Many people love car shows. I do not. I understand that there is a lot of cool engineering and design in cars. I get the fact that there is a lot of history in them as well. I know that Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, has said that when he lived in Washington D.C. he always had several old Volvos in his garage. On the weekends he liked to get his hands dirty bringing them back to life. After a cheap paint job, he would resell the cars. I think it gave him a sense of accomplishment that being Secretary of State did not. Still, I must confess that interest in cars is not something I have.
I share this bit about myself to set up a story I want to tell. The fact that it involves me going to a car show says more about the size of the town we lived in than it does about my personal interests. I’m trying to manage expectations. The story relates to a word our biblical readings (Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48) had in common—the word ‘witness’. ‘Witness’ is an important biblical word, but it is one that can makes many of us uncomfortable.
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When you live in a small town you go to events that you would not otherwise. It’s healthy. So, on a hot summer day I found myself among the crowd at a car show. It was an annual event. There was drag racing too, but I limited my participation to the car show on Main Street. The whole street was shut down. Tickets had been sold to car owners who wanted to shine up their projects and show them off. The rest of us did what people at car shows do—look at cars and talk about whatever it is people at car shows talk about. There were youth groups raising funds by selling hotdogs and pop. People came from all over the province. The town was packed. The hotels were packed. The restaurants were packed. The campground was packed and overflowing.
It was a fun event. However, there was one really irritating element: the fellow who set himself up on the busiest corner to evangelize. He would do tricky chalk drawings that revealed a secret message about Jesus. He preached through a loudspeaker at people who walked by. I admired his courage, but I couldn’t help wishing there was some way I could distinguish my faith from his. I didn’t like the language he used. I didn’t like the slick salesmanship. I didn’t like the fact that he never listened. He just preached at people. Maybe he thought that since many of them had tattoos that was what they needed. There may be a good time and place for that sort of thing, but I didn’t feel like the car show was it.
My hunch is that when we use the word ‘witness’ in a church context many of us think of something like the preacher at the car show: canned words, arrogant posture, over-confidence, simplistic theology (or worse). Our gut response might be that we want nothing to do with this ‘witness’ thing. That was my response at the car show. It was a small enough town that some people in the crowd would have known that I preached on a regular basis at the Anglican church and taught theology in at the local college. I wanted a shirt that said: “I’m not with that guy.”
Nevertheless, if we are to take the biblical description of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus seriously at all we can’t avoid this idea of being a witness. It simply will not go away. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That’s from the beginning of Acts.
Let me tell you another story.
A woman was driving through Cornwall, Ontario. As she pulled up to a red light, a car to her right zipped up the turn lane. The vehicle’s driver was going to turn right. Just then a boy a bike started to cross the intersection. For whatever reason the driver didn’t see the boy. The driver pulled directly in front of him. They collided. The car’s front fender flipped the bike, sending the kid sprawling. There was not much sound, no screeching tires, only a thud and a scraping noise.
The light turned green. The boy, who seemed stunned, pulled his bike up onto the curb. The driver who had pulled in front of him finished the turn and pulled into a parking lot.
The woman made sure the boy was out of the street, and then she pulled through the intersection. She was the first car in line. She was a witness. So he found a spot to park just on the other side of the intersection. She looked back. The driver who had collided with the kid was getting out of his car. He was angry. He was walking over to the boy who sat down at the base of the traffic light. The boy had his head in his hands. People from the parking lot and the fast food restaurant stood gawking and stupid. They could just as well have been watching the event on YouTube. A voice in the woman’s head asked her what she would want someone to do if it was her son sitting at the base of the traffic light.
The woman crossed the street. She asked, or maybe told, the driver to back off. She squatted down and asked the kid if he was okay. Another witness arrived. He said the whole thing was recorded on his dashcam. The woman asked him to call the police. The child mumbled that he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what he should say to the driver. The driver seemed to want an apology. He also wanted the kid’s name and phone number. The woman said they should all wait until the police arrived. “Don’t apologize,” she whispered to the boy, “don’t say it was your fault. You were on a bike. You had the light. You had the right of way. I saw it. I am a witness.”
The police did not come. They said if nobody needed an ambulance there was no need for them either. The gawkers drifted away.
The witnesses stayed. Finally, the boy’s father arrived. He glanced at the boy and then bent down to look at the bike. “You wrecked my bike,” he said, glaring at his son. He glared at the others. He wanted to know who they were. The driver identified himself and gave a quick version of his story.
The father looked at the others. “We are witnesses,” the woman said. “We wanted to make sure your son was okay. We thought we could help keep the story straight.”
