Cloud of Witnesses

Testimony is natural, supernatural, human and divine, and bears witness to the transformation of the world...

Easter 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.”

I want to begin my sermon today with a question: Have any of you here this morning ever had to testify in a civil or criminal matter, either in court or by deposition? I won’t ask you for details, but I will volunteer that I have been in that position in a few civil cases, including that long, drawn-out lawsuit with the former day care operator who stopped paying her rent, in addition to other violations of the lease. The less said about that the better!

But if you have ever given testimony — or if you’ve seen it being done on TV or in the movies, or as a member of a jury, and whether fictional or for real — you know what it amounts to: affirming or swearing to something that you know to be true, usually as a witness or a party to an event or action of some kind.

Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes. I was struck a few weeks ago, after that terrible bombing in Boston, by the fact that some of the “witnesses” aren’t even aware that they are witnesses at the time at all. Much of the evidence that led to identifying the bombers came from cell-phone pictures or snapshots taken of the crowd, or from surveillance cameras and monitors, without any specific intention to photograph the particular bombers. It was only after the fact that the investigators went back to review those thousands of images to piece together the evidence that led to identifying the bombers, and sealed their fate.

I raise this issue testifying because this morning’s readings all address testimony of one sort or another. Some of it appears to be almost as unexpected as the cell-phone snapshots taken by the bystanders enjoying the Boston Marathon — before those terrible explosions went off. Some of the testimony is true as far as it goes, but entirely misses the point. And some of the testimony is important enough to be memorialized for thousands of years since the events themselves.

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First comes perhaps the strangest testimony of all, and the unusual reactions to it. This is the testimony of the demon who possessed the Philippian slave-girl. That young woman had long been held captive by a demon and by those who made use of the prophetic power it bestowed. That also rings a bell in current news, doesn’t it! But unlike the women held captive in Cleveland, this young Philippian was allowed out on the streets, though she bore her demon captor with her wherever she went. She followed Paul and the other disciples through the streets of that Roman colony calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It’s always interested me that Saint Paul, rather than welcoming this free advertising, is annoyed by it, and he performs a quick exorcism casting out the demon, and setting the girl free from that possession, but also rendering her of no more use to her owners, since she can no longer be a sooth-sayer. This ought to remind us of those strange incidents in the Gospels where demons proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, and Jesus tells them to be silent and casts them out. It seems that some testimony, even if true, is not welcome from certain witnesses! God does not need devils to bear witness to him.

We then quickly see a change of scene and a real court-house testimony, as the owners of the slave-girl drag the apostles before the magistrate and offer their accusation: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and they are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe.” Now, as much as we might not like to admit it, this testimony is also true, as far as it goes. From the perspective of the pagans of that colony, these Christians are upsetting their world — as will be said in the next chapter of Acts, when Paul and his companions have moved on to Thessalonica, where they are accused of turning the whole world upside-down.

Finally, this chapter of Acts treats us to one last bit of testimony: after the earthquake that shakes the prison open, and loosens the chains of the prisoners, Paul and Silas proclaim the Gospel in its fulness, bringing salvation even to the jailer who had kept them locked up, and freeing him as well from his own bonds of ignorance. They were locked up because they had upset the people of the colony with their un-Roman ways; but they proclaimed something universal and powerful that is beyond Jew or Gentile: the salvation that comes through Christ. And here at last the entire household rejoices in being baptized and becoming believers in that which earlier they had earlier condemned and despised. Such is the power of testimony: it liberates from captivity of all sorts — from demons, from prison, from darkness and despair.

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But there is more, one more entirely faithful and truthful witness, one who is the Truth itself, one who bears witness not only to himself, but to his heavenly Father, as the Father also bears witness to him, for they are one: for whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father too. And this witness, this Jesus, commissions and sends other witnesses to testify to his coming, and to his mission. In John’s vision, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, Jesus, testifies that he has sent his angel to John, with his testimony for the churches, that he is who he claims to be: the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star of salvation.

And in the Gospel Jesus prays for those who will witness to him, who will testify to him, and also for all of those who will come to believe in him through their word, through their testimony. Jesus makes himself and his heavenly Father known to his disciples, so that they can in turn make this saving truth known to the world, the world that needs to be turned upside-down, the world that as yet does not know the truth of this testimony. Jesus prays for those who will believe through the testimony of the Apostles.

And that, my friends, is us. We have not the privilege to be eyewitnesses to the events that happened some eighty generations ago. We rely on the word passed down to us by former witnesses in their testimony, by disciples who actually heard and saw the Lord, and who passed that word down through the generations to those who had no first hand experience of the Gospel events, and on and on to us. We are called do our part too, passing along the words of that old, old story, telling it to those who know the tale already, who know it best, but also to those who have never heard it. This is our testimony, a testimony not at first hand, but a testimony of what we have heard and of what we have believed, of the fulfillment of the words spoken through the prophets, handed down to us through all those generations. We have heard the story retold to those who know it best, and to all the rest of us who hear it for the first time.

It is a story told to the farthest reaches of the universe, to all creatures, natural and supernatural — from the angels above, sent by God to proclaim the word in visions, to the devils who know the truth in their pit of damnation, and who tremble in terror because of it. This is the testimony, and the one who testifies has told us, “Surely I am coming soon.” And let all the people say, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!+