Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Witnesses are found in a variety of settings. In the courtroom, a witness is one who has observed an event and verifies the accuracy of the facts. Lawyers deal with witnesses all the time: There are eye-witnesses who tell what they saw; Expert witnesses who tell what they know about a particular subject; Character witnesses who tell about the kind of person the defendant is; And of course, rebuttal witnesses who testify so as to undermine the testimony of another witness.
In the church, the witness is most often the one preaches. And for the pastor, the testimony is the classic sermon. Stand up boldly, outline three strong points, and sit down quickly. I was once asked by a young seminarian, “Just how many points are needed in a good sermon?” After critiquing the seminarian’s last sermon, I sighed, “At least one.” Mind you there are the less effective forms of pastoral witness. The Rocking Horse sermon: back and forth, and back and forth, but going nowhere. And there’s the Smorgasbord sermon: a little bit of everything, but nothing solid. Or the Jericho sermon: March around the subject seven times. You see, at the core of every spoken word and every sermon and every witness, there must be a truth.
I am sure that is the meaning Jesus had in mind, when he said to his followers, “You are witnesses of these things.” He was not simply saying, “You saw this happen. You saw, the Son of Man who was crucified and raised from the dead. Tell the world what you have seen.” Witnesses for Jesus are not merely observers. Like the lawyer who carefully chooses his or her witnesses, Jesus called his witnesses intentionally. They were men and women who believe that their testimony could change the lives of others – for the better.
This is not always an easy task. Scripture tells us that on that first Easter evening, even as the women returned from the tomb, and as the disciples came running back from the village of Emmaus, there was still doubt. Faithful Thomas was not the only naysayer. The disciples were huddled together in the upper room, the doors were shut, the drapes were drawn, and the disciples were scared. And then suddenly, miraculously, Jesus appeared to them. And what was the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ appearance? Did they fall down on their knees in adoration and praise? No, the disciples were startled and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost. So Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your thoughts?” It amazes me, but at the very heart of the Easter gospel, when Jesus has just been raised from the dead, we read that there was doubt.
My friends, the world is filled with skeptics and doubters- and you and I are included in that number. And yet God still calls us to be his witnesses. He empowers us with his message of new life and new possibilities. But before we can set out to the task of witnessing to God’s love. We too must be prepared to stand our ground, to be of sound character, and to be challenged by speculative cross- examination. So to prepare you for this challenge, let me share three characteristics for the task God has called you as witnesses: first, be aware, all people at some time in their life have doubts, second, doubt doesn’t need to lead to despair, and third, there is a time when God simply says, stop with your doubting and move on.
I imagine we are all a bit like the cautious and skeptical disciples. We have questions about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith. There are the big questions such as, “Is there a God?” or “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “Why is there evil in the world?” And we often have personal questions such as “Why did I get this heart attack? Why cancer? Why did my child die so young?” So we are like the doubting disciples: we have questions and we don’t hide them. But we are also like them in another way. We too want proofs and signs. We would like God to work some miracles in our lives so we could more easily believe. We would like God to rearrange the stars up in heaven to spell out, “I exist” preferably in English as a sign that there really is a God who personally cares for us. Yes, all Christians have doubts and questions. That is the way that we were created: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort out, and ultimately to be drawn closer to God.
One day I was waiting for a repair for a car at a service station in our old neighborhood along the West River Road. I was wearing a clerical collar and the young attendant said to me, that it must be nice to have a spiritual calling. “Nice?” I questioned. “Yes,” he said, “If I had a spiritual calling, I wouldn’t have any doubts and questions.” I tried to explain to this young man that at times all Christians have more questions than answers. And yet curious doubters often turnn to God’s witnesses.
