seeks to distinguish between what he calls the resurrected spiritual body from anything that is physical (1 Corinthians 15:42f). So what are we to make of this account?
We live in an age that embraces exactness more than symbolism. We may stumble over Luke’s vivid description. But what Luke seems to be doing with unswerving conviction is stressing that Christ’s resurrection was real beyond doubting. What rose on Easter morning was not just some inner part of Jesus of Nazareth, not just an immortal soul. What God was raised was all of Jesus. The Easter promise is significant: upon our death we are not going to become a vague kind of aura to be absorbed into God. Rather, just as God affirms the preciousness of each life here and now, so too will God uphold the wholeness, the integrity, of each of us beyond this life (Kent Organ, in the sermon “What Will We Be?”).
The disciples didn’t immediately understand this. Jesus needed to help them understand the scriptures. Once he calmed them down a bit, he helped his followers connect what he had told them about his own death and rising again with what had just happened. Jesus showed them how scripture as a whole is prophetic of the death and resurrection of God’s messiah, as far back as the words of the prophets. Those were the words Jesus lived by and fulfilled; those are the words that reveal God’s plan.
Then Jesus calls them to be witnesses—God’s plan is the extension of God’s blessing, reconciliation, and forgiveness to all nations. The disciples who have perceived Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world’s salvation are now called to witness to it. And we know, because Christianity is alive today, hundreds of generations later, that they witnessed boldly. We know, from stories such as those in the book of Acts we heard earlier, that they risked their own lives to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.
Years ago one of the youth in my confirmation class asked, “How do you know that Jesus was raised from the dead?” My answer was, “What we know is that Jesus’ followers were totally transformed.” Because Christ was risen, they knew the Beatitudes and all Jesus’ teachings were true. They knew God’s forgiveness reconciled us to one another and to God. They knew goodness was stronger than evil, and light stronger than darkness. They knew that God’s kingdom would come on earth. They knew nothing could ever separate us from God’s love. They were so convicted, so confident and bold in their witness, that it was evident they no longer feared death.
How about us? Christ calls us to be witnesses in the world, too. The question is, are we so convicted about the resurrection that we no longer fear death?
It may be hard to tell on an individual basis, because most of us are not in a dangerous situation that threatens our lives. Thankfully most of us or our loved ones are not facing a terminal illness. More likely our fears get played out at a national level. We live in a time when there is much concern about national security. We fear terrorist attacks and nuclear bombs. In recent months, our fear of one another in our own neighborhoods has surfaced around the killing of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old African American male in Florida who was killed while walking home from a convenience store, unarmed. He was shot by George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old biracial Hispanic American who at the time was the community watch coordinator for the gated community where he lived and claims he acted in self-defense.
Bill Cosby made headlines this past week for comments he made about that incident. Cosby knows too well the power of a gun in the wrong hands: his only son was shot and killed fifteen years ago while changing a flat tire on an isolated road off a California freeway.
Cosby said, “When a person has a gun, sometimes their mind clicks that this thing . . . will win arguments and straighten people out. And then in the wrong hands, in the wrong mind, it’s death, it’s wounding people, people who don’t have money to buy a decent meal for themselves, yet someone will put an illegal gun in their hand.”
Shaping his hand in the form of a gun, Cosby said,
This, and what is he doing with it and who taught him and told him how to behave with this . . . it doesn’t make any difference if he is racist or not racist. If he is scared to death and not a racist, it’s still a confrontational provoking of something. . . . We need to get rid of [the gun] on the streets, and if people have one they should be checked out so thoroughly and they should be given all of the answers before they even go to this, and every answer should be ‘Don’t go for this.’ Every answer should be . . . “You see someone break in, call [the cops], sit tight, call backup.” (Bill Cosby, CNN interview, 15 April 2012)
From the Christian perspective, all this goes beyond even race and guns. We need to address the core of our fear—the fear of death itself, and our yearning for security. I’m not saying we should be careless about our safety or our health. I am saying we must question whether our attempts to be secure are actually working against the peace that the world needs. Building bombs and owning guns may help us feel more secure, but we are still left with our fears and mistrust. Our fears bind us. We cannot witness to the joy of resurrection when we are captive to fear. The encounter between Christ and the disciples challenges us with the question, “How are we to be released from those fears in order to be strong witnesses?”
Dorothee Söelle, born in Germany in 1929, grew up during the years of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Her writings are theological reflections on coming to grips with the horrors of the concentration camps and life after World War II, realizing that her heritage of Protestant liberalism had failed to stop the war. She challenges the human propensity for wanting to feel safe, to feel secure from any threat, by seeking that from God, as we sang in the Psalm to God earlier, “You alone keep my life secure.” In Soelle’s essay “Peace, Not Security,” she notes that “change happens at the level of action that contains risk.” In another essay Söelle wrote, “because you are strong [in Christ] you can put the neurotic need for security behind you. You do not need to defend your life like a lunatic. For the love of the poor, Jesus says, you can give your life away and spread it around” (Dorothee Soelle, Jesus’ Death).
The disciples experienced a marked shift in the core of their beings that emboldened them to take great risks, witnessing to the risen Christ. Jesus did not bring them security. He brought them a new peace, the kind of peace that surpasses human understanding. It is a peace that is rooted in faith that life conquers death. Jesus’ words “Peace be with you” came to fruition in their hearts.
We see signs of resurrection peace being lived out. Two women who were widowed by the tragedy of 9/11 were grateful for all the support they received after their husbands died. They started thinking about the women in Afghanistan who, when widowed, not only lose their husbands but also their status in their society. Their difficult lives are made far more difficult. So the two American widows raised money to start a foundation called Beyond the 11th to support Afghani widows and made visits to Afghanistan to meet the widows they were helping. For them, these connections have helped to make sense of the world. Reclaiming the ancient practice of hospitality for the stranger helps us shape a world where we can all be at peace. (Nancy Blakely, Feasting on the Word, p. 428).
The bonds of death could not hold Jesus. Christ is alive. The bonds of death need not constrain us, either. Closed minds can be opened. Those who mourn can find comfort. Enemies can be reconciled. Injustices can be made right. Hope and compassion can lift up the downcast. God is our refuge and strength. Let the power of the resurrection transform you. And may God’s peace be with you. And also with you.