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Sermons

“Can I Get a Witness?”

April 18, 2021 Third Sunday of Easter The text is Luke 24: 36b-48.

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3 6While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 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.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 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.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 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, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“Cognitive dissonance”; this is a psychology term that describes the state that someone finds themself in when confronted with an occurrence that is contrary to what is believed to be factually true.  And when dealing with such opposing realities, people genuinely struggle to rationalize whatever it is that causes this upending of the accepted reality versus the illogic of what they observe.  This seems to be the theme of the resurrection and encounter stories we have considered over the past three Sundays.

On Easter morning Mary and the other women went to Jesus’ tomb to prepare his body for ritual Jewish burial, by anointing it with fragrant spices and balms.  Expecting to have the heavy stone rolled away to reveal a dead body they instead found that Jesus was not there, only his burial shroud remained.  The angel tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and the women knew that once someone is dead, they do not come to life again; cognitive dissonance. 

Last week the disciples and later doubting Thomas are in a locked room and Jesus appears in their midst, offering to show them his scarred hands and wounded side.  Then he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and reveals to them their mission to spread the gospel message.  They saw Jesus die on the cross yet now here he is, in a fully restored body.  The disciples knew that that once someone is dead, they do not come to life again; once more, cognitive dissonance.  

And now this morning, Luke reports that Jesus shows up as the disciples are gathered and he requests something to eat.  This has happened just after he met two others on the road to Emmaus and had dinner with them.  Not only do the disciples in this rendition of the encounter with the risen Jesus know that the dead don’t come back to life; they also are pretty confident that the deceased person isn’t likely to ask for a snack to share.  This is cognitive dissonance in its most extreme form.

Three different yet similar accounts of Jesus presenting himself to his followers after his death and resurrection, and all the characters in the gospel stories share a common thread; they are all witnesses to the event.  Luke, in this morning’s reading takes this concept a step further; he proclaims in the final verse that his readers are all observers of the resurrected Jesus.  And by extension, they are also witnesses to all that Jesus’ resurrection means for the people of God.  “You are witnesses of these things” he tells his readers.  And just who are the “you” that this declaration of witnessing to Jesus is directed toward?  The “you” is us.  It is you, each of you, me, each of us.  We are all called to be witnesses to the bodily resurrection of the risen Christ, whether the disciples to whom he showed his scarred hands, or us, who have believed without the visible in-person proof.

The gift of faith with which we have been blessed enables us to overcome the cognitive dissonance that the women at the tomb and the disciples struggled with.  We’ve had 2,000 years to wrestle with and come to grips with the truth that Jesus Christ has indeed defeated death, and we are compelled to serve as modern-day witnesses to this miracle.  Soon after Jesus eases the doubts and fears of his first, closest followers he departs from them to return to the Father, leaving them, and us to continue to be his witnesses.  And as witnesses, we are not meant to be casual observers; no, witnesses to a miracle that defies known reality are called to act upon what has been made known to them; cognitive dissonance notwithstanding.

St. Teresa of Avila was a Spanish Carmelite nun in the early 1500’s, around the time Martin Luther was attempting to reform the church, and something of a reformer in her own right.  One the most poignant prayers that is attributed to her reads as follows: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  As witnesses to the resurrection of Christ Jesus we are called to function as Christ’s earthly hands and feet.

And perhaps, just as important as performing acts of ministry and mission, we are called to be witnesses in its most basic sense.  Maybe, it’s equally important that we tell the story of Jesus Christ as the risen Son of God, and let the world know the impact that this has made on our lives.  Let’s not forget that the “E” in the name of our denomination, ELCA stands for “evangelical”.  Not as in what many others think evangelical means, but that we are called to “evangelize”, that is, to tell the Good News of the GospelJesus proclaimed in Luke that it was prophesied that he was “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”.  And when we tell how our stories are impacted by our faith in Christ, in this way we are fulfilling our duty as “witnesses” to the Gospel.

Here’s the difficult part; we’re Lutherans, and even though “evangelical” is in our name, we’re not very good at evangelizing.  It’s not easy for most of us to share our faith story with others, especially with people who might not already be followers of the Way of Christ.  Perhaps we might find it easier if we were to start by telling a bit of our personal faith journey to those who already share our Christian beliefs.  I would encourage all of us to speak about our individual understanding of God’s purpose for our lives and how the Spirit has moved within us to bring us to where we now find ourselves.  I’ll start.  Five years ago, I was confirmed in Bethlehem Lutheran in Sturbridge; I know, I’m a late-bloomer.  My pastor at the time insisted that I deliver a Confirmation Statement, since this was required of all confirmands.

In preparation for this I considered pretty much all of the dogma central to Lutheran theology; the Good News, unmerited grace, Law vs. Gospel, faith vs. works.  Now, while these are all valid components of Lutheran doctrine, they began to feel much too academic, too detached to serve as a basis for what in the end is my personal, individual understanding of my faith.

