Easter 7

Sermon: Sunday 1 June 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Easter 7

Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11 – Witnesses

‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ – Acts 1:8b

St Luke’s account of the Ascension of Jesus in his Acts of the Apostles tells of the disciples being gathered with the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem.  As he leaves them to ascend into heaven, he promises them the Holy Spirit to empower them to be his witnesses in the city, in the wider community and as far as the ends of the earth. 

I’ve had to become more familiar with the work of the courts in the past year and in particular, with respect to the Cathedral being an Interested Party in the Judicial Review case concerning Richard III.  We’ve had to submit ‘witness statements’ and indeed the very important post-script of the judgement includes a quotation from my witness statement as Dean.

I’m not sure we exactly spelt this out to each other but we’ve been trying to get this right.  So we have been trying to find succinct and compelling words for the court and its process to understand our experience here.  Rightly the courts are concerned about the relevant point of law but our witness accounts tried to explain something of our day to day reality, our work and welcome over the past year.  We had to try and discern what was relevant to say, trying to second guess the questions that might be considered.  We wanted others to understand that despite the media reports and at times malign commentary on social media sites, that our intent was entirely honourable.  We were not primarily motivated by money or fame.  Rather we are concerned about the truth of history, the care of a human person and an anointed king.  And we had to do all this with utter truthfulness.  I have learnt that being a witness is demanding but a good and fulfilling thing.

As Christians we are called to be witnesses to our experience and love of God made visible in Jesus Christ.  Some people are able to do this with great naturalness and sensitivity – we often recognise them as evangelists.  But I suspect most people here don’t think of themselves in that way and may even feel a bit shy or embarrassed to think of yourself like that.  I spend a fair amount of time with people of other faiths and whilst those faiths also may have their evangelists, I am often struck by how much they act as witnesses simply by being themselves in a way which is truthful, revealing that faith is in their DNA as much as family or culture or their profession.  Christianity has been the majority faith for a long time but now in Leicester city there is no single faith in majority.  Yes of course, the history and traditions of this country are shaped by the Christian witness but both in a multi-faith context and in an increasingly secular context, Jesus promise of help to be his witnesses seems ever more needful.

There are one or two things I notice in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which may point to aspects of our Christian life which might help us in considering our witness.

The first and really obvious thing to say is that this is about people.  Our scriptures and worship bear witness to a story about people and their experience of God.  We are not looking for a different kind of language but we are looking for our language which does justice to what we know, what we are discovering and what we’re finding hard to describe about this journey with Jesus.  When people who are exploring a sense of calling to be a priest come to see me, I always ask them to tell me ‘what is their gospel’ and to pretend they were talking to somebody in the pub or when they were walking in the park with another dog owner.  What is your gospel?  One of my favourite bible verses is in Peter’s first letter chapter 3 – ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you yet do it with gentleness and reverence’.  You might like to picture a simple sail boat with its hull and rudder lying beneath the water which gives the boat its stability and its direction.  What words could you use to describe your faith with respect to the stability and direction of your life?

Related to that is an understanding of the word witness itself.  It appears 34 times in the New Testament.  The Greek word martyreo is the origin of our word ‘martyr’.  I think this makes explicit something that we sense – namely that there is a cost to trying to tell the truth and sometimes there are consequences too.  We’ve read this week about the horrific story of Meriam Ibrahim in Khartoum who has had to give birth shackled in prison because she has been convicted of apostasy and sentenced to the death penalty because she has refused to renounce her Christian faith.  We are unlikely to face such circumstances and God forbid we should but the cost of being truthful is real for every Christian in a host of ways.

Our story from Acts reveals that the friends of Jesus have experienced his Ascension on Mount Olivet or the Mount of Olives.  This is just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem.  Firstly, it is just outside the city limits like the place of crucifixion.  Zechariah prophesies (14:1-4) that from there the mighty armies gathered against Jerusalem would be destroyed in apocalyptic fury.  This leads to a Jewish zealot from Egypt gathering a mob to march on Jerusalem during the Roman period to oust the invaders.  This Mount is shaped by political conflict.

Jesus used this mountain as his safe route to retreat during the last week of his life as he went back and forth to Bethany.  Rather than with guns blazing, he entered the city from there weeping for Jerusalem.  And here at his own parting, he sends his followers back to the city to wait for spiritual blessing, not to fight for political freedom.  So part of our witness is an important interrogation of the context, the place, the geography both physical and social of our lives and then to try and see how given that, we might critique it, subvert it or reframe it.  There is a call here as witnesses to explore a counter-cultural response.  Maybe there are a host of small ways that we could reveal something about the truth of life as we see it.  Real significant witness is often achieved through small actions.  Just think about the Pope last weekend asking his driver to stop on the way into Bethlehem and standing with his head hung up against the wall of separation – he didn’t stand in defiance with fists in the air, nor did he express anger with more graffiti, nor did he really blame anyone.  His head hung in sadness against the wall was deeply counter-cultural revealing the love and way of Jesus.

Finally, the disciples leave the mountain and go back to the city.  Like Jesus himself, they also go up. They go to the upper room.  This is the place of memory where feet were washed, bread was broken and wine was poured.  This was the place where they were with Jesus and it is to there that they return to pray and to wait for the coming of the Spirit.  Christian witness is rooted in Christian community – the coming together in the safe familiar place to remember how God has been and is with his people.  This is both the place to find strength and companionship in one another and the place to make the journey of the heart.  In our upper room, we experience afresh the abundance of the Lord’s feast and the fickleness of the human will because even that safe place has the memory of Judas.  It is another place of truth, a place from which the witness comes.

‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ – Acts 1:8b

© The Very Revd David Monteith