Thursday in the Seventh Week of Easter, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome’” (Acts 23:11).

Little did we know in January, when we celebrated our annual convention under the theme, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), exactly the sort of witness we would bear in the Diocese of Tennessee, in the weeks that followed. In company with our fellow Christians, we would be called upon to respond in our mission and ministry to the phenomenon of the Coronavirus. Witnesses go out to testify, but our witness has been borne, largely not by going out but by coming in, as we have practiced physical distancing and sheltering at home.

The sort of witness we have borne over these several months has been for the sake of our neighbors and fellow citizens. The Greek word translated here as “witness” provides the backdrop for the English word “martyr”: martyrdom being the supreme form of witness to Christ. In other words, it’s in deprivation that Christians are most closely united to Christ and most clearly bearing witness to him. In the weakness and deprivation of “shelter at home” we bore witness to the One who gave himself for others.

Our reading from Acts today highlights this theme. It’s part of the great story of St. Paul’s mission, that fills the latter part of Acts. Here we have St. Paul, brought before the council of religious leaders of the People. He’s been arrested in Jerusalem, accused of stirring up controversy; as a citizen, he’s appealed to Roman jurisdiction, which means they have to figure out what to do with him. Paul’s like a hot potato, remanded from one court to another as each jurisdiction looks to shift responsibility and to get rid of him.

Out of this judicial round-robin comes a clear word from the Lord to Paul. As we heard earlier, “That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome’” (Acts 23:11). Here we have the root meaning of the word “witness” bleeding over into the later understanding of “martyr,” as the author of Acts puts before us the ultimate witness that St. Paul would bear in Rome. Out of weakness and deprivation, out of a prisoner in chains, comes the clear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I think that when we talk about witness, we often focus on the active verb: “witnessing” that we do, whether in word or deed, and on the noun that goes with it, as the witness offers testimony. Yet before we offer our witness, we have to witness the action or event; we first have to be acted upon by what we witness. It is this that makes us witnesses in the fundamental sense. We have to be shaped and formed by our experience, by the actions of another, before we can ever offer testimony.

In terms of St. Paul’s story, he doesn’t really become a witness until he encounters the risen Lord. Until Jesus appears to him on the Damascus road, and intervenes in his life, Paul has nothing to witness to. It’s this event, touching off his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, that makes him a witness, since it is what he witnesses.

The witness we offer in this time of the Coronavirus gives us a chance to remember this first and fundamental part of witnessing. As witnesses, we have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Holy Scriptures; to enter more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ in intercession and prayer; to rekindle our longing for Christ really present in the sacrament of the altar. Nothing prevents us from doing these things now, since they are part and parcel of what makes a witness.

These things shape and form us as witnesses; they define us as witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s this that makes St. Paul a witness, as he hits the road to Rome; and it’s what makes us witnesses here and now. Our experiences make us witnesses long before we witness to anyone. Like Paul, we’ll need to keep up our courage. In this time of pandemic, remember that God is good, that we live in strange times, and that as witnesses we are walking (along with Paul) on the wilderness road.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee