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SERMON 4/22/12 Easter 3B

In today’s gospel reading , the disciples were gathered together, telling each other how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. Then all of a sudden, The Lord appeared in their midst not as a Spirit, not as an apparition, but as resurrected flesh and bone. This was a pivotal moment and Jesus used it to challenge the community, and this challenge was life-changing for the early disciples, and it is equally life changing for us today, and it will be life changing for the church yet to come. Jesus declared, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are the witnesses of these things.”

If you listen closesly to Jesus’ words, you can hear the missional commission of the church being declared. Listen closely and you can hear Jesus’ passionate plea for all disciples to go and proclaim the Good News. If we open our ears and listen, we may hear Our Lord telling us that God’s love is to be shouted from the rooftops, and you may hear him tell us we are witnesses in the world. Jesus is asking us, “Can I get a witness?” The other day, I was surfing various church podcasts on ITunes, when I came across this pastor who was preaching with great passion to his congregation. At one point, he made a specific point about the topic he was addressing, and then out of the blue he shouted, “Can I get a witness?” Without hesitation, someone from the congregation shouted back, “AMEN brother!” The congregation cheered and clapped. I was intrigued by this back and forth dialogue from the pulpit and later, I discovered that in some traditions, this is a practice by which, a preacher will seek an affirmation from his or her congregation, and they will respond in a way that he or she knows that the people are getting it.

I imagine when our Lord set the church on her missionary journey to share the Good News, he might have wanted to ask the disciples, “Can I get a witness?” Did you know that you are a missionary? We Christians, and believe it or not, we Episcopalians most assuredly are missionaries! Some folks may not know this, but did you know that the proper name of the corporate entity of the Episcopal Church is The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. It was in seminary in my Episcopal Church History class that received that little tidbit of information. Imagine, the very heart of our identity as a part of the Body of Christ, is firmly grounded in a core value of commitment to missions, both domestic and foreign.

Missionaries are not always folks sent to far off places to spread the Good News. We are all missionaries, because we are all witnesses of the transformed life we have experienced in the living Christ. You see, our call as missionaries is to go out into the world and in so doing, show, and communicate the love of God in Christ to all peoples. The love of God is the message of repentance, forgiveness, grace, and peace, which the resurrection makes a reality. A French theologian Francis Xavier Durrwell once wrote, “Everything begins with the resurrection of Jesus. ‘He has risen!’ was the cry of the church at its birth. Faith woke on Easter day, in its encounter with the risen Christ. In our day, that encounter is where the same faith continues to be enlightened”. F.-X. DURRWELL, Cristo, nuestra Paàcua, Madrid 2003, p,12 [English translation of the original French: Christ, Our Passover, 2002]. Our mission, the Church’s mission is to go out, to be sent out, and to make possible for all to have an encounter with the risen Christ. Can I get a witness?

“Wait a minute Eric,” you may say, “I didn’t sign up for this missionary thing you speak about.” I am more than happy to support sending missionaries overseas, for is that not where the mission field is ripe? Maybe it was 50, 100, 200 years ago but today, in a culture where “somewhere between 25-30% of adults under 30 claim no religious affiliation,” (Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass) the mission field is right here in our own backyards. When we are becoming more and more every day, a post-Christian people, we cannot wait much longer to answer our missionary call.

The news I am sharing may sound a little bleak, a little hard to believe, but I can tell you that we must become a missional community and honestly, it is easier than we might think. Remember, Jesus gave us the mandate of missionary service when he said, “you are witnesses to these things.” We have to tell the story, and we can with confidence, let the Spirit do the rest!

You may ask, “What can I do, what difference can I make?” Do you remember the little candle you received at your baptism, that symbolic representation of the Paschal Candle; the light of Christ. Where is that candle today? Do you symbolically carry it wherever you go, or is it possibly in storage at home, tucked away in a drawer or lovingly wrapped up in cloth and stored in a treasure chest? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (NRSV Matthew 5:16)

Shining our light means we must be willing to bring that “Christ encounter” to those who may have never experienced it before. We must build relationships of trust beyond the walls of the church. By the way, that definitely necessitates doing more than just opening the doors and sliding folks a handshake and a friendly hello and welcome. We must expand our reach into the community, by living faithfully in the community. We must seek new ways to reach those who are not willing to come to us. We must follow Jesus, and go to them. We will have to immerse ourselves in the lives of those around us and honestly, that may put us all in a zone of discomfort. The message the gospel is in our hands. Jesus entrusted us to be witnesses to the world of the Good News of reconciliation, love, mercy, and grace. The question is, what will we do?

The other day, I heard again with fresh ears, the lyrics of a song written by a popular pop artist, Natasha Beddingfield. This little tune seems to capture the missionary opportunity of the Church, in a society defined by some scholars, as post-Christian. The landscape of evangelism has changed and the mission field is very different than it was 25 or 30 years ago. The chorus of the song is:

I am unwritten . . . I am just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned. Staring at the blank page before you . . . let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find. Can you speak the words on your lips, Drench yourself in words unspoken, Live your life with arms wide open, Today is where your book begins, The rest is still unwritten.

On that momentous day, when Our Lord appeared to his disciples and challenged them, to take all that he had taught them, embrace all that they had experienced, and remember all that they had seen, and then go and share it with a world that had not yet experienced the Risen Lord. Over two thousand years later, we stand in the midst of a mission field that is not unlike the one, those earlier followers faced so long ago. The mission is clear, the field is ripe for harvest, and the workers are few. The Gospel is in our hands. “Will we speak the words on our lips, drench ourselves in words unspoken, live our lives with arms wide open? Today is where OUR book begins, and the rest is still unwritten.”

Can I get a witness?

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