Readings: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48
I listen to a lot of radio, and nearly all of it is Radio 4 – every single radio in the house, and the one in my car, is pre-set to Radio 4. That probably sets me up to comply with a whole lot of stereotypes in your head. What can I say? Guilty as charged!
But you know how sometimes you hear something that’s no longer background, but it stops you in your tracks, and you never forget it. I recall a programme some years ago which featured Hugo Gryn. Rabbi Gryn died over 20 years ago, but the key thing here is his earlier life. As a teenager he was sent with his family to Auschwitz, and he lost his father and brother in the Holocaust. After the war he came to Britain and became a prominent rabbi in the liberal tradition of Judaism.
The particular programme I was listening to was about Holocaust denial, which wasn’t then as widespread as it appears to be now. A young man was talking very eloquently, and in detail, about how it didn’t happen, and couldn’t have happened. To be fair, other speakers were taking his analysis apart – he was not unchallenged -but it was Rabbi Gryn who stopped him in his tracks. He simply said:
“I was there. I saw it. Are you saying that I’m lying?” There was nothing his opponent could say: he stammered a few words and then fell silent. Academic “debate” (I use the term loosely, because I assume everyone here is perfectly aware that this dreadful crime actually and really happened!) he could handle: but not the quiet, restrained fury of an eyewitness.
Eyewitnesses are important.
Today’s readings all hinge on witnessing. Some years ago you might have been able to find scholars to query whether or not Jesus even existed, but more recently the academic mood has changed, and even non-Christian scholars are prepared to accept the historicity of (most of) the Gospel narratives. They can’t go the whole way, obviously, or they wouldn’t be “non-Christian scholars”! There is simply too much evidence to indicate that this Jesus bloke was real. Some of it comes from other sources, but admittedly most of it comes from the Bible…. the point is that the Bible as a text has been tried and tested, and rings true. My apologies to Dan Brown (no, not really. I’m not sorry at all!).
Scholars now think that this is one reason why so many people are named in the Gospels, even if they only make brief appearances. Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus to carry his cross, is named as the father of Rufus and Alexander, because people reading, or more likely, listening would have said, “Oh yes, of course…. Rufus’s dad”. All these details anchored this astonishing cosmic story down in people and places that were known and recognised.
And in the days after Jesus’ resurrection his friends, who had run away and hidden and been thoroughly ashamed of themselves, were transformed by what they witnessed. Transformed to the point that the cowardly Peter (remember him saying “No gov, I’ve never even heard of the man”) addresses the people to tell them exactly what happened, and even their part in it. He gives them both barrels and doesn’t hold back. To my mind, this may be an even greater miracle than healing the man at the Temple….. although that’s what attracts the crowd in the first place. And he says, “To this we are witnesses.”
“To this we are witnesses.” From this point onwards, the only thing that stops Peter is getting himself arrested. And when he gets out of clink, he goes straight back out to do more witnessing.
Jesus himself in Luke seems to have a very matter-of-fact attitude to his own resurrection, when he appears to the disciples. There’s an element of the supernatural with his sudden arrival from nowhere, and the common-sense disciples are terrified. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you? But first he wishes them peace, in that familiar way, and then he shows them the evidence that it’s really him. Because they will be witnesses.
Again, you can imagine it, can’t you?
“And guess what he did then?”
“Ooh, I bet it was mystical and awesome. A deed of power or something like that…”
“No, actually he had a fish supper with us.”
He’s not a ghost. He’s real. The crucifixion really happened: he will bear those wounds forever. See the holes, those marks of ultimate cruelty and ultimate love. What Thomas wanted to see and what’s saddled him with the nickname “Doubting”. Which is so unfair, because Jesus understands that this is what his friends need to see. And in the Gospels, Jesus always gives people what they need.
Yes, the crucifixion really happened. And now the resurrection has really happened. Because he is most certainly alive, and he hasn’t even lost his appetite. They will be witnesses.
“See that it is I myself.”
This is the other thing. This is not the man they have known and loved, and abandoned and betrayed, and wept over. How can it be? But it is. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, as the writer of Hebrews puts it.
What does this mean for us? Well, we too are his witnesses. We witness with who we are, what we say, what we do. In case you think that’s a tall order, and that we can’t possibly live up to that….well you’re absolutely right, in one sense. We will make mistakes, and sometimes we’ll do the wrong thing in the full knowledge that that’s what we’re doing. Cos the Lord knows we’re still human.
But who else is there? And who would be better to witness to the love of God, than those of us who know how much we need it? We heard in John’s letter this morning, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”
Notice: that is what we are. With all our faults, John says, we are God’s children now. There’s more to come, but what we will be has not yet been revealed. For that, I guess we just have to trust him.
But for now, you are my witnesses, says the Lord.