You are Witnesses

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 18, 2021

Mark 24: 36-48

In September of 2019 I went on a road trip out west with my son Nick. We drove around Oregon and Washington, visiting family members and friends with whom I grew up. A big part of those gatherings is storytelling. We don’t have any new stories; we tell the same old stories over and over again. If it’s a good story, we like to hear it again. If it’s a bad story or a poor storyteller, we suffer through it again. 

After one gathering with my friends, Nick said, “They told those stories with the same details that you always included.” 

That’s because they were there. The only difference is in the difference of their perspective on shared experience. 

Some studies on memory report that how we remember events, may not be how they actually happened. The idea is that over time we create memories; we add to the story or miss important details. This is reflected in the saying about storytelling, “It may not have happened just this way, but this is a true story.” 

At some point in life we are faced with answering the question, “What happened?” 

I remember one time when I was waiting at the bus stop. I went to college at Portland State University; which meant I could live at home. Living at home had its advantages, financially; free room and board; an easy bus ride to campus. 

The bus stop was on a busy street. Children walking to the nearby grade school had to cross the busy street. Stop, look both ways, make sure it’s safe to cross before doing so. A ten-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother were in a hurry and didn’t look both ways. He was hit by a car just a few feet from where I stood. 

It was a shocking thing to see. It was as if time slowed down. I had some first aid training, so I went to help the boy. First make sure he was breathing, check for bleeding and for the most part, make sure that no one moved him before the EMTs arrived.

The police arrived and asked questions. One question they asked more than once and in more than one way was, was the driver of the vehicle speeding. In all honesty, my observation was that the driver was not exceeding the speed limit. 

Later on, other investigators asked for my account. The car that hit the boy was going fast, but it was not going faster than the posted 30 mile an hour limit. They asked about the possibility of speeding in so many ways that it would have been a simple thing to agree to. But speed was not a factor. 

The story is told that after Jesus was killed, his followers went into hiding. There was some fear about what might happen to them. There was grief. When we are consumed by grief, we feel like hiding away somewhere. Some of them were together and Jesus appeared in their midst. They thought he was a ghost. 

He told them to feel his hands and he ate a piece of fish. The story is a way of saying, that when Jesus rose from the grave, he did not come back as a ghost. He had physical substance. His followers could touch him; better yet, he ate a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t eat. 

Jesus told his followers, “You are witnesses to these things.” These things being, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. 

A witness is a person who speaks from experience. Someone who was there when something happened. Something was seen or heard. Not merely, “This happened to my friend’s cousin’s brother-in-law,” but, “This happened in my presence.” 

Jesus saying, “You are witnesses to these things,” had everything to do with what they had seen and heard from the time they knew him. And now as witnesses, they would go on to tell his story. Eyewitness testimony can be a powerful message. 

22 years ago, I served on the jury of a murder trial in Minneapolis. The murder happened in a crowded night club. The victim was an innocent bystander. Two other people were wounded. 

The prosecution called dozens of witnesses to the stand. Some of them were technical experts. Some of them were people who were at the scene on the night of the shooting.

What was interesting about that trial is that not one eyewitness was willing to point to the accused and say, “I saw that man pull the trigger.” 

Not the intended victim who had a gun to his head and managed to escape by diving over the bar at which stood seven players for the Minnesota Vikings, who also didn’t see anything. Nor did the two guys who were wounded see anything; or any other eyewitness called to testify. 

When it came time for the defense to present its case, only one witness was called to the stand; a character witness, who was a retired minister. He told of how he knew the accused as a boy growing up and that whatever he had been accused of, he was at heart a good person. 

In the end, the jury handed down a guilty verdict. The prosecution put together a picture of what happened based on the bits and pieces of testimony, as if each witness was describing one small piece of the larger jigsaw puzzle; so that after it was all told, the truth was clear. 

Perhaps that is how we are witnesses to Jesus Christ. He doesn’t walk into the room and ask for a piece of fish. But here and there along the way of our lives we have experienced him in some way. His way, his truth and his life, come alive in us, piece by piece until we say with some assurance, “I know this to be true.” 

Of course, people may say, well that’s just wishful thinking. There’s no proof of the resurrection. There’s no evidence that would stand up to the scrutiny of science. 

Jesus never relied upon scientific evidence to prove himself, in life, in dying or in rising from the grave. People would demand that he somehow prove himself. But he would respond by basically telling folks that God’s truth was hiding in plain sight. They had the Scriptures. They had his word and his actions. 

People who heard his teaching or witnessed his miracles, experienced those on the basis of their own faith; their own willingness to believe. So that when he healed someone or performed a miracle, he would often say, “It is your faith that has done this.” 

What possible proof could he offer? One would think that if God wanted to prove to the world that Jesus was risen, that Jesus would march into the Temple and announce, “I’m back.” And everyone could see for themselves and they would all worship him from that day forward. And he would walk up to his judges and accusers and look them in the eye, and they would be shaking in their boots and he would say, “so, what do you think of that?” Mission accomplished.

But that’s not how the story unfolded. Jesus appeared on a few occasions. He met up with travelers on the road. He showed up for a fish supper. 

This episode raises questions for us. 

Where have we witnessed Jesus in our lives?

How do we tell the story through our words and actions?

Are we willing witnesses or are we reluctant witnesses? 

One time my in-laws came to visit us in Glasgow. Lindsay’s Dad Perry loved to go places and see the sights. The challenge in that was Perry was blind. He had lost most of his sight due to an accident some years back. So what he “saw” was what we described to him. 

He and I went to a museum one day. It was the Scottish Transport Museum. It was a huge building filled with old trains, cars and busses. As we walked around the place, I would tell him what we were looking at. Not just by saying, “This here is a bus.” But rather –

“This is a double-decker bus from 1955. It’s painted in a two-tone teal green and beige. Remember how the vehicles from back then were rounded and heavy with chrome? There’s even wood paneling on the inside. They don’t make them like that anymore.” 

Knowing that what Perry would see in his mind’s eye was based on what I was seeing, helped me to describe it in a way that he could see it too. That’s being a witness. Amen.

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