Yesterday at a party, and I was standing in the kitchen, asking my sister if someone I had just seen outside was a new friend she’d been telling me about, and while the question was half way out of my mouth, the person walked in, and I felt busted, and ended up awkwardly cutting off my sentence and introducing myself instead. I had acted like she wasn’t there and suddenly she was, and everything changed.
That’s kind of what happened in this scene. While they were talking about Jesus, he showed up among them.
You guys, they’d been saying, he’s really alive! We were walking to Emmaus and this stranger started talking to us, and he turned out to be Jesus! Were not our hearts burning within us while spoke?
And when we invited him back for dinner and he broke the bread, suddenly our eyes were opened and we recognized him!
Without a cell phone to call back and say, “You’ll never believe what just happened!,” instead they hit the road that same night and had raced back to where they’d come from, and they were just now sharing these stories in the wee hours with the rest of them, who, it turned out, had stories of their own, and suddenly, Jesus himself stood among them.
And they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.
It doesn’t matter how much we may believe with our head that God is real, that Jesus is here, that God can intervene, or speak to us, or do something that turns our life around, we have no rubric for this sort of thing. So often, when it happens, we are astonished, startled, terrified even.
In fact, all the most profound realities of life are this way- knowing you are about to have a child is night and day different from someone placing a tiny screaming stranger in your arms.
We all know in our heads we will one day die, but dying itself? No matter how much we try to prepare, we will be utterly unqualified, and yet we will do it anyway.
All the things that call us to our true selves as children of God, that strip away illusion, the things like love, transformation, forgiveness – we are not prepared for them, no matter how much we think we may be, they surprise us. Like waking from a dream, when they come they make life feel altogether new and different.
And now, here is Jesus. The one they saw die. The one they buried and began to grieve. He is back. But he’s also different. Like, how you might be different if death can’t kill you. Different in a way that isn’t bound by time and space – he keeps appearing and disappearing where he will. He is unrecognizable at first, and yet, it’s him.
So they are aghast, and can’t seem to move past it, even seeing his hands and side, and touching him, and they still can't absorb it.
Here, he finally says, when the staring gets to be too much, Do you have anything to eat? And they get him some fish and he eats it in front of them. And they watch, until it starts to feel a little normal, and then they begin settle into the new new, at least enough to sit and listen to him talk to them like he used to before he died.
And when he does, he opens up the scriptures to them.
He starts way back and tells how it all fits together, how God’s unfolding story of love and hope begins way at the beginning, and weaves through their history, the kings and the prophets and the judges, how all of it was part of the same trajectory – God made it all for love and call us to love, and how God came into this world, to set us free from everything that keeps us hostage, and how God with us walked among them, shared this life with them, and now, right now, near the platter of fish bones, as the lamp is burning low, and the sun is just peeking up the horizon, is sitting with them.
And he talks about repentance – remember that word? How it means changing your mind, letting go your way of seeing things and picking up God’s way? – that this invitation is to be extended to all the world, beginning right here, among these people who have done that just moments ago and even still now are in the midst of it.
And forgiveness of sins – freedom from all that keeps us captive to the injuries we commit against ourselves and others, all that separates us from God and each other, release to live for God and for others - this is the message that they will soon be carrying to everyone, everywhere, starting right here where they are, in this very place.
And then, before he leads them to a mountaintop and disappears, Jesus gives them a new identity, a calling. You, he says, you are witnesses. Your role is that of a witness.
Witnesses testify to what they have seen or experienced.
Witnesses don’t become witnesses because they believe or can recite back something specific.
A witness isn’t skilled worker with training, or a stellar student with perfect test scores; a witness doesn’t prove their abilities or worth in order they become one.
Witnesses are not directors.
They aren’t tour guides or teachers; they aren’t trying to decide where things will go or how they should turn out, or make anyone else decide anything either.
They don’t interpret things or turn them into lessons.
They simply experience something, and then tell about it.
That’s what witnesses do.
These people, in their joy, disbelieving and still wondering, were witnesses.
And what these witnesses had to share, so far, was that Jesus came among them. Ate some fish. Told them about the scriptures. Disappeared from their sight. The same Jesus they had seen teach and heal and suffer and die. That’s what they have to tell.
That’s what they tell each other; every time they get together, they witness to what they’ve experienced, what they felt when they heard him call them by name, what they thought when they realized it was him standing among them, what happened inside them when their eyes were opened and they recognized him, or how their hearts were burning within them, or what they heard when he unpacked the scriptures and told how it all fit together.
And the act of witnessing to each other opens up the space between them where Jesus can encounter them all over again. It’s the place the Holy Spirit likes to hang out. Between us.
There is no such thing yet as church. There are no Christians.
