During these pandemic days, I have been pondering a question: What does it mean for me to be a witness for my faith? The question emerged as I was thinking about the first martyr Stephen and his witness and I was thinking about it in the midst of a pandemic week that was filled with news that challenged me about how I am using my voice these days and how I am using my pen as well. Or, if I am at all.
It is tradition, during the Great Fifty days of Easter, that in place of the Old Testament passage, the gathered church (or in these days, the separated online church) reads a passage from Acts of the Apostles. The readings of Acts, through this time, present the life, growth and witness of the early Church and prepare us for Pentecost. The passages from Acts are some of the most exciting stories of our faith, but I always have a difficult time deciding whether to preach on the Gospels, as the story of the Resurrection continues, or to preach on Acts. Most years, I continue with the Gospels, but this year is different, and, for one Sunday, I turned to Acts and the story of Stephen, who is recognized as the first martyr. I don’t think I have ever preached on this passage! What a shame!
The word martyr comes from the Greek and means witness, so it refers to someone who bears witness. We have come to understand the word martyr as a person who is killed for bearing witness. What we know is that all martyrs for the faith are witnesses, but not all witnesses are martyrs. Witnesses are to tell what they have seen, what they know about Christ, and witnesses are called to share with others, their experiences with Christ.
For example, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the second century CE, was told to renounce Jesus, burn incense and proclaim Caesar as Lord. Polycarp told what he knew and what he experienced. “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
Simple, unadorned words, were spoken by the martyr, and these words survive and bear witness to Jesus, even today.
The story of Stephen reminds me—reminds the faithful–that we are called to bear witness to Jesus who brought life—and still brings life–to us, to all people, and who offers mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, and life to this hurting and chaotic world.
The story of Stephen reminds me—reminds the faithful–that Jesus, who brings these gifts to the world, calls upon us to bear witness, to tell what we know and what we experience, so that others might also know and experience. We cannot simply receive these gifts, smile, say thank you, and go on our way.
To receive the gift of life, offered to us by the Risen One who sacrificed his life, means that we seek ways to offer our lives to be transformed by his unconditional, astonishing, abundant love and the actions of our lives, then, bear witness to resurrection, justice, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, hope, and life eternal. This transformation is an essential part of our witness and I believe that it is ongoing. The more we know Jesus, the more we understand forgiveness and mercy, the more we experience unconditional, astonishing, abundant love, the more our lives are transformed and our love for all those whom Jesus loves is deepened.
The extended Acts narrative that describes Stephen and his faith indicates that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was passionate about serving Christ and bearing witness. Stephen did wonders and signs! His passion and witness did not set well with the religious leaders and he was set up and falsely accused. His witness was full of power and people listened and found hope and new life.
When Stephen was asked to explain himself, he first gave a lecture on biblical history to a learned assembly, ending with insults and rebukes. Biblical history was something that the religious leaders felt they knew better than anyone else and they did not appreciate Stephen’s understanding and interpretation which accused these leaders of clearly, not understanding the promises of God. The council was angry, to the point of grinding their teeth at Stephen.
Once again, the Holy Spirit filled Stephen and he began to witness, to tell what he knew and what he was experiencing. He spoke of Jesus. He spoke of what he saw—the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. I can imagine that in that moment, Stephen’s face shone. I can imagine that in that moment, Stephen saw the presence of the Trinity. In that moment for Stephen there was joy. There was peace. There was hope. In that moment for Stephen there was the knowledge that life is abundant.
As Stephen spoke about what he was seeing, about what he was experiencing, the leaders simply covered their ears and shrieked. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him until he was dead.
At the end of Stephen’s witness, at the end of Stephen’s life two remarkable things happened. First, the leaders who refused to listen to Stephen’s witness, took off their cloaks and laid them at the feet of one named Saul. In the next chapter we are told that Saul approved of the killing of Stephen.
