Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
Giving truthful testimony can be costly.
Telling your story, publicly, under oath, entails risk, a belief in a cause bigger than self and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to dangerous forces. Recently, I have been watching Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS documentary “Reconstruction.” Words like sobering, tragic, stomach turning come to mind as descriptors for Gates’ detailing of the years following the Civil War. So much hope and progress, dashed, upended, snuffed out through acts of terror. Using photographs, newspaper articles and court transcripts, Gates documents both the hope and the terror of those years. The reading of formerly enslaved people’s court testimony, recounting the names and crimes of members of white mobs who murdered black people at will, reminds us that giving testimony requires great courage. Telling the truth forces us to ask ourselves to whom, ultimately, we will be loyal.
All three lectionary readings for this second Sunday of Easter involve bearing witness to Jesus Christ. All three accounts call on believers to be brave in giving their Christian testimony. John of Patmos writes his revelation from exile. Peter and the apostles, having been warned to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name, are brought before the council to explain their ongoing evangelism. The disciples in John’s Gospel are behind locked doors, afraid, deeply in need of Jesus’ peace and Spirit in order to be freed to face the world outside their safe, cloistered room. Followers of Jesus Christ cannot be silenced by any human authority. Our loyalty, no matter the cost, is to the person and mission of Jesus Christ. We are sent no less than the Father sent Jesus. No wonder we need peace and the power of the Holy Spirit, as such truth telling puts us in the crosshairs of all manner of human authorities, official and vigilante.
This second Sunday of Easter forces the questions: Will we be credible witnesses to the person and mission of Jesus Christ? Will we obey God or human authorities? Will we risk all for the sake of the One who gave all for us?
On this “low Sunday,” the stakes are very high.
Listening to the TED Radio Hour last week, the topic being how to change the world, stopped me short. I heard civil rights activist Ruby Sales tell the story of her arrest, at age 17, with other civil rights workers. She told of the horrid conditions in the jail, the sudden admonishment by the sheriff for them to leave and the subsequent murder of one of her colleagues, Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian. A story in the Chicago Reader details what happened that night to activists Joyce Bailey, Ruby Sales, Jonathan Daniels and Catholic seminarian Richard Morrisroe:
As someone went to call for a ride, Robert Bailey, one of the activists, walked to buy cigarettes and matches at the Cash Store, a homely clapboard building where blacks were allowed to enter through the front door, and where they were treated cordially inside. Daniels and Sales, along with Morrisroe and Joyce Bailey, who had been arrested on her 19th birthday, followed with the intention of buying cold drinks. Morrisroe says now he was vaguely aware they were breaking southern norms against interracial couples, despite the fact that there was no romance between either pair—no hand-holding, no kissing. Morrisroe and Daniels were merely white men walking with black women.
Daniels reached in front of Sales to open the screen door for her. From inside the store suddenly they were confronted by an angry white man with a pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun. His name was Tom Coleman. At the courthouse, where he’d been playing dominoes, he had heard that the released activists might be stirring up trouble. He had just told the owner of the store, a white woman, that he was there to protect her.
Coleman yelled at the four activists, according to Outside Agitator: Didn’t they know the store was closed? He ordered them off the property “or I’ll blow your goddamn heads off, you sons of bitches.”
Daniels asked if Coleman was challenging him. Sales recalls Daniels pushing her aside, out of the way.
As an answer, Coleman shot Daniels at point-blank range with the shotgun. As Morrisroe and Joyce Bailey turned to run, Coleman shot Morrisroe in the back. Then he called state troopers in Montgomery to turn himself in: “I just shot two preachers.”
As I listened to Sales recount the story, of how it didn’t silence her but instead galvanized her to work tirelessly for justice, I began to ask myself: What am I willing to risk for the sake of the gospel? Where are Christians called to go to bear witness to the love and justice and power and peace of Jesus Christ? Am I obeying God or bowing down to human authorities? Certainly, if we are sent as Jesus was sent, there are places we are to preach and teach in His name, despite the strict orders, the violent ends, to which human powers will go to silence the saving, captive freeing, good news for the persecuted Word of God.
This low Sunday, the stakes are high. We are given the peace that passes understanding, the power of the Spirit, the resurrection presence of Jesus Christ, in order to go out into the world, to leave the safety of our locked doors, to risk our lives, to give our truthful, public testimony, to be witnesses to the righteousness of God. In our communities, our country and our world, there are people and places desperate to hear the Truth that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, lived, died and has been raised from the dead in order that we might be saved, reconciled, be made the righteousness of God. Are we will to be go and be witnesses to our resurrected Lord? If so, where is God sending us right now?
- Have you ever had to give a sworn testimony? If so, what was it like? What was at stake?
- What does it mean to you that you have received Christ’s peace? The Spirit? When have you felt the impact of these gifts?
- How are we called up to obey human authorities? When do human authorities and the authority of God conflict?
- How can we daily be witnesses for Jesus Christ?
- Would you describe Thomas as “doubting?” Why or why not?
- What kind of proof do we request or require of Jesus in order to believe?
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