Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on April 26, 2009.
Luke 24: 36b-48.
To continue from our post-resurrection scene last week invites us to think further about what it meant for Jesus to come live in our midst. Remember these lyrics?
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home …
If God had a face, what would it look like
and would you want to see if seeing meant you would have to believe
in things like heaven and in Jesus and the Saints and all the Prophets …
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home …
tryin’ to make his way home back up to heaven all alone …
nobody callin’ on the phone ‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome …
The most startling words Jesus says in our text from Luke are the last words we read: You are witnesses of these things (Lk 24:48, NRSV). The question the songwriter asks, “What if God was one of us?” is at the heart of these closing words to Luke’s gospel. He was one of us. He had broken into human history and made himself known.
Fred Buechner said it simply, “He had a face … Whoever he was or was not, whoever he thought he was, whoever he has become in the memories of men since and will go on becoming for as long as men remember him – exalted, sentimentalized, debunked, made and remade to the measure of each generation’s desire, dread, indifference – he was a man once, whatever else he may have been. And he had a man’s face, a human face.”
What exactly did they see? What were they witnesses of that the resurrected Jesus was referring to? What Jesus spoke of was the message of the early church, namely, that Jesus suffered at the hands or the Roman government after having been betrayed by the religious leaders of his own Jewish faith. They were witnesses to his death on the cross. They saw his lifeless body taken down after the nails were extracted from his hands and feet. They saw his body wrapped quickly in a cloth and hustled to a borrowed grave with a large stone rolled across the doorway. Three days later, they were witnesses to the emptiness of that same grave and the dead Jesus appeared before them as alive as he ever was but somehow more radiant that he’d ever been as if the weight of life’s burdens had rolled away with the rolled away stone. This was no apparition because he showed them the wounds of his hands and the place in his side where he had been impaled by a Roman spear.
Jesus added to these facts the news that they had been witnesses to what Paul later labeled, “the first fruits” of how death itself had been conquered. Freedom from the sting of death, repentance and forgiveness of sins was the message they were to proclaim in his name to all the nations. Jesus even gave them a strategy: “Start in Jerusalem.” Thus, they were commissioned as Christ’s witnesses.
Every journey has a first step and theirs began in Jerusalem. There was nothing exotic about foreign missions in their understanding. Paul would be the one to light the way as he crisscrossed the Roman world from village to village. He was not alone because others joined him and the message of Jesus spread across the Mediterranean coast all the way to Spain. Some took the message of Jesus down the trade routes to Egypt and across the northern cities of the African continent. Still others traveled east, some say all the way to what is now India. They were witnesses too.
Then generation after generation shared what this first group of followers had shared. They passed the news from parents to children … from old to young … from friend to friend … from city to city … from nation to nation. Faithful witnesses took this first generation’s story of Jesus with them all over the world. All of them were witnesses because others had told them about Jesus.
It would be hard to read this text and not make the connection from then to now. Are we witnesses? No, not really, although it’s obvious the torch has been passed and it’s ours to tell or the story will die. Nevertheless, we’re just a few generations away from claiming to be eyewitnesses. Over the course of time, that’s a mere whisper, a couple of turns of the head, so to speak. When you think about it over the long span of time, the generational quiver of this story is still vibrating – a direct result of that first generation taking Jesus’ command and putting feet to the story. So what are we to tell?
From generation to generation we’ve all lived under the shadow of telling the story. We’re all to be witnesses Jesus implies as he gave that first generation their marching orders. Maybe we’re not eyewitnesses, mind you, but we’re witnesses still. Not even expert witnesses – just witnesses willing to tell what we’ve experienced in our redemption by Christ.
Hear the first-century witnesses: “I touched him … and he wasn’t a ghost!” “I saw the marks in his hands and feet and even saw the hole in his side just below his ribs” “I didn’t recognize him until he blessed and broke the bread of a meal with us … then I knew it was him!” “He cooked a meal of fish for us on the shore … he even ate some himself!”
But more than that, the first witnesses didn’t just offer up a nice testimony about Jesus that didn’t put them on the line. By the time you read the Acts of the Apostles and then read what the writer of the Book of Hebrews has to say, we understand that those early followers, many of them in fact, told their story with their own blood – testimonies written in the blood of the martyrs. That puts a different spin on the origins of the word, witness, doesn’t it? The word “witness” is translated from the Greek word, murtus, or “martyr.”
The martyrs described so painfully in the latter pages of the New Testament are written in tribute to those who witnessed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to their own hurt as they refused to recant their stories. They knew what they had seen. They knew what they had witnessed and were totally committed to telling about Jesus to their world.
Being a witness is not just mouthing the words of what you’ve heard. Being a witness is to make a profound commitment to Jesus making your life further evidence that Jesus lived, suffered, died and was resurrected on the third day. It is to give your whole life as evidence of the truth. No matter of argument, even the silly debates being waged by the ardent scholars of faith and atheism we see on occasion seem to matter much in the end other than creating a carnival atmosphere that’s more smoke than fire. No one is converted by the bilious puff bags that claim to represent faith and no-faith. Not even Jesus attempted to talk someone into the kingdom. “Jesus understood that faith had to be seen, had to be touched, had to be experienced in his own flesh and in the living, and if necessary dying, witness of his disciples.”
Like most things in the church, we have a tendency to talk a thing to death. We talk and then don’t respond. Perhaps we talk ourselves out of acting. Thus, the third-year seminary student was preparing to preach. This passage from Luke had been read that describes Jesus’ calling the disciples to be witnesses to what they had seen. The preacher put her notes on the pulpit and placed her Bible carefully on top of those same notes. She reached down under the pulpit and pulled out a small flowerpot with pretty daisies. She said a short prayer and then without one further word she began to eat the pansies from the flowerpot one by one. She did not hurry. She did not pause. Very carefully she ate each flower. She was finished and turned to the congregation and said these words: “The disciples were to go and tell, to be witnesses of an event. You have the task of telling your family and friends what happened here this morning and helping them believe it. Now, you and I know how the disciples felt.” Without another word, she stepped down from the pulpit and sat down.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).