Luke 24:36b–48 (NRSV)
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
On Easter Sunday, we gathered to hear the good news of the empty tomb. Last week, we looked ahead to the impact Jesus’s resurrection had on the way the first Christians lived, as they shared everything they had. Today, we have an opportunity to fill in the gap between those two events from the Gospel of Luke.
In our Easter message, we read from the end of Mark’s gospel how the women fled the tomb, upon finding it empty, because they were afraid. But here in Luke’s Gospel, we hear in the early part of chapter 24 that these women were in fact the first preachers of the good news of the resurrection. Upon leaving the tomb, they eventually came to tell the eleven remaining disciples and Jesus’s other followers what they had seen. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James, and other women who were with them had become confident that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. But to the male disciples, this seemed like an “old wives tale,” an idle story that could not actually be true.
And who could blame them. All of Jesus’s followers had been witnesses to the horrors of Holy Week. They had been with Jesus at his last meal and witnessed his betrayal at the hands of Judas and his violent arrest. They had seen for themselves how easy it was to deny ever knowing Jesus, as they were all ashamed because of his humiliating death. As Jesus was blindfolded and beaten, Peter was telling anyone who inquired of him that he did not know Jesus. As Jesus was crucified and died, the disciples were long gone. The twelve weren’t anywhere to be found when Jesus was buried. Instead, it was another man named Joseph who took that responsibility. The disciples were witnesses to their own failure, and even worse, the failure of their great teacher. Any good news that these women could bring to them was too good to be true. The resurrection must have been an idle tale.
Except, it wasn’t. While two of the disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, wallowing in their misery, Jesus came alongside them (though they didn’t know who he was). As they began to talk to this stranger, he told them that “it was necessary that the Messiah would suffer these things and then enter into glory.” Jesus taught them what their Scriptures meant, from Moses through the prophets, and explained why things had happened in this way. And at the end of their conversation, they insisted that Jesus eat with them. And so, as they gathered at the table, he took bread, blessed, and broke it. Suddenly, they knew who this stranger was. They knew that the empty tomb wasn’t an idle tale but a glorious truth. And Jesus as quickly as Jesus came upon them, he vanished from their presence.
From that point, these two male disciples took over the proclamation of the women, confidently proclaiming that “the Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
As we heard in our reading moments ago, this was not their only encounter with the risen Christ, for while they were talking about how they had witnessed Jesus at the table with them, Jesus stood among them in the flesh and offered them words of peace.
They believed that Jesus had been raised, but even still they were startled and terrified! They thought he was some kind of ghost, perhaps one who had come back to haunt them for their disobedience!
Instead, Jesus offered them peace and showed them the signs of his death. He showed them that he wasn’t a ghost. He had been resurrected in the flesh! He had bones and skin, and he even apparently still had an appetite for fish. Once again, Jesus interpreted the Scriptures to them, explained the meaning of his death and resurrection from the dead, and reminded them of the message they were to share. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins” he said, “is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
“You are witnesses of these things.”
Indeed they were. Because of Jesus’s appearance among them, they had become witnesses not only of their failure and of Jesus’s death, but they were witnesses of his resurrection as well. They were witnesses of the fact that repentance would truly lead to cleansing of all their sin, and the sins of the whole world. They had seen all these things.
And because they were witnesses of these things, they were able to tell others what they had seen. And because of their witness to this good news, the message has reached even us, all these years later.
Of course, when it comes to our role in witnessing to this truth, we often get a bit nervous. “Witnessing,” like evangelism, is one of the most feared words among Christians. We receive this good news, and we often feel content to keep it to ourselves. We’re not sure if others will believe us. We’re not sure if our faith will be as special if others hear of it too. And when we’re really honest about it, there are likely some people that we just don’t want to be forgiven. We would rather hold onto our grudges and hold them at arms length, seeing them as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters.
Yet, our world is full of witnesses, people who will testify to good news when they have experienced it. Just look at how the Chicago Cubs fanbase reacted to the news that they had finally won a world series, back in 2016. Harry Caray had prophesied long ago that this day would come. He said, “someday” the curse would be lifted. And when that day finally came, Cubs fans came out of the woodwork to witness to this good news. Lifelong fans who had never seen their beloved team in the World Series finally had something to celebrate. And man did they become insufferable! But that’s what happens when people who are so accustomed to bad news finally witness something extraordinary. I’m sure the same thing will happen when the Pittsburgh Pirates finally get their sixth championship ring!
I don’t follow professional basketball, but I’m told that at various points, Cleveland Cavaliers fans wore shirts with the word “witness” on the front with the Nike swoosh, as they witnessed the mad skills of LeBron James that led them, in 2016, to their first NBA championship.
The truth is, as we know, everyone worships something. The biggest churches in our area aren’t nondenominational baptist and they don’t feature contemporary worship music. They’re the stadiums built for baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the excitement and unity these teams provide us. The problem comes when these sorts of stories become our defining stories and world championships become the most important events of our lives. And just as everyone worships something, we all witness to something. We wear our team pride on hats and t-shirts. We witness comeback wins together and mourn tough losses together. The question is, what is holding us back from witnessing to the greatest news we’ve ever been given—the freedom from sin in Jesus’s name and his glorious resurrection from the dead?
Is it because it’s too good to be true? All good news seems that way, whether it’s a Cubs championship, or a Pirates winning season. And oh how the world longs for even better news, like the peaceful end to war, the prospect of full employment, or the equal treatment of all people.