Second, Stephen bestows a depth of mercy upon his killers as Jesus bestowed a depth of mercy upon those who crucified him. Stephen, a mouthpiece of God, an embodiment of the compassion of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, expressed deep love by asking God to forgive them as he was dying—simple words that bore witness to the love and compassion of Christ and how it transforms us, simple words that we now remember as the last words of the first martyr for the faith.
Thinking again about this story of Stephen has haunted me. The story has disturbed me. I have never felt that disturbance before as I have studied this passage. As I lived with it, read it, thought about it, the question that came to me over and over again was simply this: who am I in this story? Who are we in this story?
Am I one of the religious leaders? Are we the leaders who believe what is not true, who cover our ears and shriek, who pass judgement on someone who is telling us what he or she knows about Christ and how he or she has experienced Christ and the love that Christ has for all people? Have these actions of mine caused me to miss Christ’s desire for justice and hope to bring life to this world, that all may thrive?
Am I Saul? Are we Saul, in this story, who watched what was taking place and without saying a single word gave his approval? And like Saul, am I haunted by what I have seen, even as I go out to persecute others who are believers and witnesses to the resurrected Christ? Are we? Is the seed for the Damascus Road experience planted within us in that moment as I suspect that it was for Saul?
Am I Stephen, who loved Christ so deeply and bore witness to Emmanuel–God with us? Are we Stephen whose very lives speak of the Risen One who came that we may have life and have it abundantly? Like Stephen, does the depth of my love and of my forgiveness show to those around me? Around us?
These are tough questions to consider and truthfully, we may not like the answers that come to us as we ponder them, but one thing is clear in answer to our ponderings. The story of Stephen reminds us that we, who claim to follow Christ, are called to bear witness to him, to the One who through his life and death and resurrection offers to all abundant life.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSV)
What does it mean for us to witnesses?
Bearing witness to our faith means that we tell what we know about the mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, and justice of Christ and we tell how we experience his presence in our lives.
Sometimes what we know about who Christ is and how we experience Christ is full of joy, like how vibrant the color of the rhododendrons appeared in Norm West’s garden on a dreary, cold, March day, at the beginning of quarantine. Norm is one of my parishioners, who recently said good-bye to his beloved wife Virginia, as she inherited life eternal. They had been married for over sixty years and this winter has been difficult for him. He has missed her dearly. We all do.
One day, toward the end of March, before we knew that the pandemic had changed the normalcy of our lives, Norm called me to come and see his garden. The beauty of the rhododendrons in particular gave Norm a chance to invite me to come and see and to take photos. The beauty of the spring garden gave us a chance to share a few socially distant moments together in God’s spring world and it lifted our spirits, offered hope, and sang of the promises of new life, even in the midst of pandemic concern and fear. Later, when I posted my photos on Facebook, the experience bore witness to the hope and love of Christ, still present in an uncertain world.
The flowers and colors of the garden and Norm’s invitation for me not to miss a special gift bore witness to something that I needed to remember. Even in the darkest times there is hope offered in friendship and color and spring.
Sometimes what we know about who Christ is and how we experience Christ is full of sorrow, and full of risk and uncertainty, like the witness of the morgue worker in Baltimore who through these pandemic days, has bought a daffodil for each body bag that contains the body of a precious life taken by covid-19. Tanisha Brunson-Malone’s unselfish act of kindness has born witness to life in the midst of death, to comfort in the midst of sorrow, a promise that these people will not be forgotten. It is for me an embodiment of Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV)
It is a witness for and to herself of the promises of life, but this act has also born witness to the funeral home directors who have entered the morgue and have seen row after row of white body bags, adorned with yellow daffodils. These days funeral home directors know days that are filled with sorrow as they try to comfort family members who were not present when their loved ones breathed their last. These days funeral home directors know and experience broken hearts time and time again. A simple, yellow daffodil has offered these Baltimore funeral home directors a way to comfort loved ones and bear witness that others care, deeply.
And now, as Brunson-Malone’s story is being shared around the world, her act of kindness bears witness to countless people who need acts of kindness and hope. Her story bears witness to the ways that all of us can offer kindness and hope in this world so full of pain.
