There are two parts to being a witness, in the New Testament sense: first, there’s the event that you experience; second, the testimony that you offer. We can think about it in terms of the witness stand: what brings you to court is an event that you witness. It’s not hearsay: something someone else told you about. You saw or heard something; you may be a bystander and onlooker who was not directly involved, but you have testimony to offer. Something happened, and you experienced it.
But simply seeing or hearing something doesn’t exhaust the New Testament sense of witness. In its fullest sense, you aren’t really a witness, not matter what you saw or heard, until you testify yourself to what happened. Until you come to the stand to tell the story of the experience you haven’t really fulfilled the role you’re called to. You aren’t really a witness until you offer your testimony.
In our Gospel today, the disciples encounter the risen Lord. Jesus points them to his hands and his feet: they can see the marks of the wounds of crucifixion. He invites them to touch him, to prove that he’s not a ghost. It’s Jesus himself, risen from the dead. What the disciples see and touch is the person they had known before, now given back to them with evidence of the experience of death. “You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24:48), he says.
Yet Jesus does not end there. As he opens their minds to understand the Scriptures, he tells them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46-47). What the prophets foreshadow is not just Jesus’ resurrection, but also their proclamation of the good news about him to the four corners of the world. In other words, in order for the disciples to be witnesses, they will need to go forth and to proclaim, to testify to what they have seen, and what it means for the world. They will have to share their witness with others, who in turn will share it again.
The theme of witness is woven throughout St. Luke’s Gospel, and the Book of Acts that forms the second chapter of the Gospel story. We can connect Jesus’ designation of the disciples as witnesses, those who have seen the truth and proclaim it, to our reading from Acts. There we see the same disciples living into their role as witnesses: performing miracles of faith, and proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins. New life is possible through Jesus Christ! “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15), they say in our reading.
Over the course of fifty days, the Easter season presents us with the opportunity to be witnesses. We hear the testimony to the something that happened when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Our Gospel emphasizes the “flesh and bone” (Lk. 24:39) reality of the risen Christ; the reality of the one who stands before the disciples. The simple meal of fish that the disciples share with Jesus recalls the miracles of the loaves and fishes, as well as the Last Supper of Maundy Thursday. In other words, it’s the same person whose ministry they shared in Galilee and Judea; the same person who shared meals with them and with the crowds who followed. The resurrection was not something that simply took place in the hearts and minds of the disciples. God acted, and they were witnesses.
Easter also presents us with our calling as witnesses, to share the good news. We won’t have lived into our calling until we have received the testimony of the disciples and shared it with others. Our testimony will involve deeds and words. We cannot content ourselves with leading good lives and letting them witness. We need to be able to share the reason for the hope that is within us, as it says in the First Letter of Peter (1 Pet. 3:15). We need to be able to articulate to others the meaning of what we believe. If anybody’s wondering, there’s a pretty graceful summation of Christian hope in our liturgy of confirmation today.
Witness requires God to act, and for us to testify. Easter provides the action, and we become witnesses when we offer testimony. But unlike unprejudiced and uninvolved witnesses in court, bystanders and onlookers, we’re involved in the event. It impacts us directly; we know what it means for us. God has given us new life and new hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To this we are witnesses.