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Called to Witness
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Easter I - 05/01/11 Is. 43:1-13; Ps. 103; I Jn. 5:4-12; Jn. 20:19-23
The price God is willing to pay to redeem His people is a theme running all through Scripture, from Genesis 3, the story of the Fall right through to the Book of Revelation. It is a theme which, so far as I know, has no parallel anywhere in pagan religion, nowhere in secular literature.
I have occasionally made similar statements about other differences between Biblical religion and secularism or paganism, but have never gotten together a list of these special characteristics which are true of the Biblical God but true of no pagan deity or secular philosophy. Biblical religion is fundamentally, not just peripherally, different from all other religions. If you think of any of these differences, please write them down and give them to me. There are probably over a dozen important and fundamental differences which we need to get under our belts and make known abroad, challenging the non-believers to a reasonable discussion. Many of them are quite common sense, needing no special education, and can be used in our own personal witnessing.
Our lesson from Isaiah starts off with God telling His people how much He values them, and of the price His willing to pay for their freedom and restoration as His own people. "I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you...." God may have been referring to those nations being given to Persia in exchange for His taking His Israelites back for Himself. Cambyses, son of Cyrus, had conquered Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba. God was asserting His power to give and take from the pagan nations as well as the Israelites.
Then God calls forth people from all the nations of the world to have a discussion on who the true God is. God creates a level playing field, an open arena, into which the witnesses of all the pagan nations are invited. "Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble! Let them bring witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, 'It is true...'"
They are being asked to give good reasons for their believing in their gods and goddesses. God is calling those pagan peoples to give testimony to the reality of their deities. "Come! Let us reason together..." from chapter 1 of Isaiah rings out. He calls the pagans to give their testimony on the subject.
That is another unique aspect of our God, He is willing to meet with His people on a level playing field. He does not become less than God in doing so. Rather, all the authority and power of His Godhead are dedicated to defending that open arena.... so that truth can be spoken and investigated by His benighted people.
Honest presentation of one's view in a search for the real truth of the matter is that important to God. Not that God is in search for truth, He alone knows it all. But rather, God insists that His people get into that search for truth, both believers and non-believers. It is in that contest that truth is spread abroad and attracts those who are interested in the truth about life. In that process, those who are not truth-seekers and truth-speakers will be exposed and self-condemned. The one qualification for entering that arena is that you be willing to engage in that open, honest contest of viewpoints, and let the truth of the matter prove its own case. "Come, let us reason together" is the foundation upon which God forms His covenant relationship with His people. He shows us why He is the right choice for being our God.
Having invited all the "nations", that is the goiim, the foreign nations, God turns to His own people whom He is redeeming from among those pagan people, and says to them: "You are My witnesses...., and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after Me.... I declared and saved and proclaimed when here was no strange god among you; and you are My witnesses."
There was little practice, or even understanding, of evangelism among the Hebrews of Isaiah's time. Evangelism, such as there was, was done by God Himself, performing mighty deeds which would astonish the pagans and draw respect for them, such as defeat them in battle. But here was God asking His people to evangelize those pagans, many of whom had just had them in captivity. "Tell them what I have done for you...," says the Lord. "Be witnesses for Me!" The Lord is telling both the Israelites and the pagans that He, God, had arranged the triumph of the pagans over Israel, their captivity, and now their freedom. He was God, He was directing history. (God personally directing history toward the Kingdom is another unique aspect of Biblical religion.)
In the Epistle, St. John's theme is overcoming the world through the testimony of God to us, the reverse direction. John tells us that, "Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God."
In Isaiah, God was telling His people to be witnesses for Him, but here John tells us, "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which He hath testified of His Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself."
If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then the witness of Jesus to us concerning the Father is God Himself witnessing to who He Himself really is, what kind of God He Himself is.
Jesus said that, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him..." (Jn. 6:34) That means that the Father is already speaking to us, even before we meet Jesus -- perhaps through our conscience and moral sense. In some way the Father is testifying to us that this person, Jesus, is the Father's son. The Father is telling us that, "This person, Jesus, is My self-revelation. If you have seen Him, you have seen Me." That testimony from the Father ratifies in our minds and hearts that Jesus is from the Father. Just as Isaiah says (30:20 ff.), "And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide Himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it....'" Or, "This is My Son, follow Him."
So we hear words from God through each other, and from God Himself. As with one's spouse or close friend, we get to know God so that when we hear something, we often know whether this is from Him or not. This "fits", or does not "fit". A deep trust relationship develops so that we can obey quickly and fully. We obey, not like a robot, but with conviction and trust. "This is the way, walk in it."
St. John, as much as any New Testament writer, emphasizes the need to receive Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God. God in the flesh. God assuming human nature. God who empties Himself to become like us. (Another uniquely Biblical/Christian aspect.) We fallen humans are so trapped in our tunnel vision, focused on the things of the world, not those of God, that we could not consistently hear the Father speaking in our hearts and minds. We had to have Him come in the flesh, eyeball to eyeball, right in the middle of our tunnel. Jesus came to make God imaginable, to make His love for us imaginable. He did that by coming and painting a living picture of His love, and in doing so, drew us into the story line of God Himself.
St. John continues in his epistle, "And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and his life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life."
