3rd Sunday of Easter (B)
April 19, 2015
“You are witnesses of these things”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages as the basis of the sermon is taken from the Gospel lesson assigned for today from Luke chapter 24, specifically verse 48 in which Jesus says, “you are witnesses of these things.”
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
The disciples had been through the emotional ringer with Jesus ever since they got to Jerusalem. They had a triumphant entry together into Jerusalem with cheering crowds and waving palms. They shared together the Passover meal in the upper room, but then as darkness fell so did their emotional high. Jesus was arrested, taken away, put on trial, and beaten. By 9:00 AM the next day their teacher, their lord, their hope, was nailed to a Roman cross. The crucifixion and burial had to be hard for the poor disciples to take. Their joy returned, though, as a resurrected Jesus appeared before them as we heard in our Gospel lesson. Their grief was replaced by joy and wonder!
Jesus, who once had been dead and in the tomb, came and stood in their midst and showed them that He was okay after all. And once he had explained everything to them and opened their minds to understand all that had been written and all that had happened, Jesus let them know what their role would now be. “You are witnesses of these things” He told them. Why not? Makes sense to me. They had such great, good news that it couldn’t be kept to themselves! Beginning in Jerusalem, repentance and the forgiveness of sins were to be preached in the name of Jesus Christ to all nations.
And that is just what the disciples did. By 40 AD the Good News had spread northward from Jerusalem almost 400 miles up to Antioch. By 52 AD it had spread 700 miles to places like Thessalonica and Ephesus and Philippi. By 60 AD the Gospel had spread all the way to Rome itself. By the time that 300 AD rolled around, repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ Jesus had gotten all the way to modern day Britain, all of North Africa, and to the east across the entire Persian gulf region.
Was this effort easy? No. Was it without trial and tribulation? No. It hurt…a lot. The Greek word for “witness” is the word “martus” from which we get the English word “martyr.” The witnessing of the disciples made many of them martyrs for the faith – 10 out of 11 – and yet they proclaimed it thousands of miles from their home. Their witnessing hurt, sure, but it did not silence them.
If the disciples of the 1st century could spread the Gospel message for 1000 miles in an age that lacked cars, the Internet, and cell phones, why are we having such a hard time spreading it 100 feet?
They say that numbers don’t lie, so let’s consider a few, shall we? In 1993, the LCMS had 2.6 million Baptized members. In 2015, that number dropped to 2.1 million Baptized members or a NET LOSS of 13% over 22 years. Let’s now consider specifically the Florida-Georgia District. In 1999, there were 71, 100 Baptized members. In 2000 that number fell to 69,900 members. In 2011, it was 63,900 members. And the last reported number in 2013 was 60,200 Baptized members. That’s a loss of almost 11,000 members over 16 years (figures taken from TLA).
Now I know what you’re thinking. “But we’re all old. All our members are dying off and there are no young people to replace them.” No…that’s NOT the problem and don’t tell me that it is. So what is the REAL problem? In a word, silence. In a world that is screaming for answers, Lutherans specifically and Christians in general are either stuttering or completely silent when it comes to talking about Jesus. And the net result of our silence is that people are going to hell. Maybe that sounds politically incorrect, but it is the truth. People are living and dying in our state, in our cities, in our communities, in our backyards, and they are going to hell because they do not know of Christ and Him crucified and risen for their salvation.
Our Lord Jesus has taken the task of witnessing and made it into a glorious thing! He gives us peace to calm our fears (verse 36). He Himself provides the evidence for what He has done for us all. He opens our hearts and our minds to see that what was written about Him of old has been fulfilled and that He did everything He said He would (verses 44-45). He gives us the faith and the trust to know and believe that He has lived, died, and risen again for the forgiveness of our sins and the salvation of our immortal souls. And even if that were not enough, He also gives us the words to say. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (12:11-12).
The message that Jesus gives is as true now as it was back in the 1st century. The forgiveness of our sins is as real today as it ever was! Our sins are forgiven and our relationship is restored with God because of what Christ did on the cross and the faith that He gives to us as a result. Without that forgiveness, without the salvation that comes by His name, people are dying eternally. Christ Jesus died on the cross and rose again to save them and save us all…and yet we stay silent while those around us are perishing without saving faith in Jesus, and that is just unacceptable! My friends, it is a privilege to be a witness to our crucified and risen Lord whether you find yourself on the highways, bi-ways, or hallways, you are always a witness to Jesus, and it doesn’t come easy and doesn’t happen without some martyr-like pain.
People say they are afraid to witness because they are not sure what to say theologically. They do not feel capable of debating with their unchurched friends, or they do not always want to. We do not need to learn a rash of theological terms in order to be witnesses; we simply need to tell our story, because when we do, God becomes visibly present to others. The idea of “evangelism” scares us, conjuring up images of door-knocking 1970s style cold calls, but remember that we do not share Jesus by ourselves. God has provided the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us to help us make sense of our own faith. The greatest obstacle to our own witnessing is our fear of others’ reactions and of our own capability. But the Spirit works to help us share Jesus, the One whom has called us to be witnesses of His resurrection, His salvation, and His grace-filled, merciful, and loving forgiveness.
The story is told that Alexander the Greats’ army moved from victory to victory, sweeping across Asia Minor, then through Persia, and into the mountainous region that is now Afghanistan. No one could stop them. One day his generals came to him nervously and said, “We don’t know what to do next. We have marched off the map.” In reply, Alexander the Great said, “mediocre armies stay on the map and fight. It is the great armies that march off the map.”
So where is God leading you right now? Is God pointing you to try some new things? Is God opening some new doors for you to share the Good News of the Gospel? We who have heard the Good News and experienced freedom from sin through Christ are responsible to and have been called to be witnesses and to proclaim it to others still enslaved by sin. Are we doing all we can to make sure that people get the message? YOU are witnesses of these things, and as a result, are you ready to march off your map? I’ll tell you one thing…the great ones always are.