I came to the conclusion that at every junction in my life, generally when I didn’t expect it, it seems that God was going to grab hold of me and put me just where God wanted me to be.  I will admit it’s quite humbling to think that I’ve been making my own decisions, when in fact, God has been way more involved than I realized.  God’s sense of timing and of place, and God’s ability to know me better than I know myself have proven throughout my life to be perfect.  Check out this timeline; as I said, God’s, not mine.  I’m the son of Irish Protestants from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I’m the product of a mixed marriage; Mom was Church of England; Dad, Church of Ireland.  These devout Christians made sure their first-born was baptized.  They chose Presbyterian, I guess because it split the difference between their two denominations.  This most defining act of God’s presence in my life happened when I was about 3 months old.  The thing is, my parents took me to Belfast to see family when I was four and a half months for a three-week visit; we stayed for almost 5 years. We came back.  It seems this persistent God wanted me to remain an American.

When I was six or seven, I was enrolled in Lutheran (can you believe it?) Sunday School.  I don’t have many memories of that time, but like everything else, I was right where God wanted me to be.  Like I said, God is persistent.  All through middle and high school, no church for me, although I never took off the cross my Mom and sisters gave me to wear.  Persistent God again.  Recognizing that Wagner College in New Yok had quite a good Biology program, I found myself enrolled there.  There was a sign in the Student Union announcing Wednesday evening Eucharist.  I had no idea what that was, in fact I didn’t realize for quite some time that the school’s original name in 1886 was ‘Wagner Memorial Lutheran College’, initially founded to train clergy.  It seems that no matter one’s area of study, it was strongly suggested that all students took at least some classes in basic theology.  It was in Theology 101 that I came to my first realization that God wasn’t messing around with me; He was serious about where and when He wanted me to be, and what He wanted me to learn.  In that class we read in William Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’, his treatise concerning a watchmaker.  Paley was an 18th century clergyman and writer.  The story goes like this.  Assume you are walking along a forest path and you come across a pocket watch laying on the ground, a finely crafted one on a chain.  Upon inspection you determine that it is impossible that this intricate piece, with its gears, springs, glass, and hands could not have come about on its own, that these hundreds of finely produced pieces could not have just randomly become connected into something as complex as a watch, all on their own.

The assumption is that there must have been a watchmaker who combined the pieces into the watch.  Now, Paley suggested, consider the universe.  It is infinitely more complex and wondrous than a mere watch.  There are galaxies, stars, solar systems, and planets, all rotating and revolving around each other in an amazing display of complexity and exactitude.  Therefore, it follows that there has to have been a world-maker; God.  This wondrous creation could not have randomly come together without divine design any more than a watch could assemble itself.  To this day, this revelation is one of the immovable anchors to which my faith is secured.

At 22 a friend and I rode our motorcycles 2,000 miles to the Colorado Rockies.  After a few days hiking in the most beautiful place on earth I found myself, without my traveling companion, in an outdoor amphitheater, high in the mountains, at an ecumenical church service.  Who would have suspected that it would require a trek of 2,000 miles to get me to church?  A persistent God did.

Fast forward, I’m now 26, getting married in Laurie’s, you guessed it, Lutheran church.  By now I’m getting the impression that God is really not messing around with me.  He’s pretty serious about where and when He wants me to be.  Quite persistent.  Then God lets me mull things over for a while before giving me another nudge towards where God wants me to be; it took about 24 years this time.  At 50 years old I notice that the sign at the street in Sturbridge no longer reads ‘Future Home of Bethlehem Lutheran Church’.  There is an actual church peeking out through the trees.  I said to Laurie, ‘you’re Lutheran, right?’.  This appears to be a Lutheran church.  We should check this place out.  I told her that something tells me this is where a most persistent God wants me to be.  At 52, and not having kids I found myself serving as a Youth Minister.  God is definitely not messing around with me!  I tell God that I really don’t think I want to spend the next ten or fifteen years mentoring to, and spending time with teenagers.  God apparently wasn’t terribly concerned with my opinion on the matter; as I said, I’ve found God to be quite persistent.

At 53 God decided that it might be a good idea to devote two years to the Synod’s School of Lay Ministry, just in case a theological question comes up from the kids in the youth group.  In case it did, I would at least have a little knowledge to help me come up with a reasonable answer.  Boy, this God is not letting up on me.  And now, today I find myself preaching God’s Word to God’s people here in Emanuel.  God has been ever-present and ruthlessly persistent in my life.   

The culmination of this entire journey is that I’ve been surrounded by and embraced by God’s people, through God’s persistence, whether I’ve noticed it before or not. I likely haven’t in the past; in the short stint in Sunday School, the theology class in the Lutheran college, the mountaintop church service, our Lutheran wedding.

It wasn’t until I realized that God has me exactly where he wants me; here, in this place among this group of God’s people.  It seems my decisions have had very little to do with this whole faith journey; I tend to be a bit nervous these days when I pray ‘Thy will be done’.  Because I’m now certain that God’s will always has been done in my life, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.

Well, that’s my story, now it’s your turn.  Find someone who doesn’t know what God has done for you, what the risen Christ’s Gospel means for your life, what being a “witness” of the resurrection entails for you.  By sharing the story of your journey with Jesus you just might accomplish what he commands of the disciples this morning, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.  As Luke tells us, “you are witnesses to these things”.

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and Holy God, give us the strength to be witnesses for your Son, proclaiming his resurrection to those who need to hear of it.  Guide us as we tell our stories.  And we pray these things in the name of the risen Jesus, the One who calls us to bear witness to the world.  Amen. 

God is Good, all the time.  All the time, God is GoodAmen.

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