The Scottish theologian Henry Drummond wrote, “(The witnesses) the people who influence you are the people who believe in you.” Drummond himself made a distinction between a doubter and an unbeliever. A doubter is a person who searches for God and the godly life; the person is on a journey to find and meet God. A doubter is a person who has a thousand questions for God; questions about life, love, existence, purpose, and God’s very divinity. The unbeliever, on the other hand, has the very same questions. The unbeliever, however, is not interested in searching for God, nor is he or she particularly interested in anything more than searching for the happiness that situations or settings which can bring them. My friends, if you are going to be a faithful and effective witness, you must remember that all people, Christians and non-Christians alike experience times and occasions of doubt.
Second, doubt doesn’t necessarily need to lead to despair, but instead it can lead to discovery. Indeed, doubts and questions often lead to deeper and richer faith. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus doubted the traditional teaching of the day that the earth was the center of the universe, stating instead the sun was the center of the universe. Christians around him were quoting the Bible to prove that he was wrong and misguided. His doubts of their reading led him to a larger and richer understanding of the Christian faith and universe.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus challenged the science of the day. It was not that the world was perceived to be flat, but rather he thought the world was smaller in size. He truly thought that the small European ships with their limited supplies could sail to the Far East of China and Japan. What saved Columbus was the unknown existence of the Americas precisely at the point he thought he would reach Japan.
The same happens in the spiritual lives of doubters who search and delve into the traditions of scripture. There are surprise discoveries that are richer and fuller. Jesus himself reminded the disciples that the common understanding of a victorious, triumphant, untouchable Messiah was not true. They needed to doubt and search deeper into the scripture. And so we read that he opened their minds to the teaching that the Messiah must suffer, die and rise from the dead.
Now, you may be wondering. Why is it so important that we recognize our doubts? Simply said, it makes you a better witness for Christ. People often turn to others who have shared a similar life experience or illness. If you are having troubles with alcohol, it is important to be in conversation with a recovered alcoholic. A recovered alcoholic knows the nuances and subtleties of argument of an alcoholic. He knows their thought patterns and habits and weak points. So also with a recovered skeptic. I believe that those who have struggled with doubts can deal with many in our society who are skeptical about God, the Bible and the Christian faith. They know their arguments, their logic, their reasoning, and can be helpful in leading them to discover a deeper and richer faith. To be a faithful and effective witness, remember, doubt doesn’t necessarily need to lead to despair, but instead it can lead to discovery.
Finally, there is a time when God simply does say, stop with your doubting and move on. For the disciples, it was a pragmatic word, “Have you anything here to eat?” And they gave him a piece of broiled fish. There is a time in all of our lives when God says to us, it is time to believe and experience the power of belief.” Nearly everyone I have known, who describes themselves as a recovering skeptic, recognizes that there comes a time in life when they began to doubt their doubts, question their questions, and became skeptical of their skepticisms. They needed to make a conscientious decision- to move on. For some it was a leap of faith, for others it was simply a logical progression of events and knowledge. As Thomas Aquinas once penned, “For those with faith, no explanation is necessary. For those without, no explanation is possible.”
That is ultimately, the work of life’s witnesses and God’s Holy Spirit. You cannot make another person believe. You can offer all the evidence and proof required, but unless your witness becomes their confession- it does not make any difference. It is a daunting task. But, my friends, it is this word of life- this testimony of the love and life of Jesus Christ that has the power to change lives.
It is the word of forgiveness that sooths the sin-sick soul; it is the word of comfort for the mourning heart; it is the word of encouragement for the broken spirit; it is the word of life in the face of death; and the word of hope in the hour of peril. It is the promise of a new beginning for those who embrace it and believe. Retired Seattle pastor Edward Marquardt wrote, “Jesus said to many people, ‘Great is your faith.’ He never once said, ‘I commend your for your great questioning.’” Remember, to be a faithful and effective witness, you must choose to believe yourself and move on.
It is said, “We do not understand: Joy… until we face sorrow. Faith… until it is tested. Peace… until faced with conflict. Trust… until we are betrayed. Love… until it is lost. Hope… until confronted with doubts.
My friends, there is power in faith, power to move mountains and carry momentous burdens. That is what Jesus longs for you to experience. You are his witnesses, and you have the word to change hearts and lives- for the better. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.