Sunday, May 24, 2009


Sermon on John 15:26-16:4
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 24, 2009 (The Sunday after the Ascension)

The word “witness” is sometimes used in the Church as a synonym for evangelism or missionary work. Usually when we hear that word we tend to assume that the person using it is talking about the fact that we all are to confess Jesus Christ to our friends and neighbors with the hope that through this activity the Holy Spirit will work to bring them to faith. And certainly it’s true that we do that and should continue doing that. But when the average non-Christian hears the word “witness” he thinks of something different. He thinks of a courtroom, where witnesses testify to the judge and to the jury concerning what they have seen and heard related to the case that is being tried. The reason courts use witnesses is because the only way to find out the truth about something that has happened is to ask someone who was actually there and who saw and heard it happen. That’s really what a witness is. Someone who witnessed, who saw, the events that are in question in the case. It’s this normal, secular meaning of the word “witness” that is really what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. He’s telling the disciples that both the Holy Spirit and they themselves are the witnesses who saw His ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension and can testify to these things before the world, the way a witness in a court case can testify to what he has seen and heard.

Of course, all of us “witness” in one way or another every day. I’m not just talking about evangelism or witnessing to Jesus Christ here, but about just about everything we say that has some sort of information to convey. And our witness could be true or false. I would submit that false witness is one of those sins that Christians commit all the time without even being aware of it. To insinuate wrongdoing on the basis of insufficient evidence, to accuse someone of malfeasance instead of going to the person themselves and asking them about it, is to bear false witness. To criticize others and be sensitive to their inadequacies while failing to examine yourself, to listen to the pastor’s sermon and mentally congratulate him for socking it to “those other guys” and fail to apply the Law and Gospel contained therein to your own sinful heart, is false witness, especially when comments to that effect are made out loud. It reflects badly on the body of Christ to those who are outside, and causes them to reject the true witness about Jesus Christ that is heard here.

And let us also remember that our witness is to be about Jesus Christ and not about anything or anybody else. We’re not trying to “sell” our congregation here. Our congregation is full of sinners, and, yes, that means that people do sometimes make mistakes and act in ways that embarrass us and undermine the message we’re trying to preach. But that is true of every Christian congregation that ever was, and that ever will be. If you’re waiting to find a congregation that isn’t full of sinners before you invite your friends and neighbors to join you here, you’ll never invite them to join anywhere and they’ll end up missing out on Jesus Christ. Rather, we come here to receive His gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and that’s what’s important. The fact that some people don’t always act very Christian is really not something that should distract or deter us. Because if we were already perfect, we wouldn’t need the Church in the first place. This is where sinners come to be forgiven, not where good people come to cheer themselves and each other on. To forget that and to hesitate in our outreach because we’re embarrassed about the unfortunate behavior of our fellow Christians is once again, to bear false witness about Christ and His church.

Of course, if it were up to us by our own inborn natural powers, false witness is all we ever could bear to those around us. Which is why the witness we bear is not our own, but that of others who have given us this message, this testimony. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit and of the Apostles. He speaks of the written Word and of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, whose coming upon the apostles we celebrate a week from now. It is these who give us the words to speak. It is these whose words must also be the norm and the corrective to what we say, because if it were up to us we’d mess it up totally. But the apostles, and the Holy Sprit, and ultimately Christ Himself, are the ones that speak through the mouths of Christian preachers as well as Christian witnesses. Our testimony is their testimony. It is the Word of God itself, as found in the Holy Scriptures, which is preached to you and in which you are incorporated by being washed in it and eating and drinking it in the Sacraments.

We testify to Him whenever that Word of God which we have heard with our ears is confessed with our mouths. We testify, or witness, to Him whenever the testimony which has been spoken to us is repeated by us to our neighbors. We are also His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And it is not mere hearsay, either. Because we have been baptized into Him, because we have been made part of Him and He a part of us, His story has become our story, and the Holy Spirit’s testimony has become our testimony. We too testify what we have seen and heard, because we died and rose again and ascended into heaven with Jesus Christ. As the opening hymn for today puts it, “Thou hast raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne. Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension We by faith behold our own.” We testify before God and men that we have died and risen again and ascended into heaven with our Lord who has given us these great gifts.

During the lifetime of the Apostles their role as witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ was true in a more literal sense than they might have wished. Often the testimony they gave was in fact in front of rulers, in a court of law where they were on trial for preaching Jesus Christ. Many times their Christian witness was, in fact, court testimony, delivered from the ancient equivalent of a witness stand. In fact, the strongest testimony, the strongest witness that they gave to Him was that they were faithful to Him even unto death. The most powerful testimony to the truthfulness of the Christian message was that they were willing to give up their very lives rather than deny Jesus Christ. This is why the Greek word for “witness” is the same word that has come into the English language as the word martyr. While we in our society may not be dragged into a formal court for our beliefs, we are also on trial, in the court of public opinion, every day. And our situation is, in some ways, more difficult than theirs. After all, death is a fearsome thing to face. But it must only be faced once. What we face is the “death by a thousand paper cuts”: the demoralizing effect of constant ridicule and disdain on the part of the world and its citizens, the belittling and demeaning jeers and taunts of those who are so enamored of their sins that they can’t see the destruction into which such things are leading. These things are, in some ways, harder to face than outright martyrdom.

But also in the face of these things our Lord promises to be with us. He ascended into heaven, not so that He will be absent from us, but so that He can be with us in a more wondrous and miraculous way than ever. He’s not just “walking with me and talking with me” as one ditty puts it, He’s walking and talking through me. He comes to us wherever we are, all over the Earth, through His Word and His body and blood and takes up residence in our souls and bodies. He acts through our works of love for our neighbor. He speaks through our testimony of what we have seen and heard in Him. He is the one who now guides and guards and protects us, through the Holy Spirit’s power working through the Word of the apostles. And through these things, we also have confidence that where He is, there we are as well. No matter what may happen to us on earth, we dwell with Him with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We sing with them and we worship with them. And that is the highest and truest witness of all. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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