We Are Witnesses of Christ
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
In this passage we see that we are not geniuses for Christ or experts for Christ, but witnesses for Christ. Even through our doubts, God empowers us with his Holy Spirit to be his witnesses.
If you are from Ohio like me and your basketball fate depends entirely on the erratic decision-making of LeBron James, then you are pretty familiar with the literal ups and downs of a certain 10-story-tall Nike billboard in downtown Cleveland. This billboard hung on Ontario St for years before it was dramatically dismantled after LeBron took his talents to Miami in 2010. Then it was dramatically rehung when LeBron returned home in 2014, and then it was taken down again when he went to LA. It showed LeBron during his famous pregame routine, throwing chalk in the air, and it had an epic caption: “We are all witnesses.”
I want to think about this word “witness” and the way it is being used on the Nike billboard vs the way it’s used in our passage in Luke. Because the two usages are different, and the difference has a lot to tell us about what it means to be a Christian.
It might seem like a sermon given two days after Christmas should be about mangers and shepherds. But I think it makes a lot of sense to look at the last thing Jesus does and the first thing he does at the same time. That’s because at Christmas in particular Jesus can seem almost mythological, and today we can easily believe in and celebrate his birth and life and death and even his resurrection without a clear sense of how or even if we Christians fit into the story — or, in other words, of what it means to be a Christian.
That question of what a Christian is can seem like the most basic question of all time, but there’s a lot of confusion about it. I teach philosophy at Temple and this semester I did something that I will probably never do again. I was teaching a broad course surveying historical texts about “The Good Life,” and I let students propose final papers in response to literally any question they wanted. It was remarkable how many students, given the chance to research any question, asked more or less, “Why are Christians so bad when they’re supposed to be so good?” I also proposed a research topic on the relationship between religion and morality, and in a similar way, the ones who chose this topic all defended the same answer: Religion exists to support morality, and it’s not doing its job.
So there’s this sense outside the church and probably inside the church too that what it means to be a Christian is to be a good person. And so you hear things like “there are not many Christians (or not many real Christians) out there.” There’s also a sense that’s familiar to many of us that being a Christian means committing some kind of egregious philosophical sin. Being a Christian means going way beyond your evidence to make outlandish commitments that, in any “normal,” nonreligious context, would be obviously, flagrantly irresponsible. And so we hear that “sure there might be a few Christians out there who have really ‘earned’ their faith, but that for the most part Christianity is a comforting myth or a borderline superstition, intellectually unearned.
We can talk about these things some more, for sure, but what does Jesus think that we Christians are? We see in our passage that when Jesus is just about to leave us he tells us exactly how he sees us fitting into the story. So let’s get it straight from the source. What are we as Christians? We are witnesses of Christ, our passage tells us. And we see two features of witnesses in the passage that I want to think about some more: 1) Witnesses attend to the doubts that “arise in their hearts,” and 2) they “are clothed with power from on high”
I was unfortunately not there firsthand at Oracle Arena in San Francisco to witness LeBron chase down and block former 76ers guard Andre Iguadala to win Cleveland its first championship. I did witness it — live at 4am on a grainy, pirated stream in Budapest — but what’s important for our purposes is that I am not a witness of it. Even though I did witness it, and even though it was actually really important to me (probably too important), I haven’t talked about it much since then. At least as far as I know, when people see me, they don’t say, “Oh, there’s that guy who is a witness to the fact that LeBron won a championship for Cleveland in 2016.”
But I do want people to say “Oh, there’s a witness of Christ.” And yet that’s obviously a really funny thing for people to say about me given that I obviously never witnessed Christ. Two days ago, we celebrated the birth of Christ. But the key word there is “celebrated”: we didn’t witness Christ’s birth; none of us were there. And yet we are all witnesses of Christ — that’s what the passage said. So how does that work?
