Sunday, May 8, 2016


Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9: 24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Before he ascends into heaven,
Jesus recalls to his followers what they have seen—
his life, his death, his resurrection—
and says, “You are witnesses of these things.”
“You are witnesses.”
On the one hand, it is a statement
that they have been present
and have seen these wondrous things take place.
But it is also a call
to not simply be witnesses,
but also to bear witness.

To be a witness
you don’t have to do anything
but be there and have your eyes open,
but to bear witness
you must be willing
to get on the stand
and give public testimony
to what you have seen.
The difference between being a witness
and bearing witness
becomes particularly clear in cases
of what we call “witness intimidation.”
Often—all too often in our own city—
people might be witnesses to a crime,
but are not willing to bear witness
because they fear for their safety
or the safety of their family,
because they do not believe
that the police can protect them from reprisal.

Jesus says to his disciples, however,
that no matter how intimidating it may be,
no matter what threats they may face,
because they have been witnesses,
they must now bear witness.
Throughout his earthly ministry,
Jesus has been God’s faithful witness,
speaking God’s truth whatever the consequences,
showing God’s love to the unlovable,
manifesting in his words and actions
the reality of God’s kingdom.
At his Ascension, Jesus bestows on his disciples
a share in this ministry of witness.
But he does not leave them
to do this on their own;
rather, he says to them,
“you will receive power
when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
The Spirit will be given to them
so they can both be witnesses
and bear witness.

In the book of Acts,
the Holy Spirit gives the apostles
eyes to see the work of God
that is ongoing in their midst,
enabling them to discern the new reality
that the Spirit is creating.
It is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the Gentiles, whom they had formerly viewed
as “outsiders” and “unclean,”
have now been brought
into the community of God’s people
and made clean through the blood of Christ.
Likewise, it is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the power of Imperial Rome,
which claims to dominate the known world
is something they did not need to fear,
and before which they do not need to bow,
because it is nothing compared to the power of God,
which has raised Jesus from the dead.
The Spirit gives them eyes to see,
to be witnesses to God’s work,
and the same Spirit empowers them to bear witness,
despite the “witness intimidation” that they face
from the religious and political authorities of their day.

We might say that the Spirit
is God’s “witness protection program.”
But, unlike what we see in the movies and on television,
God’s witness protection program is not a matter
of hiding people away and giving them fake identities.
Rather, God’s witness protection program
puts them on the streets and in the public square,
prodding them to proclaim
their identities at disciples of and witnesses to Jesus,
giving them confidence to walk along
what the letter to the Hebrews calls
“the new and living way”
that Jesus has opened up for us.
It is not a promise that they will not suffer,
but rather that the meaning of their suffering
has already been transformed
in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And this work of the Spirit
goes on in our day as well.
Last week saw the passing
of Fr. Daniel Berrigan,
the controversial Jesuit priest
who for 94 years
was a consistent apostle of Christ’s peace,
protesting war and the arms race,
speaking out for the rights of the defenseless,
from children in the womb to people with AIDS.
When threatened, he was not intimidated,
but doubled-down on his life of witness;
whether in the pulpit,
on the streets,
or in a jail cell,
he was a constantly irritating presence
to people of all sorts of political perspectives—
not unlike Jesus,
in whose ministry of witness he shared.
Dan Berrigan walked the new and living way of Jesus,
knowing that through Baptism
he had already died
and was risen with Christ;
he believed that through the Spirit,
God’s promise from on high,
he was in God’s witness protection program,
and that nothing could separate him
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As for the apostles,
as for Dan Berrigan,
so too for us.
In ascending to his Father,
Christ has promised us his Spirit,
who makes us witnesses,
giving us eyes to see the signs and wonders
that God works in our midst,
and the courage to give testimony,
to bear witness to what we have seen.
We too, through our Baptism
and the Spirit’s gift in Confirmation,
are in God’s witness protection program,
not hiding away from the intimidating task
of proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen,
not disguising our identity as Christians—
embarrassed by our belief
or fearful of giving offense—
but being willing to speak
of the transformative presence in our lives
of Jesus Christ through the Spirit,
not in order to imposed our beliefs on others,
but so that those whom we meet
may themselves be witnesses and bear witness
to the reality of God’s presence in the world.