“You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Notice, Dear Working Preachers, Jesus’ address to the disciples is not, “you will be witnesses. Not, “please be witnesses.” Not, “consider being witnesses if you have time.” No, “you are witnesses of these things.” We are witnesses.
As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.
Of course, exactly to what things we witness requires some interpretive imagination. Perhaps “these things” is the real bodily resurrection of our Lord. Perhaps “these things” is the content of Jesus’ own confession – the suffering of the Messiah, rising on the third day, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Or, perhaps “these things” is the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus’ whole life was witnessing to the “holistic character of God’s salvation.”1
In case we need another prompt of who we are, enter Peter, “to this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). As my Sermon Brainwave co-host Matt Skinner writes about the people of God in Acts, “The empty tomb of Easter eventually propels them to tell, through words and deeds, what they have seen and what they know.”2 If an empty tomb doesn’t get you out there, it’s hard to imagine what it will take. But that’s part of the problem. We seem to want to wait around for a more grandiose revelation of God’s activity before we are willing to witness to our God. As if our God who defeated death, who topples empires, whose salvation seeks to go to the ends of the earth isn’t enough. What are we waiting for? What more do we need? What are we afraid of?
But more so, Jesus and Peter remind us that while we are busy expecting another miracle to come our way? Our silence, our looking the other way, our inaction also testify — and volumes. How often we forget that our words and deeds, or lack thereof, are indeed giving witness to how we imagine God to be — and we might want to stop and consider just what those words and deeds are saying about God.
I suspect that for many of us, hearing that we are witnesses is not necessarily good news. We remember how often have we declined our identity. We remember how often we have deferred testimony to others. We remember how often we have determined that our witness wouldn’t make a difference anyway, so why bother? But, in doing so, we deny the truth of who we are and who Jesus needs us to be. We give up avowals about God that not enough people get to hear or experience. And we forgo the fact that we are never NOT giving witness to God.
That’s the rub. “We are witnesses” is not only who we are but also then how others see God to be. “We are witnesses” both points to our calling as well as our commitment to it. “We are witnesses” gives witness to our own selves, our own faith, our own belief. And that is the hardest truth to hear — that perhaps we don’t believe in the identity God has given us, don’t believe God needs it, don’t believe others will see it, don’t believe that it actually matters. All the while, therefore, abnegating God’s expanded horizons and God’s relentless attempts to expand our imaginations.3
Dear Working Preachers, here is some powerful preaching — if we believe it, how much we believe it, if our congregations believe it – doesn’t really matter. “We are witnesses” does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. “We are witnesses” does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. “We are witnesses” just is. And there is the good news. Left to our own devices, we’d make up every excuse imaginable to relinquish such responsibility. We’d convince ourselves that more qualifications could more certainly justify this calling. We’d find other fissures through which to escape this vocation.
So rather than continue in our ceaseless attempts to convince ourselves we have a choice, that we can carry out this occupation just as soon as we are adequately prepared, that we can graciously, even politely and respectfully, eschew God’s claim on us, why not try it on and see what it feels like? Wear it around, maybe even with “gladness in your heart” (Psalm 4:7). Fake it till you make it, if you will. Who knows? Maybe then we might start to believe it.
Because witnessing is not optional. It’s not an intermittent activity of faith. It’s not something you can decide to do one day and then resolve to take the next day off. It’s constant. It’s a way of life. It’s who you are. And it’s time, more than time when it’s post-resurrection time, to get used to it.
1 Matt Skinner, “Preaching Acts in Easter (Year B)” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5122.
2 Skinner, “Preaching Acts in Easter (Year B).”
3 Skinner, “Preaching Acts in Easter (Year B).”