There isn’t a bible – just the beginning of one –the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament. They studied and learned and knew the same scriptures we hold here before us. Except the parts that weren’t written yet because they were happening to them right then, so that we can read about it now, so that we can witness the witnesses witnessing the witnesses.
Because, you know where this is going, right?
We are witnesses too.
We are witnesses to the God who is witnessed through this book. I
f you want to see who God is, look at Jesus, and if you want to see who Jesus is, look in this book. And here he is, sitting with his friends, showing them how this whole story fits together.
The Holy Spirit meets us we read together what they read; this is our family scrapbook of meaning, filled with letters, laws, poetry and prose, music and metaphors, heartbroken lament and frustrated complaints, euphoric praise and joyful celebration, retellings of the lives of the leaders and the losers in both gripping and boring ways, describing the ongoing struggles of a people to be faithful, and the ongoing faithfulness of a God that never wavers – it all witnesses to this one big thing God is doing, has always been doing, and will never stop doing: This most real and true thing about love and repentance, forgiveness and new life, belonging, healing and hope.
You and I are part of that story.
As witnesses, we are called to pay attention.
To notice and share about where we see Jesus.
And not unlike these disciples, we might not recognize him at first, sometimes not until we hear him call us by name.
And sometimes we will know him in the breaking of the bread- as we share meals with each other side by side in our humanity, or we will know he was there, talking to us, when our hearts burn within us and we say to each other, wait, back there when that was happening, did you feel it too?
And like all those who saw the risen Christ in the flesh, just when we seem to grasp hold of him he vanishes; he’s elusive, Jesus can’t be captured and owned.
He comes and goes as he pleases.
But instead of giving up, we keep witnessing, and practicing being witnesses.
So we have to get together with each other and tell our stories.
And in a few weeks when we hear how church starts, we'll notice that it starts just like that, because that’s actually exactly what church is – people breaking bread together and telling stories of how they see Jesus, and looking at scripture together at the words of the witnesses who’ve gone before, and trusting that through these words God will speak to us right now.
This is not about believing something with your head and getting others to think the same way.
This is about trusting something with your life and telling what that feels like.
And trust is that kind of thing that you only learn by doing.
You put one foot tentatively out, maybe with wonder and disbelief, even, and then you start to lean some weight on it until you can step out with the other foot and stand, and then the next, and soon you look back and see how much trusting you’ve done and how far you’ve come.
And you witness about that too, Hey look! I trust! Look how much trusting I’ve done! And people can celebrate with you and share about their own trusting that might help you to trust even more, until you’re a bunch of witnesses whose lives are part of this one big thing God is doing, every day part of it, people who are learning to watch for, each moment, where is God going to show up next. And when we have trouble trusting, we share that too, God is there too, and others trust for us, and that’s also what it means to be witnesses.
We are going to give the kids new bibles in a few minutes.
And we will tell them we trust God to speak to us through these words.
That is, we act like God will, and we lean in and expect it to happen, and the trust grows from there. The Holy Spirit, we will tell them, uses these words to teach us, challenge us, encourage us. And because this bible shows us who Jesus is, it helps us see Jesus in our own lives and in the world around us.
These bibles show us God is love, forgiveness is real, life is hard, people are always messing up and hurting each other, and God keeps on loving us.
They witness to us, so that we can witness too.
And the wonderful thing about the bible is that because God is not a ghost relic of a past devout era, or an imaginary notion of comfort or authority, not an idea to believe in, or a concept to learn about, but because God is real, beyond the cosmos and here in our own lives, right now, that means that you might open your bible and God will use it to tell you what you need to hear right now. God will speak right to you through words that have spoken to people for centuries.
And if right now you are sad or scared, and at another time in your life you feel confused and lost, or hopeful and peaceful, God may use the very same verses and tell you something new through it, speak right into your situation, in a different way than the last time you read it.
And the person sitting next to you? They may have something altogether different happening in their life, and God might talk to them through the same scripture, exactly what they need to hear, which may be different than what you’ve heard!
This is why we do faith in community. We are in this together. Our lives are witnesses to each other. We read the bible together because we learn from each other and we witness God in each other’s lives –sometimes more quickly than in our own.
So by giving the kids bibles, we are saying to them, Your story is part of God’s story, and it is part of our story. Together we will watch for God in the world and in each other’s lives. We will share our insights and our experiences. We will pray for each other and trust that our lives are part of the one big thing God is doing.
Like those first witnesses long ago, we come here with each other to be called back to our true selves as children of God, to have illusions stripped away, to be reawakened to love, forgiveness, transformation and the other truest things in life, to share our experiences and encounters, and to feel overwhelmed and astonished sometimes, as the new normal sets in and we begin to recognize Jesus, in that space where the Holy Spirit likes to hang out, between us.
And I promise that, from time to time, when we’re not expecting it, we too will find that while we are talking about Jesus, he shows up right here among us.