Imagine trying to convince someone that you’re alive. I don’t mean trying to look alert to the English teacher after dozing in class. Or setting the timers on your lights in your house while you are on vacation. I’m thinking of the challenge of actually having to prove that you’re not physically dead.
This was the predicament a few years ago for Charles Hubbard of Austin, Texas. The Vietnam vet received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs informing him that he was dead and that his family needed to return thousands of dollars in benefits. A victim of stolen identity, Hubbard found his checking account closed by the VA. After he made an extensive case for being alive, the VA informed him that it would take eight months for him to be officially brought back to life. That’s when they would restore his pension benefits. Imagine having to going up to someone and saying, no really, here I am, I’m alive, it’s me! [i]
This is the challenge that Jesus faces after he is resurrected from the grave. Our scripture takes place later in the day after the women have discovered the tomb empty. The eleven were assembled in that room –behind locked doors in Jerusalem—trying to make sense of it all. “They were startled, frightened and fearful” scripture tells us. Which is not surprising. This was definitely not what they signed up for. Not the way it was supposed to be. A few years ago, Jesus had singled each one out and called them—he could have chosen anyone—but he called them to be HIS disciples. And they set out on a journey with him. Sometimes it was incredulous—they witnessed miracle healings, changed lives, even the raising of the dead—Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus. At times the journey was frustrating—Jesus could be so hard to understand. Sometimes is was just downright aggravating—why did he have to be so humble—why didn’t he exert some of that “God power” to take care of the ones that opposed him and taunted him. They wanted Jesus to be the Messiah the scriptures had mentioned, to rule like King David, to overthrow the unjust powers of the Roman government. And the disciples envisioned, a long and rewarding ministry with Jesus, traveling from town to town; being there for the moment he took over at last as the powerful leader of the people of Israel. Oh—this relationship may have its ups and downs but all in all---everything was right in their world. Until—until that is, until the arrest, until the crucifixion, until Jesus was laid in that tomb. Now what would the future hold? So the disciples hide behind the closed doors and wonder, what now?
And so we find them in a room, wondering all these things terrified when Jesus appeared to them. And they were terrified. Who is it? What is it? A ghost? An apparition? What was this before them? It would be reasonable to believe that their inclination would be to run from that room as fast as their feet would take them and never look back. Yet, Jesus, in an attempt to prove he was alive says to them, “Look at Me!” He showed them his hands and his feet. Then Jesus asks if there’s anything in the fridge. This may have been Jesus honestly hungery; there’s no meal service in the grave, and days have passed since the Last Supper.[ii] But more than that, Jesus is determined to try to help these disciples know that he is not a ghost. As if to say, if you look at me, look at the miracle of the resurrection, you will find the answers.
And they did. Then Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. It is written —God has a plan—a plan he is fulfilling in me—and just because you do not understand it—does not make that plan wrong. The fulfillment of the Scriptures are leading to a new promise, a promise that you as my disciples will fulfill. Like these disciples, we forget that the Gospels do not demand that we understand Christ—rather—they offer the insight that Christ understands us. Christ identifies with our feelings, with our humanness, with our failures. Christ brings encouragement; Christ brings hope; Christ brings answers—of repentance, forgiveness, salvation. This message of repentance and forgiveness is a message of radical, life-changing—wipe the slate clean—good news. Good news of the magnificent plan God fulfills in Christ.
Christ conquering death and being raised from the dead is an incomparable experience. Resurrection is like nothing else. It is without precedence, without explanation. It exceeds any hopes and dreams of human possibility.
But then Jesus says, you will be witnesses. Not, “please be witnesses.” Not, “consider being witnesses if you have time.” No, “you are witnesses of these things.” As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.[iii]
While the world turns away, you are the witnesses to call people back to look at me. To find the answers in me. That is where we enter into the story. We become the disciples with our own questions, doubts, hopes, fears and misunderstandings. And we are the witnesses that are called to testify to the good news. Which feels like a much harder task—since we were not first-hand witnesses…or are we?
Often in the church we are reminded we are “Easter people,” and that every Sunday is a “little Easter” because each week, through worship we encounter the Risen Christ. In the reciting of the scriptures and the preached word we are offered explanation of Christ’s life and God’s plan. We eat the bread of the resurrection and drink from the cup of salvation with Christ at his table in the Eucharist. And through the prayers prayed and songs sung, and worship we experience the presence of the sacred in our midst. The spirit enlightens us and opens our hearts and minds to the calling to which we have been given. And then we are sent out into the world to be witnesses to these things.
The Risen Christ calls us to look at him. We can choose whether our faith is just lip-service or whether it is real. Christ does not call us to simply exist, to simply to survive. We are not even called to be successful, but we are called as the church, as believers, to be faithful to Christ and to serve and love the world as he did. Frederick Buechner says that as witnesses to Christ, we are “to keep alive the rumor, to bear witness to the presence, to proclaim in word and deed that all life is indeed blessed by, accountable to, and lived out in the presence of God.”
That’s the rub. “We are witnesses” is not only who we are but also then how others see God to be. “We are witnesses” both points to our calling as well as our commitment to it. “We are witnesses” gives witness to our own selves, our own faith, our own belief. And that is the hardest truth to hear -- that perhaps we don’t believe in the identity God has given us, don’t believe God needs it, don’t believe others will see it, don’t believe that it actually matters. All the while, therefore, rejecting God’s expanded horizons and God’s relentless attempts to expand our imaginations.[iv]
What Jesus commands of his disciples and us, does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. “We are witnesses” does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. It just is. And that is the good news. Because, feft to our own devices, we’d make up every excuse imaginable to relinquish such responsibility, we’d probably be ok if someone stole our identity and we were deemed dead. We’d convince ourselves that someone more qualified could more certainly justify this calling.
So rather than continue in our ceaseless attempts to convince ourselves we have a choice, that we can carry out this occupation just as soon as we are adequately prepared, that we can graciously, even politely and respectfully, avoid God’s claim on us, why not try it on and see what it feels like? Wear it around, maybe even with “gladness in your heart” (Psalm 4:7). Fake it till you make it, if you will. Who knows? Perhaps then we might start to believe it.
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. As people of faith, as Easter people, we are to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, in our words and in our deed; our faith demands nothing less. And may it be so. Amen.