Sometimes witness means that we listen to what someone else knows about Christ and how they experience Christ in the midst of lives which can be so different from our own. A woman I met years ago, named America Sosa, in Washington, DC ,taught me that to bear witness comes as we listen and validate someone else’s witness and then share how their story impacts our lives.
For some reason America and her story came back to me as I have been thinking about what it means to bear witness to the Risen Christ. America was from El Salvador. In 1980, her teenage son had been arrested and detained for three months as a “suspected subversive,” tortured, forced to make a false confession, and sent to prison for seven months. Not long after her son was sent to prison, her husband, a bricklayer, was arrested and tortured by government police, eventually dying from his injuries.
I met America at a tea in the home of one of the parishioners of the church where I worked while I was a student at Wesley Theological Seminary. The tea was given in her honor. The political struggles, the fear that encapsulated daily life, the disappearances of people that were going on in El Salvador at the time seemed so far removed from anything that I knew or any of us, who were a part of that faith community, had ever known. We knew it was an unsettled part of the world, that it was dangerous, and that people of faith did not always fare so well.
America’s story was honest and horrible. She answered all our questions and even made us laugh a time or two, but what impressed me most about that afternoon, what spoke most to me, was how she prayed. She prayed as one who knew that Christ was right beside her, bearing her burdens with her, giving her courage and hope to continue to tell her story and to tell the story of how God was with her in all the struggles and sorrows and hopes of her life.
America’s prayer bore witness to me that I did not have all the answers of faith, nor would I ever, because I can never experience all the ways that Christ is present in this world. America’s prayer bore witness to me that I had much to learn and as I have thought about her, her prayer is still bearing witness to me that I have much to learn from my brothers and sisters around the world. Mostly, America’s prayer bore witness to me, that afternoon long ago, because I felt the presence of God in a way I had never felt before—honest, loving, forgiving, hope-filled. I had forgotten that witness until these pandemic days. I hope I will never again forget it.
Sometimes what we know about who Christ is and how we experience Christ is expressed in a loving act that may not seem so significant, but really speaks volumes, like people from all over the world who, on Friday, May 8th, ran or walked 2.23 miles, in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, the young African American man who was shot and killed in Georgia, while running in February. This simple witness was offered as support and hope to his family and as a statement against the evils of racism. I, too, joined in by walking and praying.
This act indeed bore witness to the power of solidarity, but participating in this act and seeing posts from all over the world, from people who also participated, reminded me that this one act of witness not only spoke volumes to me of the evil of racism, it also brought other acts of witness to me that I have known through my life. This collective act of witness has led me to question how I add to the problem.
I thought about classmates that I knew, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when I was in public school, and wondered how unsafe they felt during this time and maybe even now. Did I add to their fears? Did I listen to them? Are my actions now a constant witness to the evils of racism? Is my life a witness to others that Christ calls for justice for all people, that by not speaking out in witness is contributing to the problem? Do I seek to hear and understand and validate the witness and stories of my brothers and sisters of all races? Do I seek ways to continue to initiate conversations about the injustices of this world to the part of the Body of Christ where I serve? Do we pray together about these injustices and seek ways that we can add our witness to other voices?
Sometimes what we know about who Christ is and how we experience Christ is expressed in acts of love that offer protection to people that we treasure and maybe that we do not even know, like wearing masks when we are out in public, through these pandemic days, or making masks for others to wear, or sanitizing our hands, or buying a gift certificate to a local business even though we are not able to get there these days or purchasing extra food for food pantries or a neighbor or just as a witness to the love of Christ in this world.
What does it mean for us to be a witness?
It means that we tell what we know about Christ and how we experience his presence in our lives. It means we listen to others and what they know about Christ and how they experience his presence in their lives. It means that together we speak or act in ways that honor the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how he came that we might have life and have it abundantly—and not just we, but all people.
I hope and pray that I may be a strong witness—that we all may be strong witnesses–to the life-giving, saving grace, mercy, hope and justice of Jesus Christ for this world.
May it be so.