1 John 3:1-7
Andrew and I really enjoy watching police and crime programmes – we have enjoyed “Unforgotten”, “Hinterland”, “The Bridge”, “Line of Duty”, “Silent Witness” and many more. What always surprises me is that when people are asked “Where were you on the night of whatever date?” they always seem to be able to recall what they were doing. Or when asked “Have you seen this man before?” they can confidently say “Yes, I saw him in the pub that night and he did these things…”
I have never been asked to help police with their enquiries in any form – which is probably a very good thing, as I have a terrible eye for detail and an equally terrible memory for said details. If asked where I was on a particular date I would probably have no clue; if questioned about a person, I would be scratching my head thinking “Now have I seen this man, or was it someone similar…and where was it I saw them…?”
I would not be a good witness.
And it is that word “witness” that caught my eye in today’s readings: it is used in the first reading from Acts, when Peter says to the people in Jerusalem that he, and the other disciples, were witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah sent from God. They had seen the work of God playing out before their eyes. They had seen the Messiah live, work, suffer, die and RISE FROM THE DEAD. It had happened. We have seen this, he is saying to the crowd. We saw these things: believe us. We’re not lying.
The second use of the word “witness” is in the reading from Luke, where Jesus, having appeared before the disciples, and eaten fish and bread, tells them that they are witnesses to the previously foretold death and suffering and resurrection of the Messiah: he reminds them of what they have seen and experienced. But he doesn’t just say that they have seen the Kingdom of God; listen again: “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.”
Jesus is saying something more to the disciples than just “You have seen these things happen.” What he is also saying is that you have to tell the truth of these things. You have to tell others of the Kingdom, you must tell others of the love of God.
You see, to be a witness to an event has two meanings: yes, it means to see an event occurring, but it also means to recount the truth of that event. When called to be a witness in a court of law, you are not just there to say, “Yes, I saw it happen”, but you are there to say what it is that you saw happen.
So Jesus is saying to the disciples, you saw this, you saw the Messiah suffer, you know that repentance and forgiveness of sins comes from God, you know what love is – now go and tell people!
One commentator writes: The experience of encountering the risen Jesus transforms the disciples to be witnesses. This echoes the declaration made by Peter and John in the Acts passage, where they announce to the watching crowd that they are “witnesses” to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel it is Jesus that names the disciples as witnesses, but more than witnesses to the moment in the room with a resurrected body. They have seen the Hebrew Scriptures they have known since childhood brought to life in the presence of Jesus in the midst of human life. They are part of the story of God in human history.
And we too are part of that story. When we professed our belief in the redemptive love of Jesus, we became part of that story of God in human history. So Jesus’ words echo through the centuries to speak to us: “You are witnesses to these things”
We aren’t witnesses in the sense that we saw the actual events played out, but we are witnesses to how these events have transformed our lives. We have seen our lives changed – and we can speak the truth of that. No, more than that, we are commanded to speak the truth of that. Because Jesus didn’t say “You will be witnesses…or you might be…or you could be…” He said “You ARE witnesses”
“You are witnesses” does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. “You are witnesses” does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. “You are witnesses” just is. It’s the truth. It’s what we are.
But, I’ve got news for you…
If we look at the word “witness” – as a noun – but in French (which I’m sure you all know is “un témoin”) we start to see that we are asked to do more than just speak about what we know of the Kingdom. The word “témoin” also refers to a model, or an example; my trusty online reference tool gives the example le mètre étalon témoin est conservé à Sèvres.
That translates as The control standard meter is kept in Sèvres. And this refers to the example of the metre that everyone throughout the metric world uses to compare their measurements to . The example, the indicator, the true measure. The witness.
It’s this too that we are called to be.
I remember the first time my brave, evangelical friend met my non-Christian boyfriend. While I was in the kitchen cooking the dinner, Jane cornered Andrew (yes, reader, for it was him!) and said “Do you know Jesus? You must repent and believe…” She failed to convince him. But when I asked him later why she hadn’t convinced him, he said something like “It’s not words that will make me believe that Christianity is the way; it’s seeing ordinary Christians living their lives in a Christian way that will.”
Which puts a burden on me – one which I’m afraid I’m not very good at carrying! But as I said, this is what being a witness is about. It is being an example, a model, the true measurement.
There is the famous quotation from Ghandi, perhaps one of the most Christian not-Christians that the world has ever seen, who, when asked “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Apparently this rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man practising law in South Africa. He had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. And so he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Ghandi in a belligerent tone of voice.
Ghandi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”
The church elder snarled at him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”
From that moment, Ghandi said, he decided to adopt what good he found in Christianity, but would never again consider becoming a Christian if it meant being part of the church that treats others in this way..
Being a witness to the love of God compels us to show what it means to live the Kingdom of God. 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 that’s the rub. Because if “you are witnesses” is not only who we are but also how others see God in us, then “you are witnesses” both points to our calling as well as our commitment to it. “You are witnesses” gives witness to our own selves, our own faith, our own belief. And that is the hardest truth to hear — because perhaps we don’t believe in the identity God has given us, we don’t believe God needs us or loves us, we don’t believe others will see the Kingdom in us, we don’t believe that we actually matter.
But, beloved children of God, listen to the words from 1 John: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. That is what we are. Not that is what we will be… or we might be…or we could be… No, that is what we are.
This is a truth. We have seen it: we have experienced the love of God. God loves us, no exceptions. We matter. We are children of God. We are witnesses to that love.
Today’s Gospel takes us to a room where the disciples are wrestling with their emotions and where Jesus disrupts their understanding of life and death with resurrection. In the reading from Acts we see Peter and John disrupt the understanding of the people of Jerusalem with the healing of a familiar figure at a gate, transforming his existence to a resurrected way of living. And Jesus tells us that we now need to go and live that truth.
As he appeared to the frightened, desperate disciples, who were doubting all they had seen and heard over the past three years, Jesus comes to us in our doubts and fears. He breaks through the self-hatred, the hidden doubts, and he turns our world upside down…And as I write that phrase I smile, because I remember a friend at college saying to me “Jesus didn’t turn the world upside down ---” and as I opened my mouth to argue, he grinned and continued “He turned it the right way up!” God disrupts our anxieties and fears, our dead ends and he turns our lives the right way up. He brings us to new understandings of what life as a child of God really means.
And having grasped that understanding, we are witnesses. We are to live and show the true measure. We are to act as children of God. But not “act” in the sense of “pretend to be children of God”, but act in the sense of put into action…
David Lose, a Christian blogger, poses this question: how we might live differently if we acted like God’s promises were true?
He continues, So often, I think, these promises are so familiar to us that we hold them far back in our head but don’t actually think about them and so don’t act as if they are true. But if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead… If it’s true that God promises to renew the whole creation and grant us new life… If it’s true that nothing – nothing we’ve done or that has been done to us – can separate us from the love of God…” If it’s true that God will not turn God’s back on any of us but always reaches out to us in grace, mercy, and forgiveness… If any of this – let alone all of this – is true, then how might we live our lives this week differently” How might this faith – not knowledge, but trusting, courageous faith – change how we look at our relationships, and our politics, and our work, and our resources, and our future?
Beloved, we are God's children now; Let us go forth and live as children of the resurrection.
We are an alleluia people; and Alleluia is our song.