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Easter 2, Yr C, 11.4.10
Acts 5.27-32: Peter & apostles: we must obey God, we are witnesses to these things
Ps 118.14-29: this is day Lord has made; open for me the gates of righteousness; this is the Lord’s doing & it is marvellous in our eyes
Or Ps 150: praise God in his holy temple

Rev 1.4-8: John to 7 churches: grace to you & peace from [God] & from JC the faithful witness.
John 20.19-31: reversal of Gen 3; doubting Thomas (1627)

Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

(We are called to witness with our whole being.) 

        The word for today is ‘witness’.  In our reading from Revelation Jesus is called the ‘faithful witness’, and in our reading from Acts the apostles call themselves ‘witnesses’.  Keep the word ‘witness’ in mind.

          Every year from Easter Day to Pentecost the first reading set in the RCL is invariably taken from the Book of Acts. 

          We may wonder why we have these readings during Eastertide since the narrative of Acts is concerned with events after Pentecost.  If there is a meaningful reason then I believe it lies in Luke’s conviction about the Holy Spirit.  Luke wrote his gospel in two parts, that which we call the Gospel and the Book of Acts.  He wrote them as a unity to be read or heard one after the other.  But when those writings we call the New Testament began to be gathered together probably late in the second century, the books we call Gospels were placed together as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and Acts was neglected.  By the time Acts was taken out of the closet, so to speak, and added in the manuscripts, it followed John.  It was only in the twentieth century that the essential unity of Luke and Acts as a single writing rather than two was recognized anew.

As I have said, when Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts he thought of them as a unity, and he had an overall plan for them. That plan is to be found in Act 1.8, when the risen Lord says to his disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem , in all Judaea and Samaria , and to the ends of the earth." In line with this plan the Gospel begins in Jerusalem , in the temple, with Zechariah, and the angel telling him of his future son, John the Baptist. It moves out from there to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth speaking of gentiles. The gospel then moves by stages from concern for gentiles, such as the centurion who seeks healing for his servant, on to stories about Samaritans and Samaria , like the story of the Samaritan leper. Then Jesus moves on to Judaea and finally Jerusalem and the temple. Acts begins with the disciples in Jerusalem , frequenting the temple. After Stephen’s martyrdom they spread through all Judaea and Samaria , and then, by stages, throughout the gentile world, ending up, with Paul in Rome , the very heart of the gentile world. Thus Luke lays out his vision of the church as being sent to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, a witness above all, to the mercy of God, with no vengeance.
          And to this end Luke has shifted the giving of the Holy Spirit from what we call Easter Day to Pentecost. As we have heard in our reading from St John’s Gospel, Jesus empowers the disciples with the Holy Spirit on the day of resurrection, Easter day itself. And St Paul in 1 Corinthians likewise connects the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit as one event (15.45) when he speaks of the risen Christ as the Last Adam who is a life0-making Spirit.  So why has Luke moved the empowering of the disciples with the Holy Spirit to fifty days later, the feast of Pentecost, and what difference did he hope that it would make for those for whom he wrote then – and for us today?
          It is Luke who emphasizes that Jesus is begotten by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, and empowered by the Spirit, especially as he prays. In the same way Luke then presents the church as begotten by the Spirit at Pentecost, guided by the Spirit in all its prayerful deliberations, and, above all, empowered by the Spirit to bear witness.
          But why Pentecost?  I believe the answer to this question lies in what the Feast of Pentecost meant to the Jews and also in the various traditions associated with the feast.
          This Jewish feast originally marked the start of the wheat harvest, and was what we might call a Harvest Thanksgiving. But it was given an historical meaning, so that well before Jesus’ day it was a celebrating of God’s giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai , that is, the giving of what we call the Law.
          Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel was a passage that was read at the season of Pentecost. One of the Jewish traditions, based on this passage and associated with the feast is that when God spoke on Mount Sinai his voice was heard in every land, but only Israel responded. And so Luke tells the story that representatives of every land on the feast of Pentecost now hear God’s good news, the gospel, in their own tongue, in effect, undoing the Tower of Babel and bringing people together again.
          After the exile in Babylon , when the Jews returned to Israel under the leadership of such people as Ezra and Nehemiah, there was a drive towards what we today might call "ethnic cleansing", for Ezra and Nehemiah tried to force all the Jews who had stayed in the land to get rid of their Canaanite wives. In reaction against this drive for ethnic purity, the scroll of the Book of Ruth was read at Pentecost, and this scroll reminded the Jews that their great king David came through the line of a non-Israelite, Ruth, the Moabite.
          Also at the time of the feast one of the readings following on from the story of the Tower of Babel was Genesis 12, which tells of Abraham, the patriarch of Israel , leaving his home land of Haran . And Gen 12.5 tells of his taking with him "all the souls he had begotten in Haran ". Jewish tradition took the phrase, "the souls he had begotten" as being proselytes, or converts. In fact, the same tradition spoke of Abraham himself as having been a proselyte or convert to the worship of Yahweh, the Lord.
          So, when we put together these elements of the Feast of Pentecost, we see a breaking down of old ethnic barriers in the reading of the Book of Ruth, a concern for opening up the community to new members in the traditions about Abraham, and a sharing of the good news with people from every known land. That is, Pentecost is above all the missionary feast.
Now we can see why Luke associates the giving of the Spirit with the Feast of Pentecost. He wants to make very sure that we do not think we have been given the Holy Spirit in order to be happy simply in our Christian fellowship with one another. Rather, we have been given the Spirit to empower us to share the good news of the gospel with those outside our fellowship, in effect, to be witnesses.  In fact, when you read the end of the Gospel according to Luke and the beginning of the Book of Acts, Luke says that the disciples were very happy among themselves already, so that when he tells of the Spirit coming upon them on the Feast of Pentecost the Spirit comes very much as the Spirit of mission. The Spirit is a sending Spirit, equipping all Christians to be witnesses.
          So now you can see why it is appropriate that we read the Book of Acts during Eastertide.  We are, above all, to be witnesses.  That is why we have been given the Holy Spirit so that we may follow in the steps of the faithful witness, Jesus our Lord.  This sense of the overwhelming love of God made known in and through Jesus of Nazareth is at the very heart of the witness of the New Testament. 

So let us think carefully about how we understand and share with others the wonderful good news of our life in Christ that we celebrate this Eastertide and every day of our lives.

How are we to witness?  You have all heard someone say at one time or another, ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!’

But I would suggest that we can also turn this around and say, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!  If we witness by our deeds we also witness by our words, and sometimes our witness simply consists of standing there, steadfastly, when things get rough.

Paula Gooder, our Canon Theologian, expresses our calling very well when she says, “In 1 Corinthians 15.45 Paul draws the contrasts between Adam and Christ: Adam, he says, was made alive; whereas Christ makes life.  If we are in Christ, we become like him.  If we are in Christ we are called to become life-givers, life-breathers, life-makers.  We become people who bear resurrection with us wherever we go.” (Gooder, This Risen Existence, p. 127)

          Practice knowing God’s love holding you in its warmth and vibrancy, and you will be not only filled with joy, but also exuberance that will flow out in witness with your whole being, word and deed.

We are witnesses.  It is a calling that we, as disciples of Christ, cannot ignore or reject even if we want to.  Our very presence witnesses either for or against the God and Father of our Lord Jesus in our every attitude, word and action.

St Paul tells us that we are the Body of Christ, and I am convinced that he means this literally.  That is, that collectively we are Christ.  I am not Christ.  You are not Christ, but together we are Christ, the one body with many members, each having his or her own gifts to offer in love and service in order that we all together may show forth Christ to the world as his witnesses