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This is the idea that should come to mind when we hear the word ‘witness’ in a biblical context. We should not think of the street corner preacher or the obnoxious colleague or the overly-defensive university student. In scripture the word ‘witness’ is drawn from the context of a courtroom testimony. A witness is simply someone who has observed something and tells others about it. The witness speaks to what she has experienced. A witness corroborates something that is in question. A witness backs up a claim or questions a supposed-fact. She simply shares what she has seen or heard or felt.
There is nothing in the idea of being a witness that relates to cramming ideas into someone’s ears. The concept of witness does not itself suggest that those in power should force their beliefs on others. Being a witness is not being a salesperson. It is not keeping track of ‘conversions’ or manipulating people’s emotions. In fact, we are skeptical of witnesses when they use emotional of social manipulation to convince us.
With that in mind, let us think again about our two readings.
Our reading from Acts was a portion of a rather long explanation. A crowd had gathered around Peter and John. They had gathered because a man had been healed when Peter and John prayed for him. The text doesn’t say it, but that man was himself a witness. He jumped around. He yelled and sang. All he did to be a witness was resist the urge to keep his experience to himself.
The task of giving a more measured explanation fell to Peter. He started at the beginning. He reminded the crowd of the sort of God they were talking about. He invoked the stories of the original families. Then he shared his belief that it was this God—the God of the ancient scriptures—who sent Jesus. Peter was not one to play nice, so he boldly told the crowd that they had missed what God was doing. And then he said, “To this we are witnesses.” He and John had seen the whole thing; they were witnesses.
Peter’s tone was probably more aggressive than would suit us Canadians, at least when it comes to matters of faith. I have seen how people drive in Montreal and how they navigate crosswalks in Toronto; I know we are not always afraid of offending each other. What we should notice about Peter’s speech, though, is simply the fact that he was speaking to things he and John had seen. He was unafraid to explain how he understood the world. He gave his explanation for why the guy was jumping about and yelling.
The word ‘witness’ also showed up in our reading from Luke. The context was one of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after the crucifixion. The disciples were frightened and worried. They thought they had seen a ghost. So Jesus showed them his hands and his feet. He offered his body for them to touch. To really drive the point home he asked for something to eat. They gave him boiled fish. He ate it.
After proving that he was really there, in the flesh, Jesus offered an explanation. He went back through the scriptures and pointed out how these ancient words connected to his own life. Then he said, looking at the disciples, “And you are witnesses of these things.” It simply meant that they had experienced something significant and had a duty to tell their story. It didn’t mean that they had some grand theory about other religions or that they had no doubts or frustrations of their own. They just had a story that seemed to be true and important.
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Several weeks ago National Public Radio did a long piece on men and loneliness. Obviously women are lonely too, but the piece pointed out that men are less likely to have deep, supportive friendships than women. The report featured the story of a man in his forties. He had a decent job. He competed in triathlons. However, he didn’t have family connections, and the older he got the harder it was for him to simply strike up conversations with people. If he met new families in his neighbourhood and asked if they want to do something together they thought he was creepy.
He knew something was wrong when he developed the habit of hugging a post in his apartment. It was a floor-to-ceiling post connected to a banister. He was so starved for relationship that he would hug that post. He was a regular guy, successful in many ways, but deeply lonely.
This guy is just one person, but we know he isn’t the only one. Many people, many of us, have significant challenges, including loneliness. The good news that I am trying to pass on today is that we can be witnesses to a life-giving experience of faith without being overbearing. We can speak to what we have seen and heard without being preachy. And why not? We have challenges. Others have challenges. Why not share with others what we have found to be meaningful and sustaining? Maybe our friends and colleagues will return the favour.
If we’ve been on this walk of faith for long we have probably realized that a component of being a disciples of Jesus is sharing our experience with others. What I’m offering today is the suggestion that this is not as painfully awkward as a previous generation may have made it out to be. It doesn’t need to be manipulative. Being a witness is just speaking to what we have found to be wise and true.
If there is an edge to this idea of what being a witness might be it is the fact that the alternative is being a gawking consumer. The alternative is taking in religious experiences for ourselves, watching others struggle, but staying on the side. Not every time is the right time to get involved, but the suggestion from our readings today is that some times are the right times.
All that this entails is being the one who says, “This is what I saw.” “This is what keeps my world sane.” “Here’s what I’ve seen God’s Spirit do in the lives of people I know.” That is all a witness does. There’s no need to feel guilty and awkward bout needing to convince or cajole or fill pews. God does the heaving lifting. We are just witnesses.