St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter + Year B
First Lesson: Acts 3:12-19
Second Lesson: 1 John 3:1-7
Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Luke’s account of the resurrection story, the risen Jesus says to his disciples, “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.”
“You are witnesses.”
Why do you think Jesus told his disciples this? It seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? Of course they’re witnesses. They’ve seen everything. They’ve traveled with Jesus since the very beginning of his ministry, through the best of times and worst of times. They’ve seen Jesus cure the sick and minister to the hopeless. They’ve heard his teachings and struggled to uncover their meanings. They’ve been his closest friends and allies.
Did he think they would somehow forget the events leading up to the past three days? Did he think they would forget the night before he died, that he was betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be killed on a Roman cross? Did he think they would forget the miracle of his resurrection?
“You are witnesses,” Jesus says. Why would he take the time to point out something so obvious to his disciples?
I don’t think it’s because he was afraid that they would forget. I think that he calls them witnesses because he wants them to do something with what they’ve seen and heard. He doesn’t want them to keep it to themselves. He wants them to share this amazing story with the world, the Good News that, through his death and resurrection, sin and death have been defeated once and for all.
When we think of the word, “witness,” in our everyday lives, we typically think about people who are called upon to tell the truth, people who are called upon to share their experience of a particular event or situation. In legal proceedings, for example, witnesses take an oath, vowing to testify truthfully so that justice may be served. When there’s a car accident or a crime, witnesses are frequently called upon by first responders to explain the situation with the hope that their testimony will help uncover the truth of what happened. Witnesses share what they’ve seen and heard, and I think this is why Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, tells his disciples, “You are witnesses.” He wants them to share the story. He wants usto share the story.
Last month, I had the opportunity to go to a wonderful conference in Cleveland, Ohio, called “Evangelism Matters,” a national conference for evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Imagine, if you will, a group of four hundred Episcopalians eager to talk about the ministry of evangelism! Honestly, that would’ve been almost unheard of even a decade ago, but thankfully, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has made it a priority. Historically, evangelism isn’t a topic of conversation that we’ve been very eager to talk about in the Episcopal Church. Some of us still jokingly refer to it as the “e-word,” the “word that must not be named,” like Voldemort in the world of Harry Potter. Talking about evangelism makes many of us uncomfortable because of past experiences that we might have had in other churches. I’m sure that you can think of some examples. Perhaps you had someone who was just a little too eager to convert you to his or her way of thinking. Perhaps you had someone whose idea of evangelism involved shoving Christianity down your throat. Perhaps you had someone who told you that you’re going to hell if you live your life a particular way or if you don’t believe the same things that they believe about God.
Dear friends, I can’t say this strongly enough. None of the examples that I just mentioned have anything to do with evangelism or being witnesses of the Gospel. In fact, they’re perfect examples of what not to do. Jesus had no desire to force anyone to believe a certain way. He came in order to teach us a new and better way to live with the hope that we would listen to what he had to say and amend our ways. Jesus had no desire to establish a new religion or to force a new religion on anyone. He came, not to abolish the old covenant, but to fulfill it, and he did this by teaching his followers the two greatest commandments of all: love God and love your neighbor. Jesus had no desire to condemn other people. He came, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Do you see where I’m going with all of this? Everything that we think we know about evangelism and all of the preconceived ideas that we may have about it are twisted. Evangelism is about spreading the Good Newsof God in Christ, and it is indeed good. Through our baptism in Christ, we have been anointed by the Holy Spirit to do this work. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, we have been anointed “to bring good news to the poor, “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Evangelism is about beingwitnessesto the transforming power of God’s love, but in order to do that, we have to first dig deep and think about how God has transformed us. If we’re going to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have to be able to share with people, through our words and actions, the ways in which God is working in us and through us. This is how we testify to the truth of the resurrection.
How is God working in and through you? If you have a hard time answering this question, I invite you to sit with it for a while and to consider the possibilities. How can we share the Good News with others if we’re unable to see it at work in our own lives?
On the first night of the “Evangelism Matters” conference, I had the privilege of hearing our Presiding Bishop preach a wonderful sermon. If you’ve never heard a sermon of his, I invite you to go online and listen. You’ll be glad that you did. At one point in his sermon, he talked about the people in our lives who took the time to reach out to us and share with us their stories, people who welcomed us into the Church and supported us in our journeys with Christ. In his sermon, Bishop Curry told us, “None of us would be here tonight if it weren’t for the evangelists in our lives.” He was absolutely right. Think about it for a moment. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the Church, myself included, where would we be if it weren’t for that person who invited us to attend a worship service or to be involved in a particular ministry? Even if you were born into the Christian faith and never left the Church, there are still people who supported you along the way. This is why the ministry of evangelism is so important and why we must continue to talk about it. It’s the only way for us to continue the work that we’ve been called to do as the Body of Christ.
“You are witnesses,” Jesus says. This was true of his first disciples when he commissioned them to go into the world to proclaim the Gospel. This is true of you and me. Amen.