Sunday, April 7, 2024

Sermon: "Witness Protection", Acts 1:1-14 (April 7, 2024)

Happy Second Sunday of Easter! He is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

Today, as we continue to celebrate the resurrection, we’re shifting from the terse, fast-paced narrative of Mark’s gospel to the book that contains all the stuff that Luke’s couldn’t cram into his. Although the styles of these two writers are about as different as they could possibly be, Acts is the only canonical record we have of the resurrection’s immediate aftermath, and the only one that offers us a full account of the Church’s earliest days – hence, the shift. But that’s a good thing as far as our curiosity is concerned. All those questions Mark left unanswered? The Book of Acts doesn’t leave us hanging. How did the disciples know the resurrection wasn’t a trick? “[Jesus] showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs.” What did Jesus do in the time between the resurrection and his ascension to heaven? He instructed the apostles and spoke to them about God’s kingdom. We even find out exactly how long the resurrected Christ stuck around for (forty days).

Of course, more information means more opportunities for the disciples to misunderstand what’s happening, and they’re quick to oblige in today’s reading. When Jesus tells them to “wait for what the Father promised,” they immediately assume that they’ve got a reward coming their way. “Oh, he must mean that God is about to give us our country back! Is that what you mean, Jesus? Do we get to be a global power again soon?” Many followers of Christ are still anticipating this today. After all, God HAS promised a kingdom, and Jesus is telling us to wait for what the Father has promised, ergo, we, the faithful, must be about to receive a kingdom of our very own. While there are certainly elements of ego and control at play here, I think at the end of the day, everyone just wants to know that they’re safe, and being in charge is an easy way to guarantee that safety.

Now, this is, of course, not what Jesus means at all, but this time, for some reason, he doesn’t immediately rebuke their lack of understanding as he usually does. I don’t know if he was tired after the rough weekend he’d just had, or if maybe he figured that they deserved a break after the trauma of Holy Week. Regardless, Jesus takes a more diplomatic approach here than usual, acknowledging their desire for security while at the same time hinting that God might have something a little different in store for them: “When God decides it’s time, you’ll definitely receive power from the Holy Spirit, and it’ll be the best kind of power: the kind that allows you to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!”

The disciples certainly wouldn’t have understood this at the time (classic disciples!), but there’s undoubtedly some dramatic irony at play here. You see, the Greek word for “witness” is “martus”. Back then, as is the case with its English equivalent now, this word was usually used to refer to the act of sharing testimony, describing what you’ve seen, especially in a legal context. But thanks to the disciples, martus would soon take on an additional meaning: “a person who endures suffering or death on behalf of a belief, principle, or cause” – or as we say, a martyr. Anachronistically, Jesus is telling the disciples (and us) that to tell his story and testify to God’s Truth – to be a witness for the gospel – isn’t to gain power over others, but is, in fact, to risk suffering and even death.

Although the concept of a martyr, as we understand it, didn’t gain traction until the 2nd century, that doesn’t mean that serving as a witness and risk haven’t always gone hand in hand. Wherever someone can benefit in some way from the truth being concealed, a truth-teller will inevitably find themself in danger of retaliation in one way or another. This was certainly the case in biblical times, and Jesus would have known it. Plenty of people would (and did, and still do) object to the apostles’ testimony that loving your neighbor as yourself and taking care of others is at the core of Jesus’ message. And those with the most power were often the ones who had the most to lose if the gospel message were to spread. So, Jesus was sending his closest friends out into the world only to place them in the crosshairs of emperors and kings, religious fundamentalists and zealots, who were all deeply invested in keeping this Truth from spreading.

Maybe it’s a good thing that the disciples didn’t fully understand what Jesus was asking of them, or they might not have been willing to do it. How could they possibly succeed in spreading such a controversial message throughout a world in which they were so powerless? Witnesses need some kind of protection to make them willing to testify, right?

In the modern justice system, this problem has been addressed through the development of formal witness protection programs. When a witness doesn’t have the power to protect themself, the government steps in and uses its power and resources to mitigate the witness’ risk. Witness Protection provides personal security to those who might face retaliation for their testimony, sometimes going so far as to create entirely new identities to protect them from those who seek to hurt them. These programs pull out all the stops to try and circumvent any danger that a witness might be exposed to as a result of their statement. The hope is that this will prevent a martus from becoming a martyr.

