Being Witnesses, May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday

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Romans 6:1-4, Acts 2:1-8, 11b-13
Pastor Marty Raths

Today is Pentecost, and another name for Pentecost could be the Aftermath.  Pentecost is what happened to the disciples in the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, and in some very important ways Pentecost helps to complete Easter.  Pentecost takes us from Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples’ transformation, and without this the work of Easter would remain unfinished.

The Apostle Paul understood this deep connection between Easter and Pentecost, knowing that Jesus not only walked the way of dying and rising for us, he walked it that we might follow him in the way.  So Paul wrote often, including in our passage from Romans, about our dying and rising with Christ into newness of life, and about what this means for us as persons of faith and as a community of faith.

A lot of thought has been given to trying to prove with the methods of historical and scientific research the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Though this effort is not without some merit, it seems to me that it can become a diversion, a way for us to avoid the real challenge of the resurrection, which is far more a moral challenge than a mental one, demanding not only an assent of our minds but even more a commitment of our hearts.

The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “There is no proof for the existence of God; there are only witness.”  I believe the same is true for the resurrection.  “There is no proof for the truth of the resurrection; there are only witnesses.” The experience of Pentecost, the experience of the coming of the Spirit, the experience of having our lives transformed by the grace of God, this is by far the most compelling evidence for the truth of the resurrection.  I mean, if the followers of the Risen Christ, all of us, show no signs of the power of the resurrection in our own lives, then all the arguments in the world trying to prove the resurrection will mean little. “They will know we are Christians not by our arguments,” John reminds us, “but by our love.”  By our faithful and loving witness to the One who says to us, “Follow me.”

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on one of the resurrection appearance stories in which Jesus tells his followers, “You will be my witnesses.” Then and now, being a witness has associations with the courtroom.  It is the part we are called to play in the great courtroom drama that is the life of faith. But too often in the church we seem to want to play judge and jury instead, but that is another sermon for another time.  What Jesus said is this, “You will be my witnesses.”

But what does it mean to be a faithful witness?  First it means that we speak from out of our own experience. In a court of law witnesses promise to tell the truth about what they have seen and heard and experienced.  In a word about what they have witnessed.  Witnesses do not speak for others. Others are also called to witness for themselves.

As the Acts of the Apostles unfolds, this becomes one of the central dramas in the story of the early church: will the first followers of Jesus be open to the witness of others, to new and varied experiences of how the Holy Spirit has been at work in people’s lives. Will they welcome Paul, a former persecutor of the faith, now a proclaimer of a special message of inclusion to the Gentiles?  Will they accept Peter’s special vision that includes the setting aside of some of the most cherished traditions of the faith?  When the leaders have their meeting of the minds at Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas are asked to defend their work among the Gentiles, they do so by appealing to their experiences, or to quote Luke, by witnessing to “all the signs and wonders that God has done through them among the Gentiles.”

Personal witness can be powerful.  It is what gives life, flesh and bone and blood, to the faith. Last week Sam witnessed to us, and a powerful witness it was, as she talked about her own faith journey, and how important this congregation has been in her journey. It was her own version of Luke’s “signs and wonders,” how the grace of God has been at work in her and how the Holy Spirit has been moving among us.

And we all have these experiences, signs and wonder’s moments, grace moments, Spirit moments, or, in honor of today, let us call them Pentecost moments.  They are those before and after moments in life, moments that change us forever, giving shape and character and direction to our lives from that time forward. And often in these moments there is an embedded sense of call, as there was for the first followers of Jesus, and I have had a few of these moments in my own life, ones that have influenced my own life and ministry.  And I want to share one of these moments with you, in the hope that in this Season of Pentecost we will all give some thought to the Pentecost moments that we have had in our own lives, and that we will consider how we might best witness to them.

Years ago I spent the fall of 1979 in Israel. And while I was there I met two young French Jews, Maurice and Hubert. We met one evening while camping on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the next morning, as they were leaving, they invited me to come and stay with them on the kibbutz where they were living.

I ended up staying with them for several days, and on one of the afternoons, I went out for a walk with Maurice, out into the countryside surrounding the kibbutz. Now it was located on the edge of the West Bank. This was a different time then, and there was no wall there, and as we were walking, we came upon a little Palestinian village. We hesitated.  Should we as an American and a Jew go into the village?  But as I said, times were different then, besides we were young and foolish, so maybe that is why we decided to do it, to go ahead and walk through the village, and as we were leaving, a little Palestinian boy came running up to us, saying something in Arabic.