But all good news comes into our world because someone is willing to stand up when things seem bleak. As we remembered this past week the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the words of his great speeches and stirring testimony against racism and economic injustice reverberate in our ears. In his day and in his wider community, King witnessed the ways that “separate but equal” was anything but equal. And he knew the only way to provide a better world for his children and grandchildren was to witness to the way things could be. He had a dream, but it wasn’t just his dream. It was a testimony to the faith he was ordained to preach. He knew the power of Christ’s resurrection that meant, as Paul said, there was no “Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free,” and yes, that black and white could not be equal as long as segregation was the law of the land. King had witnessed the good news of Jesus for himself, and he knew that by witnessing to that truth, the world could become a better place for all.
Even today, we hear of those who witness unspeakable evils and take to the streets, to the microphone, and to places of power to ensure that no one will have to witness that kind of unspeakable evil ever again.
Witnessing to a sports championship is easy. Witnessing by speaking truth to power is much more difficult.
And as we think now about what we have witnessed, the good news of Jesus’s resurrection, we know that this is the most important news that we have ever heard, and it’s news that has the power to change the world as we know it. Even still, we might not be sure that we have things together enough to tell somebody else about it. After all, “isn’t that what the Pastor and our lay leaders are for? They’re trained for this kind of thing. They must know something we don’t!” Maybe you’re not even sure about what this good news even means, or you think it might even be too good to be true.
John Wesley, early in his ministry, experienced a lot of doubt and frustration when it came to preaching faith to others. He had been a faithful part of the Church of England for his entire life. He had gone to Georgia to convert those who hadn’t heard the good news and to strengthen the faith of those who already believed. But, by all accounts, his efforts had failed. And through all of this, as he worked harder to attain some assurance of his own faith, he wasn’t even sure if he had enough faith himself. There was still so much that stood between him and his savior. His confidence was so weak that he asked a Moravian bishop if he should stop preaching, since he wasn’t sure of his own faith.
That bishop, Peter Boehler, told him, “of course not.” Boehler told John Wesley, “preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
I think there’s a lot of truth in those words. While we remain a passive recipient of God’s good news, it is easy to waver in our faith, to lose our confidence, and to miss the power of the Holy Spirit in our life. But once we start telling others about the faith we have, we grow in confidence so that the power of God becomes more evident in our lives. As we take one leap of faith after another, sharing from what little we have, our faith grows and multiplies. Eventually, as with the loaves and the fish, our basket overflows with God’s grace as we share the faith God has given us.
All of us have opportunities to witness to the good news, to share our experience of faith, and to tell others what Jesus has done for us. We are given moments in each day when we can put repentance and forgiveness into practice. We are all, by virtue of the fact that we have heard the resurrection story of Easter, “witnesses of these things,” as Jesus tells the disciples.
But we should notice something else in Jesus’s words in Luke 24 that may not be immediately clear to us. Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples “to witness” in this passage, to tell others about his resurrection. Rather, he reminds them that they have witnessed his resurrected body for themselves (Credit to Karoline Lewis for this important insight). And because of what they have seen, they are witnesses. They aren’t given a choice in the matter. Others know that they have seen these things, and they’ll ask them to tell the story. Wherever these disciples go, they go as Jesus’s witnesses. They will forever have the responsibility of being the ones who have seen Jesus.
Jesus isn’t telling them to do anything special. He’s reminding them that whatever they do, they are his witnesses. They are his representatives, his ambassadors, in the world.
The same is true of us. We have a responsibility by virtue of our Christian identity to represent Jesus Christ in everything we do. We don’t have a choice in the matter. We can’t chose to represent Christ in some decisions and then take time off to do whatever we want to do in other decisions. We are witnesses in everything we do.
Our only choice is what we will witness. Will we witness to the powers of death and darkness that have been overcome by Christ, or will we witness to the power of light and life that Jesus represents?
And since we are representatives of Christ, by virtue of the fact that we are Christians, others will interpret our actions and inactions in that light.
We are representing Christ, for example, in the way we treat service personnel and in how we tip waitstaff.
We represent Christ in what we do with our trash: whether we litter, throw everything in the wastebasket, or sort out things to be recycled.
We represent Christ when we’re driving down the road, especially if we have a cross sticker on our car!
We represent Christ when we care for our church, and in how we choose to care for our church.
We represent Christ in how we treat our neighbors and in how we care for the poor.
We represent Christ when we stand for the truth and stand up for those who are oppressed—when we stand against racism and sexism and combat falsehoods.
We represent Christ in how we interact with the government—in being honest with our taxes and in following the letter of the law, and more importantly, the spirit of the law.
We represent Christ when we do our best work, both on the job and when we’re volunteering.
We represent Christ when we make decisions in church council and in how we talk with those with whom we disagree.
By every action and inaction, we witness to Jesus Christ. In the end, Jesus will examine us on the basis of how faithfully we have represented him to others. And in the meantime, our neighbors will judge us, and judge Christ, according to what we do.
We can never be fooled into thinking that it won’t matter if we cut corners, if we hide in the darkness of sin, or if we remain apathetic about the plight of God’s children. We are God’s witnesses. We have the responsibility to represent Christ well.
And when we do represent Christ well, we surprise people. It’s not just the church that is filled with cynics, but the world around us. Others may think the worst of us. They may think Christians only care about themselves, that they only care about money, that they only care about caring for people who are like them.
Let’s prove them wrong. Let’s witness to the power of the resurrection. Let’s change the world with good news and by doing what is right, even when it’s hard, and even when it hurts.
Only through the grace of God is it possible. But thankfully, we are filled with God’s grace, with which all things are possible! Christ has risen from the dead, and every good choice we make is easier than that.
Jesus is risen—he is risen indeed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.