People, even some who call themselves Christians, think this is a narrow minded belief, and that God reaches out to us through many, if not all, religions. Well, indeed, God will reach out to us in any way that He finds useful. But that does not change the fact that God is a particular God, not a generic deity, that God has a particular plan for us, not a generic pluralistic plan, one size fits all. There is a real difference between right and wrong.
And most importantly, Jesus is the second persona of a triune God, who is one God, one being, one "person" in the modern sense of a unique, self-aware, freewill individual. Jesus is not an avatar of the Great Cosmos Consciousness, Jesus is the deliberate self-revelation of I AM, Him Who Is, the most specific and concrete Individual in all existence, who is the ultimate cause of and explanation for all other existence.
So the only way to have a saving relationship with Him is to do it with Him. Other religions might have some helpful ideas and practices. But God is a specific person, not a set of ideas or practices. Not a state of consciousness. You deal with Him or you are out of luck. The only way to have a relation with anybody is to have that relationship through their own self-revelation. You have to relate to your spouse through his or her body, not that of someone else. It won't work.
That parallel is why the Bible often refers to false religion as adultery. That makes sense only if God is personal in that radical (and again, unique) way of the Bible.
The Gospel lesson shifts to a particular scene that evening of the Day of the Resurrection. Doors would often be left open in such gatherings so that others could come in and join the meal. But the doors were shut in this case because of their fear of the Jews, that is, the hostile leaders of the Jews. Jesus appears in their midst. What follows only emphasizes the personal nature of the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. None of this would make sense with an avatar of the Cosmic Consciousness because they all would be potential avatars of that same Cosmic Consciousness, not about-to-be apostles sent by the unique Son of God to proclaim Him personally savior of the world. None of the disciples thought that they too might one day be Jesus, the Son of God, to the world -- except by His personal indwelling Spirit.
Jesus shows them His scarred hands and feet, and the side wound, again to show His personal identity, not His generic avatarhood. Jesus then commissions them to be sent just as He had been sent by the Father.
Then Jesus does something which identifies Him with Him who breathed on the clay of Adam at the first creation of mankind. As the Church has taught perhaps since the earliest Christians, the appearances of God among the Hebrews were of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, who walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, and who appeared at the burning bush. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." That was a clear sign of a return to the conditions of Eden, the presence of God among His people, probably a preparation for Pentecost still 49 days away.
Then Jesus repeats a theme which He had introduced when Peter made his confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus tells them: "...whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained." The first time appeared to be spoken to Peter, this second time is to the whole band of disciples -- who are now apostles, sent ones.
The Hebrew tendency to overstate a case to make a point makes it hard to determine sometimes just what is being said. It would not, I think, mean an arbitrary authority for the apostles to decide who was and was not forgiven their sins.
But I think it does mean at least this, that the community which Jesus was forming among them, to be furthered by the coming of the Holy Spirit, would be of such spiritual intensity and purity, living in the light, that persons coming into that community would be convicted of their sins. The spiritual pressure would force them, just as Jesus forced the Jewish leaders, either to repent and become part of that community, to flee, or to stay and work to subvert and undermine the spiritual integrity of that community -- spiritual warfare.
If that community would retain its closeness to the Lord, the subversion would not work, and would come back on the head of the subverter.
Those passages were the foundation for the early Church having public repentance and restoration back into fellowship. They took sin and forgiveness very seriously, a thing to be renewed in the Church and among ourselves. We must learn -- with grace and mercy -- to hold each other accountable for our behavior and attitudes. The administration of such discipline leading to repentance and restoration is one of the primary gifts of the Holy Spirit. Small groups are probably the best way to foster that gift, having a few friends with whom you share that kind of mutual discipleship. That is a fundamental part of living in the Light of Christ.
What is God saying to us at St. Luke's this morning? We have been searching for clues about the nature of our mission, the purpose for which God has us here together as a part of the Body of Christ. We have embarked on a study of the Acts of the Apostles as a way of determining more about our own Acts of St. Luke's, our own response to the Great Commission to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to those about us. We especially need to be looking at the Pentecost experience, partly because many of us have been disappointed by some of the results of recent attempts to emulate that surge of spiritual energy and focus in our own time.
What was it that happened to the frightened disciples to turn them into powerful apostles? What must happen for us here, and Christians all over the West, to have a similar experience? Why do we Westerners have such a hard time making an effective witness for Jesus Christ? What is it about Western culture that neutralizes us so effectively?
There are good answers to these issues. We must take seriously the call of God on our lives, and take seriously our failures in those areas. We must trust that God has good answers to our issues, and that He has good plans for us to grow and mature in our faith and our witness. Our financial issues, our potential move to the Pavilion, our wondering why we remain so small -- all these are part of the picture, and part of what God has in mind for us. He has us right where we need to be to do our intellectual, moral, and spiritual growing.
I am very pleased and hopeful because we seem to be looking forward in a positive way to deal with the changes which are coming upon us. I sense very little of negative feeling, and that we are looking forward.
Just as in Isaiah 43, God is calling us specifically -- to be His witnesses. And just as in the Epistle, God is telling us that whosoever is born of God overcomes the world. There is no challenge out there which we cannot handle in the law and grace of God. And just as in the Gospel lesson, Jesus is telling us that we are to be apostles, sent ones, with a powerful and effective message for our people in our time.
We have been delayed in getting our Acts of St. Luke's study underway. We will begin back at the beginning with the first four chapters of the book, along with the appropriate chapters in the Acts of the Apostles for next Sunday.
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