BE MY WITNESSES
Ascension Day was Thursday, and those who gathered in worship services heard scripture that spoke of Jesus being lifted up. It is the same words used as he is lifted up on the cross to be crucified. The image and the actual meaning of the verb used for ‘lifted up’ put Jesus’ resurrection in proper perspective. He is lifted up not in a direction, but in a place beyond the political scene, lifted up beyond the Roman Empire. He is lifted up to have power over sin, death, and the Devil. He is lifted up to have a place in people’s hearts. He was lifted up not to be captured in fine paintings; he was lifted up to become the head, the name above every name.
John’s gospel has painted us many pictures of who Jesus is. He is the Word made Flesh, who came to dwell among us, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Resurrection and the Life. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the crucified one, the resurrected one. He is the one who sits at the head of the table, our great high priest. He is the one who makes God known to us. In this High Priestly Prayer, Jesus speaks in terms of endearment of “those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” He then asks for God to protect them … he knows what lies ahead for them – they would be hated, persecuted, killed for their witness, for their testimony. They would be hated for the kind of love they wanted to bring to the world. Jesus knew the struggles, the challenges that would come to those who loved and served him – not just in the days ahead for the disciples and followers present with him even to the day of his ascension, but for those followers who were yet to come, followers in 2017 as well. There would be all kinds of worldly powers which would seek to pull them away, divide them, scatter them, makes them less bold in their witness. There would need to be faithful followers who would devote themselves to prayer and coming together to be nourished in scripture and in the Supper he established. As the Acts text closes today, it says, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
There is so much more to our human experience than often meets the eye. There is so much more to our life journeys than ever is recognized, ever is told. Some years ago, I attended the production of “The Laramie Project” at Augustana College. This theatrical event speaks about the importance of acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness in our diverse and changing world. This play is more than just a story about Mathew Shepard who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die on October 6, 1998. It’s not a play about homosexuality, gay bashing, or hate crimes, but is a play about the impact this horrendous crime had on the townspeople of Laramie, and whether we are consciously aware of it, it’s about the impact it has on us. The characters share what they witnessed and how it has impacted their lives. The play’s author, Moises Kaufman, tells how he and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the people of the town. They transcribed and edited the interviews, and it is presented in a unique format of townspeople and the experiences also of those doing the interviews.
What was striking to me during this drama was the way living in, through, and telling of this story teaches us something about ourselves and about our human natures. There are the religious leaders of the community with varied doctrines, and yet one boldly steps forward to beg of the interviewers to “tell the truth, not to make it more or less than what happened.” There were interviews with his college professors and his advisor; the emergency room physician who was the person who found him, who came to believe that God directed his bike ride so that Mathew would not die tied to that stark fence. There was the gay-bashing preacher, infamous Fred Phelps, who proclaimed the perfect hate of God, and yet beyond that is the witness of those who experienced God’s amazing grace and God’s perfect love beyond this hateful crime. There was the testimony of his parents, particularly his father, who asks that Aaron Winkleman not be given the death penalty but a life sentence so that every day he would remember that Mathew did not have that day because of Aaron’s hatred. There was the message that something good did come out of such evil, such hatred. There was the message that it matters what we teach. There was the message that we need to think about what we do with what we learn when we encounter hate in our world.
When I think back to the experience of being there at the play – immersing myself in the witness of the characters portraying those who actually were interview, I think of the importance of nurturing and nourishing one another. We are called to love not hate. We live in the midst of tremendous atrocities even in just this week: children killed in their own alleys, people shot because they were bystanders not even involved in the conflict of others; children and youth killed at a concert in Manchester and Coptic Christians killed for the sake of control and power. We are lifted up to be witnesses to the one who prays that we will all be one, not divided by color, race, social status, gender; witnesses to God’s unconditional love, who bathes us in baptismal waters, claims us and names us, loves us to death in Jesus Christ, who is raised up above victorious over hate, over sin, over death. It matters what we teach – that we teach respect for God, that we teach that we gather to worship out of love rather than duty. It matters that we teach each generation to be stewards, teach the importance of generous hearts and giving because we are loved and we give back out of love. It matters that we teach responsibility, accountability, and discipleship as core to who we are as children of God. It matters that we teach the love of Jesus Christ and the grace and love of God. Every day of our lives should be a day that reflects the love of God as we interact with others and with all of creation in our actions and in the words we speak. It matters that we continue to proclaim beyond this last Sunday in Easter:
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!