The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary present us with a challenge this week: a passage so similar to last week’s Gospel lection from John about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance that it may leave us wondering how to come up with something fresh or at least different. The stories of encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus and behind closed doors are, for example, familiar enough even without repeating them for two successive weeks in the lectionary.
Perhaps one answer comes with the last sentence in the passage from Luke: “You are witnesses of these things.” It begs this two-part question, “What have these earliest followers of Jesus witnessed and what should they do about it?”
The obvious answer is that Jesus has risen from the grave and, now, his followers should get the word out to others so they, too, will become believers. And like all obvious answers, there’s much more behind this response.
What these first witnesses have “seen” is, on a deeply profound level, the true beginnings of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Not even the power of death can stay God’s purposes. True enough, though, this divine “reign” is still quite invisible to nonbelievers. For all intents and purposes, Caesar’s empire is still reality, and only those with the new eyes of faith can testify otherwise.
And what should these followers/believers do about it? They should start acting and living the new (otherwise invisible) reality of God’s reign as inaugurated by the risen Lord Jesus.
That’s a lovely and obviously theological statement that soon came to make perfect sense to the followers of Jesus back then. How well does it translate to more modern times, however?
For many Christians today the essence of their witness is to (1) claim Jesus as their personal Savior and (2) seek to get others to accept that belief. For them, that is the gospel, the “good news” of Jesus Christ. A good part of the disconnect between the first century of the Christian era and today is related to the way the word “believe” has changed over that time.
Today, to believe generally means to accept statements of doctrine. This is tied to the great creedal statements from the fourth century that include repetition of “We believe….”
Yet the Greek word often used throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament and translated as some variant of “believe” is pistis. The meaning (or actually meanings) of pistis from that earliest era include “faith,” “faithfulness,” and “to be faithful.” The apostle Paul connected the dots between God’s covenantal promises initially made to Abraham and Sarah and Jesus’ perfect faithfulness in bringing those covenants to fulfillment. The next step, he wrote, called for followers of Jesus to be faithful to him as the body of Christ in the world.
As is often the case, a key part of the challenge we face arises from translating from one language to another (Greek to modern vernacular, in this case English) and jumping from ancient times (with its worldview) to modern and, now postmodern eras. The original Greek carried the connotation of a verb form, “to faith,” which in English is somewhere between awkward and grammatically non-existent (purists would say simply “incorrect’).
And this whole idea of accepting Jesus as “your personal savior” is an idea that goes back no more than a century or so. Certainly there’s nothing in the New Testament even approaching that idea. Yet multitudes today view it as a divine imperative to share that “good news” with others so that they, too, will accept Jesus in that way.
Maybe this is one of those times when we should emulate our first-century Christian ancestors and bear witness of God’s act in the resurrection of Jesus to begin the reign of God on earth. What then would this “witness” mean for us in the twenty-first century? How would we be called to faithfulness (or called “to faith”) in regard to justice and peace? How would we view our fellow human beings and, indeed, all of creation?
We are witnesses of God at work in the world through Christ Jesus. Can there be anything more incredible and more important than that?
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.