One summer when I was on staff at Camp Caroline, the Christian Church in North Carolina’s version of Craig Springs, there was a bank robbery in the nearby town. Camp Caroline is located way down east, where Dawson’s Creek empties into the Neuse River. At the camp the creek is a half mile wide and the river is about six miles wide, so both are very navigable. Just behind the camp is a public boat launch on a little slough that leads into the creek. And believe it or not, after the guys robbed the bank, they drove to the boat launch and made their getaway by boat, going from the creek into the river. And various ones of us at camp, quite unaware that there had been a robbery, happened to be standing on the camp’s dock on the creek when the robbers whizzed by in their boat.
So sure enough, the next day, I think it was, the FBI showed up to interview us. They wanted to know what we had seen, what the boat and the guys looked like, that sort of thing. The FBI guys were no dummies. This was deep eastern North Carolina in the middle of the summer, and they of course had to be wearing their black suits and ties. So, there being no air conditioned place in the camp, they interviewed us in their car, with the air conditioner running.
I don’t remember if they ever caught the suspects. I tried to look it up on the internet, but of course the robbery took place long before the days of the internet. Believe it or not though, there was another bank robbery in the same town in 2013. The story said the suspects left in a car. No mention of a boat.
We know that being a witness can be a tricky thing. If you’ve never seen the movie My Cousin Vinny, look it up sometime. It’s about two young men who are accused of a robbery and murder in the deep south, and one of them gets their cousin from up north, Vinny, who’s supposed to be a lawyer, to come and defend them in the trial. One by one, Vinny discredits the witnesses, demonstrating that what they thought they saw was highly questionable.
We know that two people, or multiple people, witnessing the same event, can have very different stories about what happened. So it’s a good thing that we have multiple accounts of those who were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Technically, there were no witnesses to the resurrection itself, as all the stories are reports of an empty tomb and encounters with the risen Christ later that day or soon thereafter.
We also remember from Easter that Mark’s gospel does not include any appearances of Jesus after the women discover the empty tomb. Mark is the exception to the rule in that respect, although the young man dressed in white they encounter at the tomb does tell them that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee. The other three gospels do record post-resurrection appearances, as does Paul, who says Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus.
So today we have one of the stories of Jesus’ appearance, apparently on the evening of Easter. Luke says Jesus’ first appearance that day is to two of his followers, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple. Luke says the two are walking to the village of Emmaus, when they are joined by a stranger. The stranger asks what they are talking about, and Cleopas replies that he must be the only person anywhere around who hasn’t heard about the death of the mighty prophet Jesus. He goes on to tell the stranger that some women who followed Jesus had gone to the tomb that morning, found it empty, and had a vision of angels telling them Jesus was alive.
The stranger proceeds to tell them, using scripture, that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death. When they come near the village, Cleopas and the other disciple urge the stranger to stay with them. When they sit down to eat, the stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” Luke says. It was then that they recognize that they have been walking and talking with Jesus. Then Jesus vanishes.
Naturally, the two go to the eleven “and their companions” to tell them this marvelous story. That’s where we pick up today’s reading. Luke tells us that while they were talking “Jesus himself stood among them.” Jesus speaks to them and says, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed…to all nations. You are witnesses of these things.” He then leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is “carried up into heaven.”
Luke continues the story in the book of Acts, and I warned you last week that we will be hearing stories from Acts several times in the coming weeks, sort of skipping over Pentecost, then returning there on May 20, which is when we will observe Pentecost day. All of those stories in Acts, one way or another, talk about how the good news of Jesus is kept alive and spread, how those who saw Jesus after his resurrection become witnesses to their faith in them. Spoiler alert, the book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, the capitol of the empire, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Remember that Paul says he too was a witness to the risen Christ.
So how do we know Jesus is risen? We have the testimony of witnesses. We have the women who saw the empty tomb. Luke says Peter also went and saw the empty tomb. John says Peter and the disciple Jesus loved went and saw the empty tomb. He also says Jesus appeares to Mary Magdalene then and there. We know the story of doubting Thomas, likewise in John’s gospel, when Thomas is not present the first time Jesus appeares to the disciples, but is there the next time. John also includes the story of Jesus appearing to seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias.
Witnesses. There are witnesses to the risen Christ. They are, in an important way, the starting point of our faith, because without their witness we would not have heard the story of Jesus and the empty tomb. They are also our examples, those who show us continuing faith in Jesus by telling the story of what he said and did, and how he appeared to them, even after being laid in a tomb.
Barbara Essex says, “As people of faith, we are to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, in our words and in our deeds; our faith demands nothing less.” So today’s story picks up where we left off on Easter, where Mark cuts off his story so abruptly, reminding us that we are called to finish the story, that we are called to be the witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection, telling others, in word and deed, the good news that God’s reign is in progress.
To be sure, that can be a hard sell in today’s world. From acts of terrorism to mass shootings to ongoing wars and conflicts where we need a scorecard to tell the players, our world is filled with bad news. And usually we don’t have to look far or wait long to find bad news. It’s not always a few states away or half a world away. All around us we see people we know and love struggle with disease and relationship problems and job issues and difficulties often not of their own making. Even we, people of faith, wonder why. Even we wonder, where is God? Does God care? Is God just watching and waiting – for something?
It is up to us to see our lives and our world through the eyes of faith. It is up to us to be those who acknowledge the bad news and say yes but. Yes but, there are diseases which claimed the lives of thousands and sometimes millions in the past which have all but wiped out. Yes but, there are people living today with illnesses and conditions that not so many years ago would have claimed their lives in a hurry. Yes but, there are three hundred families in Lynchburg who have had their lives changed for the better because they now live in a house they own, which they helped build with Habitat for Humanity. Yes but, there are men living at the Gateway, in the difficult process of recovery from substance abuse, who otherwise would most likely be in jail or on the street.
Yes but, there are children who attend Brookneal Elementary School who live in poverty, yet have food on Saturdays and Sundays because we pack backpacks with food for them to take home on weekends. Yes but, there are families in this area that have clothes and food because we are part of the Helping Hands Clothes Closet and the TEAM Food Pantry. Yes but, there are still churches, like Timberlake Christian, where everyone is welcome to come and worship and fellowship and grow in their faith and become a witness to the power of Jesus Christ in their life.
It is up to us to witness to our faith, in what we say, in what we do, in how we treat others, by inviting others to come and see for themselves. It is up to us to be the yes but people, those who, by word and deed, proclaim that the good news of the coming of God’s reign is still very much alive and in effect and in process. We have heard from those who were there that first Easter. We have heard from those who, through the generations, have witnessed to their faith. Now, we’re the witnesses. Amen.