Fortunately, Maurice spoke some Arabic because I didn’t.  “What’s he saying,” I asked.

“He’s inviting us into one of the homes,” Maurice said.

I did not know it at the time, but I know now that we were experiencing the ancient Middle Eastern practice of hospitality. This practice goes back to earliest times, and we see it practiced again and again in the scriptures, and after all these centuries it is still practiced. When strangers come into your village, you must welcome them.

And this village did just that. We followed the little boy, who led us into one of the homes in the village. We were shown to a table in a large room, where we were invited to sit down.  Someone brought us some rich Arabic coffee.  And then a young man from the village, a man about our own age, sat down at the table across from us. And with a little Arabic, and a little Hebrew, and a little English, and a little French, we began to talk . . .

And gradually the house began to fill up with people from the village. Eventually, I think most of the village was there, crowded into the room, peeking through the front door and windows, standing outside. This was a first for me, and my guess is that this was a rare occurrence for the village as well, having two strangers wander into their midst

And we spent the afternoon talking about all sorts of things, face to face, heart to heart, an American, a French Jew, and a gracious village of Palestinians. Now you cannot get a whole lot more diverse than this. Not just in outward differences like appearance and dress, but even more so in inward differences of geography, language, culture, history, religious tradition.

But for those few hours, during what was for me a Pentecost afternoon, we were just people. And what we had in common was the most important thing that we all have in common, though we can get to forgetting it at times, maybe most of the time. What we had in common was our shared humanity. Despite all of our differences, deep down we were all just people, with so many of the same fears and worries and cares and hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children and our families and our communities and our world.

And I have carried this afternoon with me ever since, and I revisit it often because there was embedded in this experience a sense of call for me, a call that I have lived with for the past forty years, including my thirty some years as a pastor. I have lived this call imperfectly, but I have tried to see beneath all the things that make us different as people.  Not because these are unimportant.  In many ways they are very important.  But because, if we are not careful, these differences can get in the way of how we see each other, and understand each other, and relate to each other.  You see when we set aside all these differences, deep down, we are all just people, and from the perspective of our faith, we are all just people created in the image of God, deserving of dignity and respect and compassion. And I have a little boy and a gracious village and a Pentecost afternoon to thank for this call.

And I believe that this is how Jesus responded to people, seeing beneath the differences of male and female, child and adult, Jew and Samaritan and Gentile, beneath the differences of past experience, and personal circumstance, and communal standing . . . Beneath all this Jesus saw instead people’s deeper humanity and their deepest needs, their needs for forgiveness and acceptance and healing and meaning and purpose, all to the end that people would become more open and responsive to the grace of God in their lives.

And this gets us to, what I like to call, the resemblance test when it comes to our witness.  We are called through our own experiences to witness to Jesus, to his life and teachings, and his death and resurrection. In our covenants of baptism, confirmation, and membership, we promise to serve as his representatives in the world.  In a very real and incarnate way we are called to re-present Jesus to the world.  We are to be like him, as much as possible, by the grace of God, in the hope that others will see in us a little something of Jesus.

A little boy was drawing a picture when his Sunday school teacher asked him, “What are you drawing?” “A picture of Jesus,” the little boy answered.  “That’s good,” the teacher said, “but you know that we really don’t know what Jesus looked like.”  “Well, we will when I get finished,” the little boy said.

I love that little boy’s conviction.  It is true that we really do not know what Jesus looked like as far as his physical appearance. But it is his moral and spiritual appearance, not his physical appearance, that we are called to take on, to be clothed in, as Paul writes, and about that we know more than enough. It is sort of like the family resemblances we see between parents and children and siblings. You know, when you look at someone, and you think to yourself, they must be so and so’s sister or brother or son or daughter. Well, as Christians we are to have a moral and spiritual resemblance to Jesus, so that people might look at us and the way we live our lives, at home, in church, in our places of work, in the community, wherever, and see some sort of resemblance between us and Jesus.

In coming back to that courtroom metaphor, it is about the credibility of our witness, right, whether there is any truth to our words. And it is the witness of our lives, our lived lives, that gives our words their credibility. Otherwise, our words are just words, rather empty and hollow and unbelievable words.

And in the end this is the most credible witness that we can make to the call of Christ, to bear a resemblance to him in the way that we choose to live out our lives, in what we think and say and do, so that when we have finished with our lives, when we have come to the end of our days, we can stand before God who will be able to look at us, and look back at our lives, and say, “Yes, I see it, the resemblance between you and my Son Jesus, the One whom I sent, the One who called you to follow him, and commanded you to be his faithful and loving witnesses.”

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