In Church School last Sunday, the topic of evangelism came up. Many of us don’t talk about evangelism a whole lot. I think we have seen it done so poorly and heavy-handedly and it can carry such negative connotations that we sort of have an aversion the word itself. The word "evangelism can scare us, and the word "evangelist" is really scary.
I remember many years ago, as a Southern Baptist campus minister, taking students on a mission trip. We went to an inner city church and worked doing a variety of things: painting, cleaning, building repairs, helping with their food program, leading activities with children. This church serves a free meal for the community several nights a week. There were quite a few college students working there over spring break, from at least four different schools, including students I had brought from Illinois Wesleyan along with a group from the University of Illinois. This church used a lot of volunteers and were set up for groups to come and work. They ran a homeless shelter at night and did a lot of good things in a neighborhood where there was a lot of poverty.
This was also an evangelistic church, and they had a particular view of evangelism. Somebody from the church wanted all of the students who were there that week – there might have been 35 students total – to have a chance to “go witnessing.” The way this worked was, they would take a group to a major thoroughfare downtown, later in the evening, when all kinds of people were out walking on the street. The students were supposed to hand people tracts, ask them if they knew Jesus, ask people if they could pray for them. Usually this involved three or four students approaching a single individual out on the street. The leaders of this effort seemed to take it as a mark of spiritual toughness and real commitment to go and do this.
Well, this put me in a bit of a quandary – I had brought students to help this church. We were supposed to be servants and do what the church needed doing. But when we signed on to come and work here, nobody had said anything about this kind of evangelistic activity. I wasn’t against evangelism; I just wasn’t comfortable with this kind of evangelizing effort. And the people there just seemed to assume that that any good Christian would be on board with this.
When it came to evangelism, I was more of the “build a relationship” school than the “let’s accost someone we don’t know on the street for Jesus” school. I questioned whether this was really the best way to influence people. In my mind, this approach was likely to do more harm than good – I thought it would turn off more people than it might help. Plus, it felt unseemly. It was just plain embarrassing.
Not everybody went out on this activity at once. A group of people went out on maybe three different nights and nobody paid much attention to who had already gone, so it was possible to avoid participating without calling attention to the fact that we were not participating. That that is exactly what I did. Some of my students participated, but I told them they didn’t have to. In one case, they wound up having a good conversation with someone they met. Some did not have a very good experience. But this did serve to perpetuate a certain feeling many of us have about sharing our faith: that it involves preaching at strangers or using high-pressure tactics to try and “get people saved.”
The church I grew up in wasn’t quite like this, but I was around people with that kind of evangelistic fervor. And it all served to make me feel uneasy about this concept of “witnessing.”
All of this is by way of saying that when we come to our scripture for today, and Jesus says, “You are witnesses,” it brings up certain images in my mind, and they are not all positive. But Jesus says it nevertheless: “You are witnesses.”
Our text is another appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. It comes immediately after the story of the road to Emmaus. You may remember what happened – two followers of Jesus were walking along the road when a man joined them. He didn’t seem to know the events of the past week in Jerusalem, so they told this man about Jesus and about his crucifixion. They stopped at an inn and shared a meal with this stranger, and when he broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they realized that it was Jesus himself who was with them.
These two who had met Jesus on the road were right in the middle of telling this story to others when, in our passage for today, Jesus appears and stands among them. Despite the report of these two who had already seen Jesus, the disciples were “startled and terrified.” They thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus tries to alleviate their fears and show that he is real, he is not a ghost. He asks them why they are troubled. He shows them his hands and his feet, with the nail prints. At this point, they have moved from “startled and terrified” to “In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” How’s that for a mixture of emotions? Joy, disbelief, wondering. Then Jesus asked if they had anything to eat, and he eats a piece of broiled fish – to show that he is not a ghost. Then he opened the scriptures, teaching them about the meaning of his death and his resurrection, and says, “You are witnesses of these things.”
Well, as I said, the term “witnessing” has a particular connotation for me, and it’s not entirely positive. But the temptation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Isn’t there a Biblical imperative to witness to our faith, to share the hope that we have? It’s found in a lot of places, including right here in the words of the Risen Jesus to his disciples. “You are witnesses of these things.”
How do we go about being witnesses? How do we authentically, with integrity, bear witness to what Christ has done in our lives? We might look at Jesus’ actions in this story – look at the way Jesus “witnesses” to his disciples here, if we can use that term, and see how Jesus goes about it.
First, he asks them about what is troubling them. The first thing he does is not to tell them how it is, but to listen for where they are. He starts not by talking, but by listening.
Sometimes, it’s not that we are disinterested, it’s just that we don’t go deep enough. When we meet a new person at church, we may ask them questions to get to know them. Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you a student? What’s your department, what’s your major? Where do you live? These are good questions; these are a place to start. But we have to go deeper. Jesus asks, “Why are you troubled?” The bigger, deeper questions have to do with hopes and dreams and hurts and struggles and needs and aspirations. We need to really listen to get at these deeper questions.