Well, clearly “witness” in the Christian sense is different from “witness” in the Nike sense. We’re seeing that there’s a more common kind of witness (witness in the Nike sense) where you just witness something. You witness a basketball game. You witness a car accident. We can’t look at each other and say “We have all witnessed Christ” in this sense, the way the shepherds might have as they walked away from the manger. And yet our passage tells us “You are witnesses of these things.” But what does that mean? And how can we be witnesses of Christ if we never witnessed Christ?
Well, this seems like a bad question, actually. Because even though these disciples in our passage witnessed Jesus (in the Nike sense), Jesus recognizes that they were going to have trouble being witnesses of Him. Why? Because they are “troubled;” “doubts arise in their hearts.”
And I love how Jesus responds to the disciples in the first part of our passage. We all know about doubting Thomas. When Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus has resurrected, Jesus doesn’t rebuke him; he reasons with him. And in our passage we see that basically all of the disciples were doubting Thomases. And Jesus responds to all of them the same way. He doesn’t say “You shall not let doubts arise in your minds; if you do, you’re a bad person.” Instead, he asks “Why do doubts arise in your hearts?” I don’t think Jesus is unaware that doubts – at least the fancy, philosophical kinds of doubts – are supposed to arise in the mind. But these disciples are troubled – their doubts are in their hearts. Even after he invites them to “touch me and see,” they “disbelieve for joy.” They want to believe and they don’t want to believe. They are afraid of being duped – of getting their hopes up and then looking like fools. But Jesus is not discrediting or denouncing their doubts; he’s responding to them – trying to attend to them.
Does anyone remember Christopher Hitchens? Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett? These New Atheists have all but disappeared these days for reasons that I think are extremely interesting to unpack. But ten years ago, they were a really big deal. They would go around debating Christians, and if you want an important piece of my own autobiography, I would say that it took my faith about six years to recover from those debates. Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t the New Atheists’ fault; it’s not that they had arguments that made me doubt. It was the way the Christians participated in the whole spectacle: the way that God’s mere possibility seemed to hang in the balance, dependent on the quality of William Lane Craig’s rebuttals.
But one of the things I remember well from the New Atheists’ heyday was when Christopher Hitchens was touring the country debating Douglas Wilson, and at one of his stops, he told the audience, “I go around and debate and interact with a lot of Christians, and I have to hand it to him: Doug is one of the only people who actually believes this stuff.” This was vintage Hitchens: I think he said it to trigger the Christian kids at The King’s College, my alma mater.
I’m not here to support Douglas Wilson or to say that Hitchens was right or wrong. My question is this: let’s say Hitchens is right and a lot of people who would appear to believe all this stuff don’t actually believe it. What kind of a problem would that be?
I fear that part of the reason why Hitchens might be right is that we Christians can think that faith is a moral or rational imperative. Believing, overcoming our doubts, are things that we “have to do” – because reason says that we have to, or because otherwise we won’t be good people.
It’s easy to think that the disciples were just lucky. In terms of Enlightenment modernism, they had it all. They got to be in a position where they could be supremely rational, since the substance of their faith was demonstrated to them – by Jesus himself. But now, we assume, it’s different: believing despite our doubts – even though we cannot touch Jesus – is just one of the many things Jesus tells us we have to do.
But maybe it’s not like that. Maybe Jesus’s posture toward us has not changed. Maybe Jesus responds to our doubts in the same way he responds to the doubts of his disciples. Try asking yourself his question: Why do doubts arise in your heart? But don’t ask it rhetorically or shamefully. It seems to me that Jesus’s tone is more one of “What do you need?”
And that was a question that I would have had no idea how to answer as I watched atheists and Christians bat Christianity back and forth in the air. What did I need? I felt like I was supposed to need God to grovel – to treat me as if I was God and he had to do whatever it would take to make me believe, even though even I didn’t know what that would have been – and even though that wasn’t actually what I even wanted (since I also wanted him to be God). And so I think what we often get here is an irrational mental posture. I’m hopeful that my dissertation at Temple will unpack more of what that means.
