20 April 2014

Can I Get a Witness?

Matthias Grünewald's "Resurrection,"
 from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516.
John 20: 1-18
Resurrection of the Lord/ 20th April 2014

Can I get a witness?  It’s a question often heard in the black church experience.  In the middle of a sermon you might hear the preacher shout, “Can I get a witness?” She’s looking someone to testify, to agree with the message.   The preacher wants to know. Are you there?  Do you agree?  Will you testify?  Can I hear an “Amen!”? Is there someone who’s with me?

The first witness to resurrection was, of course, Mary Magdalene. She was first to the tomb, first to see the stone rolled away.  She was first to go into the tomb; first to meet Jesus, first to say to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).  I have seen—with my eyes.  And she wanted the others to know what she came to know.   She was witness to resurrection.

            Periodically, the elders of the church, the Session, will take time at a meeting, particularly after the end of a season in the church, to ask the question, Where have you seen signs of resurrection in the life of the church?  Or, where have you seen signs of the Holy Spirit?  Where have you witnessed resurrection?  And then we reflect upon what we’ve experienced, what we’ve heard, what we’ve sensed.  We describe, point, share, tell…we don’t try to “prove” what we’re pointing to or sharing, for we trust the witness, the person sharing, and we tell the story:  I have seen the Lord….here and here and here and here.

            Now, this might sound like an odd question to ask: where have you seen signs of resurrection?  On this Easter Sunday resurrection means, first, that the one who was dead for three days has returned in the flesh, with the nail marks and bruises to prove what happened on Friday.  That’s what the Gospels, each in their own way, attest. The resurrection means that the one who has died has come back to life.  Or, we perhaps think of resurrection as something that will occur after we die, that we will be raised, like Jesus, into the dwelling place of God.  Jesus himself promised that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places and that he will take us there (John 14:2).  That’s what resurrection means for some.  For some, that’s what we’re celebrating today, the promise of eternal life with Jesus because of that empty tomb.  That’s Easter.  But it’s more than that—remember, resurrection of the dead was a tenet within Judaism long before Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

            So what is resurrection? Words are inadequate here. I should really be quiet about it and sit down. A lot of preachers have made fools of themselves for saying things they have no right to say. But since you came here expecting to hear a sermon, I’ll do my best and hopefully won’t make a fool of myself.  I’ll it say again, words are inadequate. 

            Sometimes words get in the way.  In trying to explain, we say too much or explain it away.   The late theologian Alan Lewis wrote “perhaps the greatest threat to the gospel story…is the well-intentioned effort of preachers and theologians to make these scandalous, mysterious happenings comprehensible by suggesting that they mirror the familiar,” offering analogies such as the rhythms of sleep and waking, death and rebirth, which we experience night and morning or the cycle of the seasons, winter into spring….”[1]

            That’s not what the Church gives witness to today.  It’s something far more radical and grand and beautiful and terrifying. When we think of resurrection in terms of cycles, such as winter and spring, it looks like resurrection is something that’s continuous, flowing out of something else.  Winter yielding spring.   If…then.  Cause and effect. There’s a kind of logic at work here. One thing leading to the other.  It’s natural.  But those daffodils in bloom now—finally!—were not dead all winter and the trees in bud throwing off their pollen today—God help us—weren’t dead all summer.  That’s not resurrection. 

            Resurrection is not natural.  It’s not continuous, it’s the opposite of continuous; it’s discontinuous—always discontinuous.  The act itself is not contingent upon what comes before it.  Nothing in creation prepares for resurrection.  It’s is not about logic or what is expected.  Mary Magdalene didn’t go to the tomb expecting resurrection.  It was beyond her frame of imagining.  That’s why, in part, she didn’t recognize Jesus.  He was “not known,” as T. S. Eliot (188-1965) said,” because not looked for.”[2]  What Mary experienced was beyond hope. And yet that’s what the Gospels give witness to.  The poet Wendell Berry said, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”[3]  Sometimes the facts of the present tell us nothing about tomorrow.  For both Jews and Christian, history is never destiny.  Resurrection is a “horse of a different color,” it’s about a new experience that enters into death and creates something never before imagined.   Resurrection releases a new future. Consider all the facts, nevertheless be joyful. The resurrection, like grace, shatters the cold, if-then logic of our lives.    Dostoevsky (1821-1888) said: 2+2=4=death.[4]  What if 2+2=8?  Resurrection doesn’t add up.  That’s the point.  There is a different math at work in God’s kingdom. 