We all bear witness through the work of our hands, through the things we do that make a difference. Through actions that communicate love and care and acceptance and grace.
So often, it can be little things. Opening a door for somebody. Preparing a meal. Sending a card. Shoveling the neighbor’s sidewalk. Susan and I have visited people who have received a shawl or a blanket that our prayer shawl group has made, and they are so appreciative. To receive something knitted with love and shared prayerfully can be very powerful. I think of the woman in Tennessee who was so touched that people from Iowa had come to build her a wheelchair ramp. Through the work that we do, through the activities we take part in, we witness through the work of our hands.
And then Jesus showed them his feet. I wonder, as they saw his feet - did they remember how often they saw those feet dirty and dusty from traveling the byways of the kingdom? Did they remember the way Jesus flexed those sore feet as he sat by a well talking with a woman in Samaria? Did they recall the way Jesus danced with his mother at a wedding in Cana, or the woman who had anointed his feet with costly perfume? Did they think about the way Jesus knelt down and washed their feet just a few nights before, as he showed them what discipleship looks like. I wonder if they saw more than just the nail prints.
Our feet take us where we are going. For many people in that day, your feet were the only means of transportation available. We witness with our feet when we go out of our way for others. So often, we give witness to our love, and God’s love, simply by being there. Our presence is a powerful witness to someone who is hurting, to someone who is in the hospital, to someone who is in jail, to someone who feels like a failure or who feels lonely or who feels on the margins. Just showing up – just putting one foot in front of the other and going there, wherever “there” is, can communicate grace and love and acceptance in a powerful way.
Finally, Jesus eats a piece of fish. It is even reported to be broiled fish – it’s not fried, it’s not baked, it’s broiled. By giving those specific details, Luke says that this is real, everyday stuff. Jesus eats the fish - it doesn’t say whether he used tartar sauce on his broiled fish, but I doubt it - and in eating shows them that he is not a ghost, not an apparition. This is really him and he is really there.
But I think more is happening than just showing he is not a ghost. Food plays such an important role in the gospels. Meals are central to so many stories, and one of our important acts of worship, the Lord’s Supper, is a meal in which we remember Jesus.
By eating, Jesus not only shows that he is not a ghost, Jesus reminds the disciples of all the times he shared food with them as they journeyed the last few years. He reminds them of the way he was willing to eat and drink with the outcasts of the world when he could have accepted invitations from the rich and the famous. He reminds them of that last meal they had shared together, and of the promise he had made to eat and drink with them in the new kingdom - the promise that was now being fulfilled before their very eyes.
Jesus told his disciples that they were witnesses, but he had already given them a model of how to go about being witnesses.
It is our willingness to really get to know the people we encounter, to go beyond the superficial “how are you” greetings, that makes us witnesses today. We have to start somewhere – those basic questions may be starting points – but we need to go deeper to really know another where they live.
It is our willingness to show our hands to be hands of service and compassion that allow us to bear witness. Hands that reach out to give, not to take. Hands open to join hands with another, not hands clenched in a fist. It is hands that reach out to share what we have been given by God that make us witnesses today.
It is our willingness to have feet of servants, who go into neighborhoods to rebuild both dilapidated homes and despairing lives. Feet that walk with immigrants who are asking for a job, a home, a future. Feet that play ball with the kids in the neighborhood. Feet that walk the lonely corridors of hospitals with those who are hurting. Feet that travel the path to be present with those who are in need of hope, in need of a friend. Feet that take us to where people are, in all of their pain and joy and humanity, allow us to be witnesses today.
It is our willingness not only to give some canned goods to the local food pantry, but our willingness to sit down and share a meal with another that makes us a witness. It’s our willingness to open our homes and our tables to students who may be stressed out and who may be struggling, and to learn about their world that makes us a witness. It is our willingness to open our hearts to those people next door who are so different that makes us a witness.
It is all of those things that we do before we ever open our mouths that make us witnesses of the Risen Christ. And these are things we can do, every one of us. Through sensitivity to others, through acts of love and compassion, through meals shared and friendship extended, we are witnesses to the love of God and the power of resurrection.
Our Psalm this morning says, “You have put gladness in my heart… I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.” We are called to be witnesses. As we bear witness, God gives us strength, God puts a gladness in our hearts, and God protects us—you might say that we have a “witness protection program.”
Thom Shuman is a pastor in Ohio who has a wonderful way with words. I close this morning with a poem/prayer of Thom’s:
if we showed you our hands, would you find them nicked
from building a house for the homeless;
or a callous on our thumb
from using the TV remote too much?
if we showed you our feet, would you find them toughened
by walking the corridors of a hospice with the terminally ill;
or wrinkled by too many hours in the hot tub?
if we showed you our hearts, would you find them broken
over the struggles of the lost, the little, the last, the least;
or would they be clogged with the plaque
of our consumerized lives?
if we truly want to be your witnesses,
God of the empty grave, would you show us how? Amen.
I am indebted to Thom Shuman both for the poem and for a helpful approach to this sermon.