In the end, I needed God to do what he does with the disciples here – to “open my mind to understand.” Only in this way could my faith be “not by works” – not by philosophical or moral works – so that I cannot boast. I think this gift of faith and understanding is part of the “power from on high” that we will examine in a second.
One interesting thing about defining Christians as “witnesses of Christ” is that it doesn’t suggest that on days when Christians doubt, they aren’t Christians. If Christians are believers, then what about the days when they don’t believe? If Christians are good people, for that matter, like my students at Temple think we’re supposed to be, then what about the days when we’re not good? But if you are a witness of Christ, that just means you are going about your day as if Jesus is the king that he claims to be. That’s still a really high bar, but it’s a more realizable one.
So attend to the doubts that arise in your heart. Don’t let them produce an irrational mental posture toward God, but don’t pretend them away them either. Figure out what they are. And attend to them. Many of the smartest people in the history of the world have been Christians; it’s more likely that your doubts are things that you hold on to and try to leverage somehow than that they actually threaten to show that Christian faith is not tenable.
Maybe set aside ten minutes each day to consider your doubts – not just the ones in your mind, but the ones in your heart. Write them down. Talk about them – with God, with other people. It’s usually pretty clear what steps you could take to stretch and challenge and contradict certain doubts. Take those steps. I myself have probably doubted my faith in pretty much every way imaginable, and I’m always happy to talk. The medieval Scholastic motto was “Faith seeking understanding”; a description of faith for me personally might be “doubt seeking understanding” – and then growing into something firm, something like knowledge. I can tell you that when you push up against Christianity, you are pushing up against something solid. There’s something there. And maybe the only way you’ll see that is if you push up against it.
Ok, so where are we. We’ve seen that there are two kinds of witnesses: one, the LeBron kind, that we are not: we did not witness Christ incarnate. But we are witnesses of Christ first by attending to the doubts that threaten our witness, like we’ve just discussed, and secondly by being “clothed with power from on high.”
It’s pretty clear here that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. He says to stay in Jerusalem until the power comes; in Acts 1, which we looked at at the beginning of the year, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples in Jerusalem, and the rest is history.
But even if we identify this power with the Holy Spirit, receiving and possessing this power can still seem really abstract and immaterial. But it’s interesting that Jesus uses a really material, physical image or metaphor for this power: the power “clothes” us.
Your clothes are the first thing people see. They wrap around you and cover (most of) you. They are a way of communicating with the world, and in some sense, the first way: your clothes say a lot about you before you say anything at all. And let’s follow this chain of reasoning: if you are clothed with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is God, then when people see you, the first thing they see, before you even say anything – and before they even see you – is God.
You might not feel like this is true of you or of me or of almost anyone. But I know of some people like this. Some I know personally, some I know less well but still have been privileged to interact with, others died before I was born. I can think of specific names. Just a few. I don’t really disagree with my Temple students; there are a lot of bad Christians out there. But there are also saints. These people are really all you need. We can witness Christ – in the LeBron, Nike sense – because these people are “clothed with power from on high.”
I want to say something about this power from on high. This is especially for those of you who are really smart, or who think you are smart, or whose living depends on at least appearing smart (that’s basically all of us). Being smart gives you a kind of power. But the power from on high is a whole different kind of power. And capturing the relationship between smart power and God’s power is one of the most important tasks we may not have known were in front of us. Getting this relationship wrong can be disastrous. Getting it right can be earth-shattering.
Kierkegaard talks about “the difference between a genius and an apostle.” What would you rather be – a genius or an apostle? In high school my family lived in Albania in Europe, and in Christian terms, we were apostles. I loved being in Albania – I even loved being in Albania for Christ – but I didn’t love being an apostle for Christ. I wanted to be a genius for Christ. Doesn’t that sound cooler? I wanted to study philosophy and become very smart and sophisticated; then, rather than trying to indirectly persuade people to believe, like a missionary, I was just going to use the power of the genius – reason – and just yank them in.
