Scripture: Luke 24:46-53; Acts 2:1-21
Sometimes when life is hard we all need some (healthy) escape mechanisms. One of those for me in the past couple months has been getting into a new show on Netflix, Kim’s Convenience. (Any of you know it?) It’s about a Korean family, first and second generations, who own a convenience store in downtown Toronto, and it’s also about family dynamics, sometimes cultural and generational differences, friendships, and everyday life. I love this show for a few reasons. First of all, it’s easy to watch. Sometimes I do like shows that require a lot of emotional investment, but that hasn’t really been what I’m in the market for recently. It’s hilarious, often subtly so, which makes me appreciate it more. And I also really like the diversity of the world that is represented in the show. Its characters are Korean and Chinese and Indian and black and white, and while cultural differences between these characters are often a topic of conversation, they’re mostly not a huge deal, either – this diversity is simply a natural part of their urban life, in a way that seems very true to life to me but that you don’t often see depicted on TV.
I started watching Kim’s Convenience because people in one of my Facebook groups were talking about how much they liked it. This happened to be a group of young women pastors and they especially liked the character of Pastor Nina, the new young woman pastor of the Kims’ mostly-Korean church, who is not Korean herself. They were talking about the show, so I decided to try it for myself. These days whenever anyone I know is looking for recommendations for a new Netflix show, I always tell them Kim’s Convenience.
This sermon isn’t really about a TV show. You probably have some you could recommend to me too – or if not a show, then a restaurant, or an event, or some sort of discovery that has made your life easier and better. We discover lots of things by word of mouth and pass them on. That’s also how things happened in the aftermath of Easter: one person encountered the risen Christ and went to tell more people, who encountered Jesus for themselves and went to tell even more people.
Today is Pentecost, our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame and the beginning of the church’s mission. Seven weeks ago now we were celebrating Easter with its good news of an empty tomb and risen Christ. In between those two events, as Luke tells the story, the women who first arrive at the tomb go and tell the apostles, and Peter comes to see for himself. Later that day two disciples are walking on the road to the town of Emmaus, processing everything they’ve heard, and Jesus appears and starts walking along with them, though they don’t recognize him until they stop to break bread together. Once they do, they also return to Jerusalem to tell the others. And once the whole group is gathered back together, Jesus appears again, letting them touch him and eating fish to prove he’s not a ghost. One person encounters Jesus and goes to tell others, and they encounter Jesus for themselves, and they go and tell others.
But we still have to get from resurrection to Pentecost. We have to move on in the story from Jesus’ physical presence with his followers to the church on its Spirit-powered mission. And that means Jesus has to leave. Not completely, of course – because the promised Holy Spirit will be his ongoing presence with all of his followers. But he can’t be there in the same physical way he has been. He has to return to his Father in heaven, which we call his ascension.
Before Jesus goes he has some final words for his disciples. First, he tries to sum everything up for them and connect the remaining dots. “Remember what I told you before,” he says to them, “about how all of this had to happen according to what is written in Scripture: that I had to suffer and die and rise again in three days, and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed to all nations in my name.”
And then he reminds them: “You are witnesses of these things.” Just in case they’ve forgotten, they were there! They’ve actually seen this stuff happen. They have known Jesus in his life, in his death, and now in his new life again. But it’s not just a reminder: it’s a commission. Just like they’ve been doing, spreading the word from one to another, their ongoing job will be to witness – not just as people who have seen the story unfold, but as people who testify to it, people who are going to make sure others get to hear and see it too. This life of witnessing that begins on Pentecost is the whole basis of the book of Acts, which Luke writes as the sequel to his Gospel.
And in Jesus’ closing words to his disciples I hear a reminder and commission to myself and to all of us as well: We are witnesses.
But then I have to stop there, because the problem is I haven’t actually been a witness to all of those things the disciples were. I didn’t get to know Jesus during his life on earth – none of us did, which is probably why we have so many disagreements about what Jesus would do today. I didn’t watch him die on the cross, or meet the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, or watch him ascend into heaven.
I haven’t seen those things. Instead, I have learned about him and his story through the words of others: words written in the Bible, stories told in Sunday School, hymns sung in worship. And so, I wonder: how am I supposed to be a witness to any of this when I haven’t actually witnessed it in the first place?
I haven’t experienced the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, firsthand.
Or have I?
Maybe I didn’t meet Jesus as he lived 2000 years ago in Palestine. But I have met him in people today. I’ve met him in strangers who have welcomed me into their homes and lives in faraway places, in members of our homeless community here who have given their last Metro tokens as an offering to the church, in people who take risks and make sacrifices and give their lives on a day to day to loving others. I’ve met him in the people who call themselves his body, in the church that raised me to follow him and the church that helped me recognize my call to ministry and the churches that have loved me and taught me since.
And maybe I wasn’t there at the cross on Good Friday to witness Jesus’ suffering. But I’ve seen the way he still suffers today through the suffering of people he loves: through migrants seeking refuge at our border; children afraid to go to school for threats of lockdowns and active shooters; people weighed down by the weight of grief or physical or mental illness.
And maybe I wasn’t there at the empty tomb, or on that road to Emmaus, but I have known the truth of resurrection: in the lives of addicts who become sober and homeless neighbors who get housing after years on the street, in the possibility of things I never thought were possible, in the way I’ve experienced renewal in my own life in other times of grief and pain.
These are things I have seen, and known, and experienced for myself, and that makes me a witness.
What about you? What are you witnesses to? How have you seen God at work, or how have you met Jesus in our world today?
Jesus final words to his disciples are also a reminder and commission to us: because we’ve been witnesses of these things, our job is to become witnesses to these things. Not because we’re supposed to tell other people about Jesus as part of being a good Christian – but because, just like when we find a great new show or book or restaurant or activity – just like those first disciples who met Jesus for themselves and ran to tell the others – we’ve seen and experienced something we think other people should know. We don’t have to recite a script we’ve been given. No one is asking us to tell people things we haven’t seen for ourselves. Let’s tell them what we have seen; let’s tell them what we’ve discovered and want them to discover too.
What I really like about Jesus’ last words to his disciples here is that he doesn’t just talk what they’ve already seen. He reminds them that the Scriptures tell of the Messiah’s death and rising again, and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” In other words, they not just witnesses to what has already happened, but also to what is still happening, to what is about to happen, to what God is yet calling them to. Because that is part of the resurrection story too, a story that God isn’t done with yet.
And our witness isn’t just about words. The Greek word for witness is martys – what does that sound like to you? As one commentary I read pointed out, that same word in the New Testament goes from meaning someone who sees something, to someone who testifies, to a martyr, someone who risks and sacrifices all for that truth they’ve discovered. Our witness is how we live our whole lives as a sharing of what we have heard and seen and experienced for ourselves. It’s how we take risks and make sacrifices in love and service to others. It’s how we help break down the barriers between people that God is trying to remove, and how we let God break down those barriers in us. It’s how we cling to our faith in God’s resurrection work even in the face of suffering and death.
We are witnesses. We have seen and known God at work in our lives and our world. And our job is to witness to love and mercy and resurrection – in our words, in our deeds, in our whole lives – so that others can know. And maybe they will experience them for themselves, and go and tell others. And maybe, then, the world will never be the same.