            We might not see the dead come back to life, it does happen.  There are near-death experiences.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the experience of resurrection, here and now, in the lives of people who have encountered the Living God, people who experience hope when they have no sound reason to be hopeful, people who trust in the impossible when everyone around them says, be realistic.  There’s nothing realistic about resurrection!  Resurrection happens wherever life emerges from where death reigned for a time.  It happens in people who have new futures given to them.  When people can start again no matter how terrible their lives were in the past or what had been done to them.  Dead ends are not dead—new futures are possible.  I have seen this time and again in the lives of people.  To say we believe in the resurrection is not simply an article of belief about something that happened a long time again that we recite in a creed.  To say we believe in the resurrection means we are witnesses to the present life of Jesus who continues to bring us to life beyond the death-dealing experiences of the past.  Without this possibility, there’s no ground for Christian hope.  Without this possibility we should stop talking about resurrection, because otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

            It makes sense to Steven Gahigi. Steven Gahigi is a witness to resurrection. He also looked into the face of hell.  When the killing began in Rwanda, twenty years ago last week, he was in Burundi. By the time he made it home the following year, he learned that 52 members of his family were dead.  The mass murder of the Tutsis and Hutus—almost all Christians—left at least 800,000 dead. How do you return to that?  I have good friends, here in the U. S., who lost family members in Rwanda. I can’t even begin to imagine.  In time, Gahigi, faced his reality and soon felt called to go to seminary. And then the Spirit sent him to visit the Rilima Prison, where he met the people who killed his sister.   At first the prisoners thought he was a spy.  They didn’t trust him. Why would this man come to their prison to preach when he knew what they had done? It didn’t make sense.

Gahigi knew that it was possible for perpetrators to be forgiven—in time. He slowly became their pastor; the prisoners attended his services and Bible. Forgiving the unforgivable is possible.  This didn’t come easy or overnight. It was an enormous struggle. 

Then one night Gahigi had a dream about a mob beating Jesus as he hung on the cross.  A voice told him, “Those people beating Jesus are the ones Jesus helped.  They killed your countrymen and your family, but you can help them.”  When he woke up, he was crying.  “I cried all night,” he said, “but when the crying stopped, I felt light and love.”    Gahigi said he came to know that he had the power to forgive and to help others forgive.  He began preaching reconciliation and he sought out the prisoners who killed his family.  Gahigi said, “That was Jesus’ mission.  To forgive the sins of all men.”  

You see, with forgiveness life begins anew, a new future is given where before there was only death.  2+2=8.  It doesn’t add up. This is a witness to resurrection.

            What’s your story?  What do you know?  What did you hear in a dream from the Lord in the middle of the night?  How did the Lord save you from the pit of death?  How is the Lord saving you now from death?  Can I get a witness? 

Don’t withhold what you know.  “I have seen the Lord,” Mary told the disciples.  Say it. Share it.  This doesn’t mean you have become all religious, become a Jesus-freak or something.  We’re Presbyterians after all. 

But for God’s sake don’t be quiet about it.  Say it. Share it. Tell somebody. Embody it. Make it real, tangible. For the love of God let people know that resurrection is possible because you’ve seen it in your life and the lives of others.  It can’t be true only in the Church on Easter morning, it has to be true all the time, just not here, but also out there, wherever people are living and suffering and dying, caught by the past or sin or regret, people who are waiting to know what you know. 

You have no right to withhold it. Why? It’s been given to you to share.  For there are far too many people who have been to tomb after tomb in their lives and have never seen resurrection of any kind, they didn’t know it was possible because no one had ever told them. They’re waiting to know what you know, to hear what you’ve heard, to feel what you feel, to see what you have seen.

        Jesus is saying to you and me, to the Church, “Can I get a witness?” 

What will you say?  Can I get a witness? How about an “Amen”?

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

Now, go and tell it.

[1] Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 59.
[2] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
[3] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground.

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