Last month I was talking to Pastor Alex from Stonehouse Presbyterian. We were walking toward our cars and he complimented my license plate, noting how fun spotting my plate around town has been. I chuckled and told him the plate had been both a blessing and a curse. He asked me what I meant, and I explained. You see, I love the plate for the very reason he mentioned – that I run into people who recognize my plate, that people connect who I am with what I do, that people ask me about my vocation and about Hickory Neck. But the plate is also a bit of a curse. If I had to choose any place to be a witness for Christ, I am not sure the car is the best location. You see, the car is where I leave prayer books, post-its about phone calls, gum wrappers, and coffee cups. The car is where I cart around children – sometimes singing at the tops of our lungs to a favorite song, and sometimes scowling after an argument about behavior. The car is where I find a moment to getaway before picking up children, and the car is where I sometimes reveal that I once lived in a region of the country that is known for impatient, sometimes foul-mouthed drivers. The car is not really home to my best witness for loving Christ. And yet, there is where a big plate – on both the front and the back – witnesses to the world who and whose I am.
That is what I find so funny about the disciples this week. Here they are in Luke’s gospel, not unlike what we heard in John’s gospel last week, hiding in a room, afraid, disbelieving, and wondering what to make of all that has happened. To be fair, life has gotten a bit chaotic of late. Their whole world has gotten turned upside down since that beautiful, sacred night when Jesus washed their feet. They had ideas about what was coming in their life, what was going to happen to Jesus, and how the world would be changed. But Jesus dies, they are outcasts, and God seems to have closed a door – a tomb door. Then, just days later, their world gets upended again. The disciples learn from the women that the same closed tomb door is now open. Two of the disciples have an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. And as if all of that is not enough, today, Jesus shows up – very much alive, proving his corporality, teaching them, and reminding them they are witnesses.
The disciples certainly have our sympathy and concern. And yet, the disciples remain holed up in a room – as if they can hide. As if they can integrate back into the world, with no one realizing who and whose they are. As if no one will notice the license plate on their car that says, “Jesus’ disciple.” The disciples are hiding, acting as though no one is watching, no one is making conclusions about them based on their behavior, no one is making conclusions about Christ. Their hiding is just as much of a witness as going out into the community. Perhaps they feel being in that room is giving them a break from being witnesses – that no one sees them. But we know better. And so does Jesus. “You are witnesses of these things,” says Jesus.
Sometimes we do the exact same thing. We too can start to believe that we have hiding places in our lives – places where we do not have to be witnesses. Maybe yours is a car. Maybe yours is at work or school because those places seem more removed from what we do here on Sundays. Maybe yours is at home, on vacation, or when surrounded by friends. Like the disciples, we too have that same longing to “turn off” our witness. Maybe we are just tired and feel like being a witness for Christ is exhausting. Maybe we are upset with or disappointed in God and are not sure communicating those feelings helps our witness of Christ. Or maybe we are just afraid – that people will notice that we do not live lives that reflect who and whose we are.
But “turning off” our identity as people of faith is not really an option. Sooner or later we will get caught. Sometimes being caught can be a very positive thing. An acquaintance who knows you go to church may ask you to add them to your church’s prayer list because they or their child just received a horrible diagnosis. But sometimes being caught can be less flattering. At our Adult Forum series on evangelism this fall, we watched a video about how not to invite people to church. The video features two neighbors, one who is out gardening in the yard and the other who is clearly just coming home from church. The neighbor who is out gardening wonders to himself, “I wonder why he never invites me to his church. I would go if he asked me.” But sometimes being caught can be even worse. I had a friend who waited tables during college. She always moaned when she got her work schedule and discovered she was assigned a Sunday. I finally asked her why she hated Sundays so much. She said, “Because that’s when all the churchgoers go out to eat – and they are the worst tippers!” Somehow, in all her long hours of trying to make a few bucks to pay for books and school fees she had gotten the message that people of faith did not value her.
We know from experience that hiding as a Christian is really an illusion. Wherever we are, whenever we are, with whomever we are, our identity is always there. Jesus confirms that today. As biblical scholar Karoline Lewis says, “Jesus’ address to the disciples is not, ‘you will be witnesses.’ Not, ‘please be witnesses.’ Not, ‘consider being witnesses if you have time.’ No, [Jesus says] ‘you are witnesses of these things.’ We are witnesses. As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.”[i] Lewis goes on to add, “‘We are witnesses’ does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. ‘We are witnesses’ does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. ‘We are witnesses’ just is.”[ii] The disciples learn that today. When Jesus says, you are witnesses, he empowers a very scared, uncertain, fearful group of followers to remember who and whose they are.
The good news is that Jesus does not judge the disciples today. Jesus meets the disciples where they are.[iii] Jesus’ first words are words of encouragement. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then, ever the tender pastor, Jesus asks the question in verse 38, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your heart?” Knowing their confusion, Jesus eats with them to assure them he is really there, not just some ghost or figment of their imagination. He sits down and teaches them once again, taking them back to their roots, reminding them of how the prophets have taught them all they need to know. And then, come those fateful words in verse 48, “you are witnesses of these things.” Jesus meets them where they are, offering comfort, assurance, and affirmation. But Jesus also encourages them to move beyond where they are.
After September 11th, there were two widows featured on the news. “Grateful for the outpouring of support they received, they started thinking about the women in Afghanistan who, when widowed, lose status in that society and therefore find their already difficult lives even harder. They raised money and formed a foundation called Beyond the 11th to support Afghani widows, and even made visits to Afghanistan to meet the widows they were helping.”[iv] Those widows had lot of options – fear, anger, vengeance, or isolation. But instead, they remembered how Jesus encourages us to remember our identity as witnesses and to move beyond where we are. Our invitation today is to reclaim that same identity. Now I do not know if that means you go put a Hickory Neck bumper sticker on your car, or you start wearing that cross necklace again, or you start tangibly connecting your words and actions to your identity as a witness. Only you can know the shape your witness will take. But today Jesus invites us to let go of our hiding places, realizing that even when we think we are hiding, we are still witnessing. Our invitation is to own who we are, so that others might see the beauty of who and whose we are. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “We Are Witnesses,” April 9, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5126 on April 12, 2018.
[iii] Nancy R. Blakely, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 424.
[iv] Blakely, 428.