The Witnesses

Have you ever been a witness to something? Sometimes we might see an event…an accident, a crime, or maybe even a miracle…we see it with our own eyes and often we are asked to describe it or report it or tell the world about it.

Being a witness can be really hard. There is a lot of pressure to remember details that may not have been obvious when we first saw something. There may be some anxiety if we are asked to be a witness to a crime as someone’s reputation or life may be at stake. What if we are wrong about what we thought we saw? What if we are afraid to share it?

One reason there is so much pressure in recounting what was witnessed is that a first hand witness account is such a valuable testimony. The stories of things that happen to us personally are powerful and persuasive. There is a difference between a story that I heard you tell me, which was told to you by yet another person and one that I witnessed myself. The first is really just hearsay. I wasn’t there, I didn’t really see anything and I just heard it from you who heard it from someone else. The facts get garbled and this kind of “testimony” is not really very compelling. On the other hand, the story of something I personally saw or heard or experienced, is powerful. Even if some of the details are hard to fully recall or recount, the sincerity of the first hand testimony of an individual is credible, sincere, and can be very moving.

Perhaps the most important question one could ask a witness is,  “Tell me how what you have witnessed has changed you.”   This is the question that has been answered by many witnesses these past 9 weeks since Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and found it empty. They personally experienced the risen Christ and ran to tell the disciples. They weren’t believed of course, it was too astonishing for the men to believe them, but it caused the disciples to run to the tomb and see it with their own eyes. Jesus was not there, something has happened, perhaps these women who were witnesses are telling the truth?

The next week we met the disciples in the upper room where they are hiding out. Someone comes in the room and it is the resurrected Jesus. Thomas does not believe when he first hears the story, but then he himself is a witness to the reality of the risen Christ.  Next, two men walking on the road to Emmaus are joined by a third man who knows all about their story and their loss and their sorrow. Their hearts were strangely warmed and they recognize him and become yet more witnesses to the miracle of the resurrection.

We also heard the story of the disciples fishing who are told by the stranger where to find fish and then makes them breakfast, breaks the bread and shares it with them. New witness after witness after witness.

And then we see the testimony of the witnesses begins to change. Jesus is no longer with the disciples and Paul never met Jesus when he was alive. Instead he was a persecutor of the believers of Jesus and followers of “The Way”. But Paul witnessed Jesus in a different way.   He heard his voice speak to him about this persecution of believers and he became a powerful witness… to the present and the future church.  Paul was the first apostle who did not have a personal physical encounter with Jesus, but he had one in spirit and through his senses and immediately turned away from his persecution of believers and changed his entire life to became a witness to his great power and grace instead.

In these last few weeks, we have heard about the beginning of the early church and how the Good News of Jesus would be spread to the world. We heard Paul speaking in Athens to those seeking to honor all the gods they knew, and about this one he had personally met. Last week on Pentecost Sunday we heard the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon all those gathered from every nation to celebrate the Jewish festival Shavuot. Each heard the Galileans praising God in their own languages and although many thought they were drunk, Peter explained that this fulfilled the prophet Joel’s proclamation that all would receive the Holy Spirit. All those gathered there that day were witnesses to the power of God.

I wonder what they all talked about on the way home from that pilgrimage?

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? If we witness something tragic, we NEED to talk about it to process it and make sense of it. If we witness something miraculous, we WANT to talk about it to let others know what we saw, what we heard, what we felt,

 how we have been changed forever.

 The people at the Pentecost gathering didn’t need Facebook to share their experiences. That news spread like a wild fire to every person they saw on their journeys home, to their families, to their communities. They might not have fully understood what they witnessed,

but it was real.  It was powerful.  It was life-changing.

And so we come to this week’s gospel lesson. Four short verses, the entire future of the church contained within. These verses are often called “The Great Commission”:  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

No pressure. These disciples who have doubted and fought about who was greater and the most beloved of Jesus and cut off the ear of a soldier at Jesus’ arrest, these simple and relatively uneducated people were to make disciples of all nations, baptize and teach them. How would this possibly happen?  The Early Christian Church was created and shaped by these disciples and each generation of the Church to follow was sustained by those who continued to be witnesses to what they saw and experienced.  Through the long history of the Christian Church, its disciples testified to the grace and mercy of God, the gift of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit and its call to help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the suffering.

The church has always been called to be this witness and this continues today.

So we have now traveled from the Great Commission to the first disciples to Church School Sunday at South Congregational Church. And you know what? It’s not as large of a leap as you imagine! We continue to be called to be witnesses to our world to the power of our creator God, Jesus our redeemer and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.

This congregation, at its inception on Phinney’s Lane back in 1796 was about the business of worshiping God and witnessing to God’s faithfulness. The Church School began in 1822 and for 192 years, people have carefully and thoughtfully taught these same truths to the children and youth of this church. Can we think for a moment about how many Sunday School Superintendents and Church School Directors served the children of South Church over those 192 years? Can anyone here today imagine what the church school program would be like without Edythe Gingerich’s devotion to the children of this congregation? And we remember with gratitude Bev Brembt’s careful and thoughtful guidance to our Church School families for so many years. These leaders were and are witnesses to the commitment to the faith formation of the children and youth you see here today. And even though we are far away in time from those first disciples of Jesus, our witness is still first hand, through the power of the Holy Spirit and our own life stories of what happened to us when we first realized we were the beloved children of God.

And so today we honor our teachers and helpers who serve our children and youth and we look to these children and youth, as Bruce would say not as the FUTURE church, but as the PRESENT church. I have learned in my time with this group of children and youth that they are truly the heart of the church and indeed serve as a witness to their church family, the community and the world. I asked them what I should share with you today about them and the consensus was this:

  • We want to learn about God and how God loves us
  • We want to share God’s love
  • We want to serve the community

Riley also had an idea. She suggested I remind you that the words to the anthem, which they wrote for today, also describes the children and youth of South Church. Listen to them sing it and read the words in the bulletin insert to get an idea of how these young people really ARE the church today.

That’s pretty inspirational to me. I hope it is to you to. And it might be something that you feel you can share with others. Perhaps you could witness to your experiences at South Church to families that might be looking for a church home, with friends who would like to be inspired by the children and youth of our church.

Together we can share our first hand testimony of a life changing experience and be a witness to the love and grace of God in a hurting world.