Certainly, our loving God wouldn’t send Christ’s witnesses out into the world without some sort of protection, too. But God’s version of witness protection works differently. It doesn’t offer the chance to avoid danger at all. In fact, suffering and conflict is assumed to be a part of the deal. After all, Jesus is clear that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division [Luke 12:51]. And he showed us exactly what this means when he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” [Philippians 2:8].

You might be starting to think that this doesn’t sound like any sort of protection at all; it’s certainly far less comforting than a government-sponsored security detail. But the reality is that federal witness protection can fail. Bodyguards make mistakes. New identities can be leaked. Vulnerability can’t be eliminated entirely. What God offers, on the other hand, is foolproof. It doesn’t save us from death’s grasp by helping us evade it, but by defeating it entirely. Our salvation lies not in hiding from human violence or by meeting it in kind, but by facing it, enduring it, and being given resurrection of the body and life everlasting on the other side. Our witness protection is the divine assurance that no human malice, no mortal errors, no retribution for sharing the Good News, no matter how powerful, will ever have the final word. Ever.

So it turns out that the very thing we’re called to witness about is the thing that offers us protection in the long run. But the question remains, is this an offer we’re willing to take? We are, after all, human. We generally don’t like to face conflict or pain, even when we know it’s temporary, even when we know it’s the right thing to do. Why else would Jesus’ closest companions hide when he was in trouble; why else would Peter deny his best friend in public? God may promise that suffering and death will not have the final word, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t have their say in the meantime. To serve as a witness to the Truth is to inevitably struggle in one way or another, and if you’re not willing to face that, then you simply can’t do the job.

But there’s a second part to God’s witness protection. Salvation through resurrection isn’t the ONLY thing that God has given us. Remember that promise that Jesus made to the disciples, that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came? We know he wasn’t talking about the political power over others that the disciples had been hoping for, so what WAS he talking about?

It turns out that the kind of power the Holy Spirit brings has nothing to do with having authority over other people. Instead, this power is an ability, a strength that’s focused and exercised entirely within ourselves. It gives us the means, resolve, and (most importantly) courage to take the risks that come with witnessing on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These two things together – the assurance of salvation given by Christ and the personal power given by the Holy Spirit – provide us with exactly the protection that we need to overcome our reservations and embrace the call to serve as witnesses to the gospel message. We know now that we can’t completely escape martyrdom – that’s part of what it means to be a witness – but we ARE assured that we are able to face any suffering we encounter, and that it cannot separate us from God’s love and will not be the end.

So, when we have the choice to do the safe thing or the right thing – we do the right thing. When we have the choice to hide or to act boldly – we act boldly. When we have the choice to look out for ourselves or to look out for others – we look out for others. This is what witnessing looks like: living out God’s Word without regard for the consequences. It might mean voting for policies that protect the vulnerable instead of yourself. It might mean giving your extra money to a hopeless but important cause instead of socking it away. It might mean confronting powerful people who place more confidence in human systems than in the gospel message. Because THESE are the testimonies that will draw people to God; THESE are the things that will build the kindom of heaven. Not our personal safety, not our continued institutional existence, but our loud, unapologetic WITNESS to the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are the Church. We do not compromise the message for the sake of comfort. We do not sacrifice justice for the sake of survival. We choose to make ourselves vulnerable. We choose to take the leap. We choose to take the risk in order to make sure God’s Truth – the GOOD NEWS – is spoken, no matter what.

Because that’s what a witness does. They tell what they know. And what WE know is that Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!] Which means that with the promise given by the Father, the salvation given by the Son, and the power given by the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to fear consequences. They will still come, but we don’t need to fear them. We just have to keep testifying – with our words, with our actions, and with our whole lives. May YOUR life be a witness – in Caldwell, in all of the Treasure Valley and Idaho, and to the ends of the earth. It may not always be easy; it may not always be joyful – but it will always be within your power, and it will ALWAYS matter. Amen.

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