A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

Psalm 150, John 20:19-31, Acts 5:25-32

Can I get a witness?  Have you ever heard this phrase in church?  It’s not really part of our tradition here at UBC, where the congregation tends to stay quiet during a sermon.  But at some churches, the sermon can almost be like a conversation, punctuated by cries of “Amen” and “Yes, Lord” from the pews.  In a church like that, during a sermon, the minister might call out, “Can I get a witness?” And in response, the folks in the congregation might (hopefully) say, “Amen,” or “Preach it!”  In other words, they were saying, “Yes, we know just what you’re talking about.”

Now, as I’ve said, we tend to worship in a more subdued manner than that, but even so, we can all offer a witness to the mystery and majesty of God.  On this second Sunday of Easter, our assigned scripture texts display a variety of ways that the church can be witnesses to the resurrection.  First of all, our Call to Worship comes from Psalm 150. While this psalm obviously does not refer to the resurrection of Christ, one scholar describes it as an “Easter Hallelujah turned into an entire psalm,”[1] since the Hebrew “Hallelu-yah” literally means “praise the Lord.”  Thirteen times the word “praise” appears in this psalm, and it ends with this jubilant proclamation, “Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!”  This psalm is a praise-filled witness to the power and greatness of God, which is so appropriate during this Easter season. 

This Psalm conjures up in my mind an image of a toddler running to greet and hug a grandparent.  You see the unfettered joy in the child’s eyes as she runs to her grandmother.  You hear squeals of unself-conscious delight as he jumps into his granddad’s arms.  You feel the unstoppable adoration as they embrace and dance, oblivious of the presence of anyone else.  Grandparents, do you know what I’m talking about?  Can I get a witness?  During this Easter season, like a child running into the arms of a loving parent or grandparent, we can respond with an unfettered praise-filled witness to the resurrection. 

Another response to the resurrection is depicted in our Gospel lesson from John 20.  Here, the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples in a room, except for Thomas, who was not with them.  After Thomas returned, the others excitedly told him about seeing Jesus, but Thomas replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  A week later Jesus appeared again to his disciples, and this time Thomas was among them.  Jesus then specifically invited Thomas to reach out and touch the scar marks on his body.  It’s not clear whether Thomas actually touched the scars on Jesus’ body.  Scripture just says, Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” one of the greatest awe-filled witnesses of faith recorded in the New Testament.

I know that we tend to give Thomas a demerit for his need to see the evidence.  Even Jesus seems to offer a bit of a rebuke when he tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Yet in a university church like ours, there are many of us who are not satisfied with just going along with what some preacher says about the resurrection of Jesus. Church members like Ed Barker and Bill Jesser, both professor emeriti in Materials Science and Engineering at UVA, have spent decades immersed in the scientific method, which seeks quantitative, repeatable evidence for truth.  Frankly, we don’t need a PhD in math or science in order to hunger for a little verifiable proof or at least an undeniably powerful experience of God.  We can say that Jesus blesses those who can believe without seeing, but even so, he did make an appearance for Thomas to accommodate the disciple’s need to see with his own eyes.  Jesus does understand that for many of us, we need something firm upon which to build our faith.

So perhaps another response to resurrection is to keep our eyes and our minds open, to explore the facts of our Christian story, the underpinnings of our theology, the truths of our lives.  Perhaps that first way of responding – responding in praise – demonstrates how we can love God with our whole heart.  And perhaps this second way of responding can show how we can love God with our whole mind.  During this Easter season, we can respond to the reality of the living Christ by giving a mindful witness to the resurrection.  As we give thoughtful attention to the presence of Christ in our world, may we, like Thomas, respond, “My Lord and my God!”

And yet Scripture teaches us of a third way to witness to the resurrection, not only with all our heart and all our mind, but with all our strength or might – our whole being.  Our New Testament lesson from Acts shows Peter and the other apostles changed to the core; their very lives were transformed. In this passage, we see the apostles being commanded by religious leaders and the high priest to stop teaching in the name of the risen Christ.  If you remember, during Palm Sunday, the religious leaders ordered Jesus to silence his disciples, but Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these people keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  Now, after the resurrection, here was Peter – who denied Jesus at his trial, who was left speechless at Jesus’ empty tomb – now this Peter became the rock who cried out: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead.  God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior.  We are witnesses of these things.”  The reality of the resurrection experience transformed the disciples from fearful followers to faithful witnesses willing to die for their commitment to the resurrected Christ.  Despite our own failings, despite our own weaknesses, despite our own fears, we too can respond to the resurrection by submitting to God’s guidance and transformative work in our lives. 

Two years ago, I led a discipleship group during the spring semester with seven Longwood students, using the material that I presented here at UBC in our Wednesday night sessions during Lent.  One of the freshmen students in that group, I’ll call her Bethany, was really quiet and withdrawn, saying only a few words during our first meetings.  As the weeks went by, we found that she was abused as a child by her grandmother, and as a result, she struggled with her self-image and her need to control others in order to avoid being hurt again.  As each student observed, reflected and discussed the areas of struggle in their own lives, they also helped and encouraged each other to seek wisdom from God and take positive steps toward healing and growth.  Those students kept up with each other during the summer, praying and encouraging each other.  When the fall semester arrived, Bethany gave witness to how God was transforming her life. 

Listen to her words: “I want to thank everyone for everything last year, I have changed and grown so much. Last night, I realized how happy I am now. I have let go of the anger I had for my grandmother. I realized that God chose for me to go through all the pain and hurt to strengthen my faith and to bring wonderful friends into my life. I have gone from a person who often was by herself last year to having an entire group of friends that I love to hang out with whenever we can. I don’t think I realized until last year in our group how much my anger and hurt from others were controlling my life. I now know how controlling it was and that I am letting it go. God really does have a plan for each of us!”

The resurrection of Christ has much greater implications than what happens to us after we die.  Ever since that first Easter, the church has wrestled with what it means to be witnesses to the resurrection.  As followers of this risen Christ, we are invited to witness to the resurrection with all our heart in joyful praise, with all our mind in thoughtful examination, and with all our strength as the Spirit of Christ abides in our lives.  

On this second Sunday of Easter, the risen Christ is asking the Church, “Can I get a witness?”  How will we respond?  Amen.

 

[1] Craig A. Satterlee, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 2: Second Sunday of Easter.

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