Do I Have a Witness?
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30) The first five Christian sermons in recorded history make it clear, God did not demand that Jesus die. We human beings are the ones responsible for killing Jesus. Yet, Peter points to the harsh reality of the cross not to blame or accuse in order to turn around and scapegoat Jesus’ persecutors. Rather, the cross gives rise to the opportunity to turn, to be of a new mind, and to receive forgiveness of sins.
God is not responsible for the cross, but through the resurrection, God has transformed the cross to become a sign of new life — in order that we finally begin to put away our deep tendency to blame our violence on God. Without God raising Jesus to life on the third day as a reversal of our human violence, we would remain trapped in our idolatry and the endless cycles of violence that continue to plague our society and our world. (Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Easter 2)
We are called to be witnesses of this amazing mercy and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19) When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (v. 22)
The disciples were hiding in fear and confusion behind locked doors in a house somewhere in Jerusalem, probably in the very same place in which they had celebrated the Passover with Jesus. Hours passed like days. They huddled together, paralyzed and hopelessness, waiting for the Temple police to come along and take them away. They are waiting for the inevitable cycle of violence that begets violence to come, claim and crush them.
But suddenly, unbelievably, in the midst of a living death, Jesus brought disciples to life again. They are filled with joy. They become truly bold. They too are resurrected. They have been reborn, children of a new humanity. They left the house where they were hiding and returned to the streets. They entered the Temple teaching in Jesus’ name. They sparked a movement that traveled by ship, on horseback, on foot and by word of mouth throughout the ancient world.
They will all end up as martyrs, dying for the sake of the truth they are preaching in the name of Jesus. We’ve been taught to think of a martyr as someone who gets killed for a cause, but here in our first reading from Acts (5:27-41), we are reminded the same word is also translated as “witness.” Peter preached the disciples had become “martyrs” or witnesses together with the Holy Spirit. They were not merely observers, but active witnesses who fearlessly, graciously, forgivingly attempt to show out the gospel with words and deeds, with everything in them, with how they lived, and with the community they lived together.
Peace be upon you, Jesus said. This gift gave the disciples courage in every setting to be joyful witnesses of the new life of dignity and justice for all that was now possible because of the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Ten days ago, (March 24th) was the thirty-sixth anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who gave his life because he spoke out against the brutal injustices perpetrated on the people of El Salvador. Incredibly, he was assassinated while he stood behind the altar preparing the Eucharist. Like the disciples in this week’s passage, Romero was not intimidated or deterred by earthly authority and was willing to face death, if necessary, to be a witness for the gospel. Two thousand years after Christ’s birth, violence still has power to crush us but it can never silence us for speaking the good news of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Thanks be to God, even if we don’t actually suffer death for giving witness to the truth, we can still be martyrs to God while at work and in the world by the way we speak and live. In fact, how we live and do community speaks volumes about what we truly believe, and about what has grasped our lives.
Out from behind doors locked by fear and the threat of violence, we know that so much brutality remains hidden behind the doors of our homes throughout our city, or buried within biases enshrined in our beloved institutions, or for that matter, playing out now in the full light of day in our streets. The world still hungers for the good news the disciples preached in the Temple so long ago. They need to hear about mercy, and forgiveness. They need to hear about the strength that comes from love. They need to be reborn, children of a new humanity. They need to be freed from the endless cycles of violence they remain caught up in.
Only vulnerable people change. Only vulnerable people change others. Once we have died to the old life in Christ, then you know. Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones. This love of Jesus eliminates every boundary, every distinction we would use to lift, separate, and insulate ourselves from others and has made us a universal people.
It is an embarrassment to our faith when most of our candidates for public office can claim to be Christian yet be so lacking in compassion and so unashamed of speaking their prejudices out loud. Two thousand years of Jesus’ teaching on compassion, love, forgiveness, and mercy seem all but forgotten as we reject
refugee women and children on the U.S. border, or Syrian families fleeing for their very lives, or label all Muslims as terrorists, or all black people as criminals, or all women as sex objects, and then try to prop it all up with a false gospel mixed with a heavy dose of patriotism into a civil religion.
Breathe, Jesus said. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 22) Our short passage from the Book of Acts, the story of the earliest Christians, is a marvelous glimpse of the passionate, exuberant conviction of Peter and his companions, the ones who walked “clueless” with Jesus and finally “got it” when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Then just like today, God’s Spirit breathes in and through us and in all things, inspiring and transforming us and all humankind. God’s resurrection mercies are ‘new every morning.’ As the Psalmist sings, “Let everything that breathes praise God!