Sermon: Understanding and Testimony

April 15, 2018
Luke 24:36b-48

In 2011, some folks at the Centers for Disease Control were looking for a new way to get people engaged in preparing for some kind of a disaster: to help them look at the needs they might have, the things they might stockpile, the documents to keep safe.

If they’d been citizens of Hawai’i in 2018, they might have considered running a mistaken nuclear attack warning, but that’s not what they did. Instead, they created a lengthy and informative document about the ways to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.

That’s right. A zombie apocalypse.

Strangely enough, the list of supplies to keep on hand looks a lot like the list of supplies to keep on hand for hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and a lot of human-created disasters: water, non-perishable food, medications, and so on. It’s still out there on the Internet, just search for “CDC zombie apocalypse.”

That sprang immediately to mind when I read this note of D. Mark Davis this week: “I think that sometimes, on this side of a 2,000 year old tradition, we act as if the disciples ought to have said, ‘Oh, hi Jesus. I was wondering if you had been raised from the dead yet.’ And yet, we have a whole genre of movies about how awful it would be if the dead were raised.”

Movies, books, TV shows, comics, and computer games, all about how awful it would be if the dead were raised.

Jesus’ disciples were not well versed in the twenty-first century genre of zombie fiction. They were very familiar with ghost stories, however, and ghost stories in the first century didn’t go any better for the living than zombie stories go for the living in the twenty-first. That’s why Jesus spent so much time, and why Luke spent so much time describing what Jesus did, to demonstrate that he was a flesh and blood figure, not a ghost. He showed them the bony parts of his hands and feet – ghosts don’t have bones. He invited them to touch him – you can’t touch a ghost. He ate a piece of fish – ghosts don’t have teeth or stomachs.

Zombies do, so Jesus would have had to do something else to prove he wasn’t a zombie to us, I suppose.

It was only then that Jesus could turn to the real object of his visit with them: to explain what had happened, why it was important, and what a difference it could make to the world. “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” wrote Luke. They didn’t understand what had happened. They didn’t see it as consistent with the expectations of the Messiah. They had had one set of expectations dashed, and didn’t have another to replace it.

Jesus sought to help them understand.

Did they, by the end of that conversation? I don’t know – and frankly, I doubt it. I base that guess partially on my own experience as a human being. I don’t actually cope with having my world turned upside down all that well. A patient, gentle explanation is all well and good, presented by my risen friend over a nice meal (at least I hope the fish was nicely cooked), but I know that when I wake tomorrow morning I’ll be asking, “What? What was that again?”

I also base that guess on the way that the different writers of the New Testament developed new thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion. For a hundred years after the event, they wrestled with the new idea of a crucified and risen Messiah. They found passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of suffering, and of three days before rising. These hadn’t been part of the Scripture of the Messiah before.

But why did it happen? Paul wrote of a new creation and a new kind of resurrected body. The author of Hebrews wrote of a savior who knows the full range of human experience, including death. The author of the letters of John spoke of an overarching love.

That Jesus’ disciples didn’t have full understanding is apparent in the fact that we still struggle with the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection two thousand years later. New theology continues to emerge. It hasn’t stopped, not for a moment.

They didn’t understand – but Jesus still summoned them to testify.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus told his friends: witnesses to a message of forgiveness and to a demonstration of divine power. Their task, he told them, was to be ready to declare what they’d seen and heard in the very center of their faith world: in Jerusalem, site of the Temple and gathering place of the faithful.

They didn’t need to understand much more than that. They just needed to testify to what they’d seen and heard.

And so do we. We may not understand. We may understand less than they did – it’s conceivable that two thousand years of theologizing later, we understand more – but whether we understand or not, we are summoned to testify to what we’ve experienced of the risen Christ.

Karoline Lewis writes, “We seem to want to wait around for a more grandiose revelation of God’s activity before we are willing to witness to our God.” I grant you that few of us have experienced the shock of a resurrected leader come to reassure us. Zombies aside, we’re probably grateful for that.

What I do know is that the faith has made some difference to us, awakened something within us, inspired us to do something out in the world. If it hadn’t, none of us would be here. There are plenty of things to do with a Sunday morning that don’t require us to gather in this place if it doesn’t make any difference.

Karoline Lewis again: “Our silence, our looking the other way, our inaction also testify – and volumes. How often we forget that our words and deeds, or lack thereof, are indeed giving witness to how we imagine God to be – and we might want to stop and consider just what those words and deeds are saying about God.”

We are witnesses – to something, something unique to each one of us. We are witnesses, and the witnesses testify. We are witnesses, and when we testify to what has filled and moved us, others find new strength, new life, and new hope.

Here’s Kathryn Matthews: “The experience of the early disciples who touched Jesus, put their hands in his wounds and heard his voice, is the same experience of Christians today who feed the hungry, break bread together, hunger for God’s blessing, and respond to the call to turn our lives toward God once again.”

We are witnesses.

We do not need to understand the impact of God’s love on our lives. I’m not sure the disciples did, and I don’t really think that anyone could. But experience and understanding are different things, and testimony and understanding are also different things.

What is your experience?

Did you feel a sense of comfort in the midst of sorrow, something unexpected and unlooked for?

Did someone come with help when you needed it: a stranger helping to change a flat tire by the side of the road, or a friend who suddenly called when you were puzzled about something?

Did a passage of Scripture break open your heart and let the tears flow? Did a passage of Scripture break open your heart and let the joy emerge?

Did a stranger give you encouragement when you needed it? Did a phrase of a sermon make you think, “Ah, ha! I am blessed!”

Did a voice whisper to you, “You were wrong, go and apologize”? Did that same voice whisper, “You are loved and forgiven”? Did that apology dissolve into tears and embraces?

Did a gift you gave make you smile? Did a gift you received make you amazed?

What is your experience? What happened to you? What is your testimony?

You don’t need to understand it. You’ve experienced it. That’s enough.

Now testify, so what blessed you blesses someone else.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Could it be identical to the prepared text above? It could be – anything is possible in an infinite universe – but it isn’t.

The image is a photograph of a sculpture in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Bob Zijlmans. Used by permission.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on April 15, 2018

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