Note: Audio differs from text at the beginning. -JWE
Sunday after the Ascension
May 17, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
How do you know that Peru exists? Have you ever been there? Perhaps one or two of you have, but I’m willing to bet most of you have never set foot in Peru. But you all believe that there exists a place in the world called Peru, a country in South America. You believe this not because of your own experience, but because of witnesses. Someone has been to Peru and can tell about it, otherwise we would never know it exists.
Witnesses come in two kinds. The first is personal eyewitnesses. Perhaps there is one person here who has been to Peru, and can stand up after church and tell us all about the country. But if there’s just one eyewitness, there’s a possibility that that witness is deliberately lying and making up a story. Or it could also be that by weakness of the human flesh, he could have missed some important details, or forgotten them. Which is why it’s important to have two or three witnesses to corroborate each other and establish the truth. Even if each individual witness differs in minor detail, you can still establish truth beyond a reasonable doubt with less than a handful of witnesses.
The second kind of witness is similar to the first, but it’s a written witness. If we had only one person who’s been to Peru stand up after church and tell us all about it, you could also go to the library and look Peru up in an encyclopedia, or perhaps even find whole books written about the country. You could look at a globe, or an atlas and find it, you could search online for information. The more sources you find in agreement, the more sure you are that 1) the story’s not made up; and 2) each witness recalls the facts to sufficiently establish the truth that, yes indeed, Peru exists and there’s all sorts of interesting things that go on there. Witnesses are necessary to know anything that you haven’t experienced for yourself.
We also have a witness in the Church. It’s the Apostolic witness. Jesus chose twelve men to follow Him, to learn from Him, to witness His life, death, and resurrection with their own two eyes—because in the history of the world, very few people actually saw the critical points of Jesus’ life. Besides these twelve, there are a number of other followers who were also witnesses to Jesus’ life.
But they can’t stand up after church today and tell us all about Jesus. They’re dead. And most of them died in quite unnatural and violent ways—more on that in a bit. But even though they can’t stand up, they have also left us a witness—the collected canonical writings of the New Testament are the Apostolic witness of the Church. It’s a witness preserved throughout numerous generations and unlike any other historical witness.
Among the Apostolic witness are two eyewitnesses who were personally chosen by Jesus (Matthew & John), another witness of His passion and resurrection and companion of the Apostles (Mark), another companion who states explicitly that He compiled several eyewitness accounts (Luke). We also have the personal letters of a persecutor of Christianity who miraculously changed sides to be its greatest promoter (Paul’s letters), as well as a couple of letters from Jesus’ closest friends (John and Peter). Among some secondary witnesses are those who were part of that early Christian community (James and Jude and the anonymous author of Hebrews). These are 10 independent witnesses who besides offering their own testimony also reference other witnesses—upwards of 500 of them. Dear skeptics, if you can’t believe the witness of the Bible, you can’t believe anything at all.
But, what if there was a concerted effort to present a fabricated story about Jesus, to insert miracles into the story, to make Jesus say that He was God, to invent a resurrection from the dead? What if there’s just 500 really good liars? Today’s Gospel speaks to that. You also bear witness, because from the beginning you were with Me. These things I have said to you in order that you are not scandalized. They will cause you to be excommunicated from the synagogue, but the hour is coming when everyone who puts you to death will think that he is offering a service to God. And these things they will do because they do not know the Father, nor Me. But these things I have said to you that, when their hour comes, you remember that I told you. These things I did not tell you from the beginning because I was with you (15:27-16:4).
The testimony of the Apostles earned them all harsh treatment, persecution, and eventually death. Most often by violent executions. If the Christian faith is just one elaborate religious hoax, then surely one of the witnesses would have caved under pressure. But not a one did. In fact, their witness under persecution was such that the Greek word for witness—martyr—became a technical term for bearing witness by giving your life. There’s an old saying in the Church: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. This is truth whose witnesses were willing to die for.
Here and there, there are fanatics willing to die for a lie. And there are even more who are willing to kill for it, deluded into thinking they are offering a service to God. There may be a day when you will be called on to hold to your confirmation promise to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from the Gospel. I often think about that, and how I am not up to the task. Truth is, neither were the Apostles. No one is. But the witness is not ultimately the Apostles’. It’s not ultimately yours, either. It’s the witness of the Spirit. When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who from the Father proceeds, that One will bear witness concerning Me (15:26).
In many evangelical settings it’s popular to give a personal testimony, encouraged even. But if you get a chance to listen to one, I’ll bet that you’ll hear a lot of I, I, I, me, me, me. The Christian witness is not about you. It’s not about the Apostles. The Christian witness is the testimony of the Spirit concerning Jesus. What He said, what He did. His suffering, His death, His resurrection, His ascension to His Father’s right hand. The Spirit bears witness so that you can be absolutely sure of Jesus. That’s faith, see.
When you tell stories about yourself, you probably embellish them a bit to put yourself in a better light, or maybe leave out some embarrassing bits. One of the amazing things about the Gospels is that the writers 1) don’t refer to themselves explicitly; and 2) often put themselves in a very poor light. It’s Jesus who they’re concerned about. Who He is, what He said, what He did, and what He continues to do. This is the witness of the Spirit. He speaks concerning Christ.
You have this witness because you have the Word of God. The Apostolic, and also the Prophetic Scriptures are the Spirit’s witness concerning Christ, to reveal Him to you so that you would know the Father even as Christ knows the Father, that you can be sure and certain. And being sure and certain that Jesus is the Christ, you have life in His name.
The Apostolic Witness Is the Spirit’s Witness Concerning Christ
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard