April 19, 2015
Stina Pope

 The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

When I looked at the readings for today, what popped out of both the Gospel and the reading from Acts was the word: Witness. In both cases, the importance of being witnesses was brought forward. It is named as a function: You are to be witnesses, or, now, we are to be witnesses.

What does it mean to be a witness? Fundamentally, a witness is someone who has seen something and who tells what they have seen. The question then becomes, are they a good witness? We may have seen the TV shows or you may have been on a jury where the lawyers try to attack the credibility of the witness to a crime. If the witness is a good one, then we believe what they say, and we make judgments accordingly.

In the book Stranger in a Strange Land, there is a woman who is a Witness. When the lawyer asks her to put on her “witness hat,” she answers somewhat differently than a normal person would. As an example, he asks her what color the house is that he is pointing at, and her response is that the color of the wall that is facing them is blue. There are no assumptions about anything when she is looking at things with her “witness eyes.” She has been trained as a Witness, so that when she says something in court, it cannot be challenged, unlike the rest of us, who clearly think we know what we saw. But when we are pushed, sometimes what we think we saw has been so colored by our perceptions and our expectations that it may be nowhere near the truth

We have two situations in the readings. In the Gospel, the followers of Jesus are trying to wrap their heads around the words the women have brought back to them, that Jesus has risen from the dead. Then the disciples who had walked to Emmaus met him on the road, and walked back to Jerusalem to tell the rest of them – he has risen! They just can’t get it. It is incomprehensible. They have heard the witness from people they know and trust, and it is still impossible.

My older son’s first word was not mama or dada, but truck. He loved cars and trucks. So one day we took him with us to the auto shop, because we thought he would enjoy seeing the underneath of a car. However, when the car started going straight up in the air, he started screaming in terror. That was NOT what vehicles were supposed to do. Even when he could see it with his own eyes, he could not comprehend, and it took us a while to calm him down, and then to explain what was going on. Imagine the terror of having heard that someone you loved and had seen be tortured and killed, had risen from the dead, and then to have him show up and speak to you. Sheer terror!

Jesus’ response is calm, “look, yes, it’s really me, no I’m not a ghost, see, here are the marks of the nails. Oh, do you have anything to eat?” In that casual question, he answers their fears directly: ghosts don’t eat. They give him a piece of fish, and he eats it in front of them. He is real, really real. Then he gives them their marching orders. They are to be witnesses. They have seen what is true, that yes, he is not dead, and they are supposed to tell the world. Now what are they to tell the world? The message is very specific. The fundamental message is not about his rising from the dead. Isn’t that interesting? It really isn’t about him at all! Here in Luke, it says, they are to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. In other words, they are to use his authority. The “way of Jesus,” that they have learned from him, is now what they are to do. What he did, and John the Baptist before him, is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness as a way of life, and now they are supposed to preach the same. Turn from the old way, that is, repent, and forgive, that is, hold no anger.

When we do that, when we turn from our old ways that lead away from God and turn toward God, when we align ourselves with God’s ways, which is, when we (gasp!) follow the commandments, then we are repenting. We are turning, always turning, toward God. And, Jesus commands us to forgive.

It is the depth and the level of that forgiveness that sets Christianity apart. When we look at the various great religions, their ethics, that is, the actions in the world that arise out of religious beliefs, the ethics are very similar. We all hold to some form of the golden rule. But the belief structure underneath the ethics is different. That is, the “why” of what we do, even when we are doing the same things, the “why” is different, often very different. Even within Christianity we sometimes have major differences as to why we do the actions we do.

Some of that has to do with how we read the Bible. The whole question of how we read the Bible, and what kind of authority we give the Bible, is a huge question. Some people say that the people who wrote the Bible were essentially channeling God, so that God is the one who wrote the Bible. Therefore, everything in the Bible must be taken literally. That is one kind of authority that people give to the Bible. And frequently, those people say that if you do not take the Bible literally that you obviously do not give the Bible any authority! This drives me crazy! There are many other levels of authority that are not literal, and, in fact, are much more historically sound than the literalists.

So what are those other kinds of authority? Let me suggest that authority is something that we give, and it is related to something that is earned, much like trust. When we are small children, it is obvious that our parents are authorities for us, they are the ones we trust to know the truth about the world. When we are teenagers, our parents normally have very little authority in terms of the truth about the world – and often, some years later, we decide that our parents seem to have learned a lot! Someone may claim to be an authority about something, and we may believe them, but if they cannot deliver, they lose that authority. So when we think about the Bible, one of the critical issues has to do with the claim of truth. How do we know if what it says in the Bible is “true?” What does that even mean?

One of the authorities that I consult regularly is Kenneth Bailey, especially when I talk about context and how important it is. For example, one of the typical literary conventions of Paul’s day was first to list your opponent’s position, and then to shoot it down. If you didn’t know that was a typical convention, then you would think that Paul was the one saying the first part, not that he was essentially quoting someone else in order to refute their argument. But this is exactly what has happened. The early theologians like St Augustine and even Thomas Aquinas, did not know this, and so they built a whole system of belief upon something that was not really what Paul was saying! This kind of issue also means that you cannot simply pick up the Bible and decide what something means theologically without doing your research. You can, of course, pick up the Bible and read it from a devotional place, but that is different. Even then, it makes a difference if you have studied the context. Some people are seriously worried that if you study the Bible too much academically you will lose your faith. I think that does not make sense – if you are reading someone like Bailey, because he really explains and makes sense out of what you are reading instead of asking you to suspend judgment.

So what! So if we read these passages with an eye to Bailey, we see that Jesus follows the tradition, and that he does some radical things. His dealings with women were radical. His paying attention and honoring the poor was radical. His teaching about repentance was radical in regard to the depth that he suggested – that it was not just a token sort of thing, but really a sea change in one’s life. His teaching about forgiveness was radical and went far beyond what was taught in Judaism – although it clearly has its roots there. This is the way of Jesus, this is what he asked his disciples to tell the world – not just to the Jews, but again, pulling the radical edge that was already there – preaching to the world.

Jesus asks us to do the same. To live his way, to tell others about it. When you do, the world will change. Like Peter, you will give the gift of healing to those who need it. And they will rise up and those around them will gasp at the raising of dead flesh that could not move on its own. Do we dare believe this? What would it mean in your life? What would change? Who would you tell? I would like to suggest that we are not people of the cross, we are people of the empty tomb, we are people who know that Jesus has risen, that he lives, and that he has now given us our marching orders. Repent, and forgive. We are to tell the whole world, there is life, even when the worst has happened, if we will repent and forgive.