St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Easter, April 19, 2020
“And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. 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.”
I SWEAR to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. With that said, a witness may be seated and await questioning. Giving sworn testimony has been a cornerstone of justice from the dawn of civilization. The statement of an eyewitness has always been used to establish facts that are trusted in determining truth. Testimony is so powerful, for good or evil, that one of God’s Ten Commandments prohibits lying under oath. This prohibition gains force when the Law of Moses assigns punishment for a person committing perjury in equal measure to the punishment that threatened the one they lied against. If you falsely accuse someone of murder and are found out, you will be sentenced as though you were the murderer yourself.
So, it’s risky business taking the stand. In my various legal adventures, I’ve had to give about 12 days of sworn testimony, legal depositions before a court reporter. I’ve told the truth under oath, carefully choosing my words so not to be misquoted or misinterpreted. Not once were my words used in evidence against me.
We are an Apostolic Church because the testimony of the closest followers of Jesus Christ form the rock bed of our beliefs. This is not a philosophy devised in the mind of an intelligent or spiritually gifted thinker. Platonism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Existentialism, Humanism, Scientology, and Socialism may have their interesting insights and observations, life paths and attitudes to adopt, by a wise observation or ecstatic revelation. But these were born in the minds of men. Christianity is the sworn testimony of eleven witnesses who put their lives on the line to tell the world a fact: that Jesus Christ rose alive from the grave. They saw Him, touched Him, spoke and ate with Him, and determined without a doubt that He lived with a real body after definitely dying on a Roman cross.
Peter had thought he loved Jesus enough to stand up for Him before he learned the weakness of his own will. In the face of the entire demon-inspired world set against his Master, violently abusing Him, bringing the full force of the state and religion and hell to bear, Peter crumbled and lied his way out of the high priest’s palace, but only to hear the cock crow and see our Lord gaze across the courtyard: “Didn’t I tell you, Peter?” But when Jesus came to Peter, alive three days later, our Apostle found the strength to testify, so that on Pentecost he stood before thousands of doubtful Jews, even the high priest and Sanhedrin and he said, “You all denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be delivered to you; And you killed the Prince of life, whom God has raised from the dead; we are His witnesses.” Acts 3:14-15 “This Jesus has God raised up, we are all His witnesses.” Acts 2:32
John, a young fisherman who most deeply felt the love of Jesus and who guarded the door at His Lord’s Last Supper, became the last of these 11 witnesses of Messiah near the end of the 1st century. He wrote: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life… we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us.” 1 John 1:1-3 The Apostles share their knowledge, which isn’t dreamed up but eye-witnessed. On this sworn testimony our faith rests. We are an Apostolic Church.
Thus: it confers a sign to every next generation of living witnesses that the Apostles John or Peter or James laid hands on your head and declared you confirmed, or deacon, or priest or bishop of this Church. Spiritual power was conferred in this act, but also the legal imperative: that you give this testimony after we’ve gone from the earth and that you never change it. For the power of the Gospel, the good news is that it’s true—a true testimony, for which we would die before we change it or ever deny it.
Jesus Christ is alive today. Here’s what He says:
“I have greater witnesses than John [the Baptist]: for the works which the Father has given me to finish, the very works that I do, all bear witness to me, that the Father has sent me. And the Father himself, who sent me, has borne witness of me… Search the scriptures; for in them you believe for eternal life: and the scriptures testify of me.” John 5:36-43
When Pilate asked Him, “Are you really a king then? Jesus answered, You say that I am a king. For this end was I born, and for this purpose I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice.” John 18:37
Just before He ascended, Jesus told His disciples, “It is not yours to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has kept in his own power. But you shall receive power, after the Holy Ghost comes upon you: and you shall be witnesses of me in Jerusalem, and Judaea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” Acts 1:7-8
Witnesses. We have their sworn testimony in the pages of our New Testament. A testament is a sworn statement. And it’s a covenant that God extends to us, with the promise of eternal life, if by faith we enter a relationship with a man who has been living from the 1st century to now in an undying body. That He is the eternal Son of God can no longer be in any serious doubt.
Some doubt it anyway. Some who’ve had the Apostolic hands laid on their heads have gone on to disbelieve Christ’s Virgin Birth, His Bodily Resurrection, His moral perfection and His divinity. But these wolves are twice damned. Twice: because they’ve taken their oaths and bishop’s office under pretense, and then they have used their holy office to spread lies and sow doubt in the hearts of innocents. False testimony doesn’t carry a death penalty in this life, only in the next.
Are you a witness? To what truth about Christ would you be willing to stake your reputation, your public image, your professional career, your freedom, or even your life? And on what issue would you NOT be willing to swear, “I believe this”?
Eleven men, frightened literally into hiding, all turned bold enough to declare what they’d seen in the middle of the city because they knew it was truth, and that even death would have no lasting power over them.
What is the hill you are willing to die on, the truth for which you would gladly take a bullet, the evidence you would give even under penalty of death?
Mar-too-ria is the Greek: and how we translate it is Witness. A Martyr, dies for the faith he or she espouses, for being a witness. The deaths that martyrs boldly endured by sword, by cross, by fire, by freezing, by wild animals, by gladiators’ sport, by the edict of mad emperors—these deaths were their witness: to the world astonished at them when they sang glorious songs to God as they were marched away to die.
Where are such heroes today? One priest saw the faithlessness of his bishops, and said, “we stand today on the shoulders of midgets.” Isn’t it time for new witnesses for the faith once given? A martyr, even a living martyr, to stand up against the flood of apostasy in once faithful churches?
Easter is a good test. One of my seminary instructors entered Episcopal seminary in Berkeley in the early 70s only to dodge the draft. He had no faith to speak of, but the priesthood seemed a good place to hide from the military. While there, he noticed that in three years’ education, one book was not required reading: the Holy Bible. Being a rebel, he bought one and read it. It changed him. He believed what he read, and as a witness he began to trouble the peace at CDSP.
At graduation, his proctor informed him and his classmates they had passed and would become deacons, but first answer a question, just for fun. What happened on Easter Day? One by one, these future priests told tales of mass hallucinations, corn-god fables, fuzzy feelings of well-being, a vague sense that Jesus just might be okay, somewhere, even if we’d lost track of His body. When it came to my mentor, he flatly stated: “Jesus Christ bodily rose from the grave, alive.” Graciously he was told, “Well John, I suppose it’s all right if you want to believe that.” Some stand on the shoulders of midgets. I want to stand on the shoulders of giants.
The Baptist stood in the running waters of Jordan and loudly declared his generation unclean, lost, faithless and unworthy to receive the blessing that was coming very soon. They must repent. The Apostle John would later write of him, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was sent to bear witness of that Light.” John 1:6-8 For being a witness, the Baptist lost his head. John also wrote: “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcomes the world, but he that believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” You didn’t live back then and can’t say you saw Him rise. But this same Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” John 20:29 That blessing is yours today if you are a witness.
Jesus breathed on the Apostles and gave them power in the Holy Spirit to heal our worst disease, the disease of sin, guilt, the separation all people feel from God and from one another. The Apostolic Succession was established to ensure this forgiveness would remain a power in the Church for all time. Defining deviancy down does nothing to save anybody, but rather the declaration of God’s forgiveness toward a penitent soul. When you know you are forgiven all that you ever hated in yourself, will you then become valiant enough to testify for Jesus? Will you be His witness?
Testify. Be a living sacrifice, a modern martyr, a willing oblation offered up on the altar of life so that perhaps by your testimony the lives of other lost souls might be saved.