But I think this way of thinking is not just in conflict with faith but irrational outright. And maybe one reason for that is that it gets wrong what Jesus presents himself as being. In Matthew’s telling of the event in our passage, Jesus says “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” Jesus is smart, and Jesus is good, but first and foremost, Jesus has what a genius doesn’t have: power and authority. Jesus is king.
Kierkegaard writes, “Doubt has… [placed] God on the same level with those who have no authority, on the same level with geniuses, poets, and thinkers, whose utterances are evaluated only aesthetically or philosophically.” But this is an irrational way of thinking about God precisely because of this “power from on high,” which derives from God’s authority. “Is authority the profundity of the doctrine, its excellence, its brilliance?” Kierkegaard asks. “Not at all… When someone who has the authority to say it says to a person ‘Go!’ and when someone who does not have the authority says ‘Go!’ the utterance (Go!) and its content are indeed identical; evaluated aesthetically, it is, if you like, equally well spoken, but the authority makes the difference.” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, XXIV: 179)
What does all of this mean? Just that if you are a witness of Christ but you are not a genius – not especially talented or profound or eloquent or philosophical or aesthetic – then maybe that is a good thing, since those things can be distractions from Christ’s authority. As soon as authority is evaluated in those terms, it stops being authority. As Kierkegaard puts it, “In this manner, God is actually smuggled away.”
So we are witnesses. We are witnesses of Christ by attending to our doubts and by receiving power from on high, and as we do these things we also witness Christ in one another.
But you might be thinking, “Ok, sure, but aren’t we still at a disadvantage compared to the shepherds or disciples who witnessed the incarnate Christ?” I think in conclusion I want to say one more thing against this idea – and against the idea that a witness of Christ is doing something philosophically scandalous or sinful.
I remember in my first year of grad school discussing a hypothetical case where one person tells another person about some true event. We were trying to figure out how to describe the person’s mental state or “propositional attitude”: did the person who heard about the event from the other person have knowledge? Faith? Belief? Something else? People were suggesting that the guy who was told about the event knew about the event. But this didn’t seem right to me. It seemed obvious to me that the case was not as “legit” as it could have been. So I said, in this tone of voice, “Yea, sure, person B has knowledge… but it’s testimonial knowledge.” There was an awkward silence, and then my professor, a top epistemologist, looked at me like something was wrong with me. “You can have knowledge by testimony. What’s wrong with knowledge by testimony?”
And when you think about it, what is wrong with testimonial knowledge? It’s funny, if I say “Well, you weren’t there to witness Christ’s resurrection, so you don’t know that it happened” you’re going to feel like you’re supposed to put your tail between your legs and say, “Yea, I guess you’re right.” But if I say “Well you weren’t there to witness Alexander the Great conquer Thebes,” it doesn’t seem quite the same. You might say, “Wait… but I’m pretty sure Alexander the Great did conquer Thebes. Also, I don’t have to have been there to know that. And actually, I know a lot of things that I wasn’t there to see. What am I supposed to do – witness every event for myself?” And that’s right: you don’t know that something happened any better just because you were there to see it. Both the person who saw the thing happen and the person who heard about it know exactly the same thing: they know that the thing happened.
So sure, maybe if we could have witnessed Jesus walk out of the tomb, we could know more than we do about what color sandals he was wearing — or whether he was wearing sandals — but if you try to argue that we would know that he walked out of the tomb any better than we do now, a lot of epistemologists will look at you like my professor looked at me. This is why Romans 10:14 doesn’t say, “How will they believe in him if they have never witnessed him?” Instead, it says, “How will they believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
So maybe that’s a good place to end. It seems like the real problem is that people have not heard – or maybe that they have not heard from a witness they consider reliable. But with God’s help, we are all witnesses. So let’s ask now for that power that will enable us to be witnesses of Christ and allow people to witness Christ in us.