Summit Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2009 - Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21, etc.
Witness in Action
Earlier this month I was called for jury duty here in Philadelphia (they found me very fast). I was picked to be a juror at the trial of a young man for aggravated assault and attempted murder. The jury selection was on Friday, and when we reported on Monday we were brought to the courtroom, sat in the jury box, but then told we could go home. The judge explained that the case had been dismissed without prejudice because the witness could not be located. When we heard that we shifted in our seats. Someone asked if the witness was in danger. The prosecuting attorney immediately barked out "we don't know" but the judge said only that he could not be located and they thought he had just decided not to participate. The judge reminded us that everyone was to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
When we were told the case was dismissed, my first reaction - and I believe that of my peers - was, "yay!" We could go back to our routines. We wouldn't have to work after hours or miss any paychecks. We didn't have the responsibility of making a decision that would dramatically change someone's life: we wouldn't risk sending an innocent man to jail or setting a guilty one free. But was this missing witness really good news? We could only speculate - with imaginations fueled by too many episodes of law and order - why the witness was missing. Perhaps it was a gang feud and he had been intimidated - frightened into fleeing or going underground. Perhaps he had initially lied to the police and then decided to disappear rather than fess up. Perhaps he just began to doubt what he had seen or heard and was reluctant to get involved. Who knows? But if the accused was guilty, no justice was done: the assaulted man would be neither vindicated nor safe. If the accused was innocent, suspicions would linger, even if he had never been arraigned and the case was dismissed without prejudice. If he was neither guilty nor innocent, if it was a grey area, there was no witness to shed light on behalf of the victim or the accused. A witness that could not be located wasn't good. Justice couldn't be done; as far as we knew, no reconciliation accomplished.
According to Luke, when Jesus rose from the tomb on Easter morning he came to his disciples and spent 40 days among them: eating and drinking, instructing them in the scriptures, speaking about the Kingdom of God. He told the eleven and those with them that they would be witnesses: witnesses to his resurrection and all he said and did. Witnesses sent to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins: in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-8). After he left them and ascended into heaven, they were in the temple continually praising God. When they were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to witness. They witnessed first in words: speaking in languages they didn't even know so people from all nations could understand the good news. Peter gave his first sermon. Later, they witnessed in action. They witnessed as they broke bread together and said prayers, as they shared possessions, healed the sick and brought food to the hungry. They began their proclamation in Jerusalem, and then traveled to towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire - the end of their known earth - proclaiming the message even when threatened or thrown in jail. They began to change the world. They were witnesses that could be located.
As the church, we're also called to be witnesses to Christ, sent out to proclaim God's love fearlessly to all. Can we be located? The literal answer is: easily. We have a building with a tower you can see from far away. We have an address, 6757 Greene St. at the corner of Westview; we have a sign; we have a phone number. Anyone even a little familiar with church life knows they can find us here on Sunday mornings, shake our hands, sing hymns, hear a sermon and talk to us. We can also be located on the web; we have a homepage, we can be emailed. But a church doesn't have to own a building or be on the internet to be located: for thousands of years congregations have gathered in houses and tents, at town squares or rented auditoriums. The disciples at Pentecost met at the temple; it was many years before Christians built houses of worship. We can also be located in what's called the church dispersed: as Christians in schools and offices, at homes and in malls, on juries and on facebook. But whether as the church gathered or the church dispersed, it's not hard to find us: we can be located.
So maybe the real question is: are we witnesses? Of course, we are: we're witnesses when we worship, when we teach our children Bible stories and show the love of God with teenagers who come play basketball on Friday nights. We're witnesses when we share a meal at Elder Diner and invite others into the fellowship; we're witnesses when we visit one another in the hospital, bring food to the pantry and offer our space to neighborhood groups. We're also witnesses when we try to follow Christ in our daily lives, when we treat the people we know with kindness and love. But - either as the Church gathered or the church dispersed, are we the witnesses we could be?
Our families and friends may know we come to church, but do we talk with them about Jesus or invite them to worship? God calls us to do justice, to speak truth to power, to seek liberation for the oppressed. But how often - as the church gathered or dispersed - do we write letters to congress, take to the streets, organize with our neighbors or even vote? Christ calls us to share from our abundance, but how much do we give to others, through the church or otherwise -- is it anywhere near a tenth of our income? We're here because we know, or have glimpsed the risen Christ: but are we disciplined in prayer and study so we may grow in faith?
I'm not taking us through this Pentecost litany to make us feel inadequate. Any congregation would have to confess it's not the church it could be. It's hard to witness: it takes courage to talk with others about faith or take a political stand; it takes time and energy to do the work of the church; it takes discipline and humility to always keep Christ in front of us as we live out our vocations. We have doubts to struggle with and millions of other things vying for our attention. If it were totally up to us, we'd be lame witnesses indeed -- known more for inaction than action, missing in action rather than witnesses in action.
But today we thank God that it's not all up to us. Christ has given Christ's church the gift of the Holy Spirit: the same Spirit that filled those first disciples with joy and allowed them to speak across barriers of language. The same Spirit that helps us to discern where we're called and what we're called to do - as the church gathered, or the church dispersed. The same Spirit that opens our eyes to possibilities we couldn't have imagined, the same Spirit that opens the words of scripture to us. The same Spirit that comforts us when we're discouraged, that makes God's grace known to us in difficult times. The Spirit that gives us courage to witness to the risen Christ, in word and deed especially on difficult, or controversial issues like the war in Iraq, sexuality, the destruction of the environment. The Spirit that allows us to be witnesses who can be located, so that when it's time to do justice, work for reconciliation, and preach hope, we will be there.