St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Easter, April 16, 2010
“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 a witness is seated to await questioning. Giving sworn testimony has always been a cornerstone of justice. The statement of an eyewitness carries weight to establish facts to find truth. The power of testimony is so great, for good or ill, that God’s 9th Commandment prohibits lying under oath against a neighbor. If caught lying, you suffered the penalty for the crime you claimed against another.
So, it’s risky taking the stand. I’ve given about 12 days of sworn depositions. I’ve told the truth under oath, carefully choosing my words. Not once were my words used against me.
The Church is Apostolic because the testimony of the closest followers of Jesus Christ forms the basis of our beliefs. This is not a philosophy from the mind of an intelligent or spiritually gifted thinker. Platonism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Existentialism, Humanism, Scientology, and Socialism may have their interesting observations, lifestyles and perspectives. 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 bodily rose from the grave. They saw Him, touched Him, spoke and ate with Him, and know that He lives after certainly dying on a Roman cross.
Peter earlier thought he’d stand up for Jesus before his resolve was tested. Against a demonically inspired world, violently abusing his master, the full force of state and religion and hell to bear, Peter’s love crumbled and he lied his way out of the high priest’s palace. But when Jesus appeared alive again to Peter, three days later, our Apostle found the strength to testify, heedless of the potential cost to himself. On Pentecost he stood before thousands of doubtful Jews, even the high priests and Sanhedrin, and said, “You denied the Holy and Just One, and sought a murderer to be freed; And killed the Prince of life, who God raised from the dead; of which we are all witnesses.” Acts 3:14-15
John, the youngest fisherman who deeply felt love for Jesus, became the oldest living witness at the end of the 1st century, and 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 unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us.” 1 John 1:1-3 The Apostles share what they know, nothing dreamed up but eye-witnessed. On their testimony our faith rests. We are an Apostolic Church.
Thus, they created the next generation of witnesses when Apostle John or Peter or Matthew laid hands on your head and declared you a deacon, or priest or bishop. Spiritual power was conferred, but also a legal imperative: that you give this testimony after we’re gone from the earth and never change it. For the power of the Gospel is that it’s true—a true testimony, for which we would die before we change it or ever deny it again. Jesus Christ is alive today. Now here’s what He says:
“I have greater witness than that of John [the Baptist]: for the works which the Father has given me to finish, bear witness of me, that the Father has sent me. And the Father himself, has borne witness of me… Search the scriptures; for by them you believe in eternal life: and they testify of me.” John 5:36-43 When Pilate asked Him, “Are you a king then? Jesus answered, You say that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” John 18:37 Just before He ascended, Jesus told His disciples, “It’s not for you to know the times or the seasons, which are in my Father’s power. But you’ll receive power, when the Holy Ghost comes upon you: and you shall be witnesses of me in Jerusalem, and Judaea, and Samaria, and the ends 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. It expresses a covenant God extends to us, the promise of eternal life, so by faith we enter a relationship with a man who has been living since the 1st century in an undying human body in the presence of His Father. He is the eternal Son of God: that can no longer be in doubt. Some still doubt, but this is often evidence of a moral failure rather than serious scholarly study and tested misgivings.
Some have actually had the Apostolic hands laid on their heads and gone on to express disbelief in Christ’s Virgin Birth, His Bodily Resurrection, His moral perfection and His divinity. But in their skepticism these wolves are twice damned. Twice: because they have taken oaths and a bishop’s office under pretense, and then used this holy office to spread lies and sow doubts in the hearts of innocents. The threat of false testimony doesn’t carry a death penalty in this life for such traitors, 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 be unwilling to swear, “I believe this”? And what is the force of your testimony? To whom has it been given? Eleven men, frightened into hiding, all became bold enough to declare what they’d seen in the middle of the Temple at Jerusalem because they both knew that it was true, and that even death could have no real 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 word we find in King James English meaning Witness. Martyr, one who dies for the faith he or she claims, is a witness. The deaths that the martyrs boldly endured by sword, by cross, by fire, by freezing, by wild animals, by gladiators’ sports, by the edict of mad emperors—these deaths were their witness to the world shocked at them when they sang glorious hymns while marching away from their judges. Where are such heroes today? A priest, looking at the faithlessness of his bishops, recently said that “we stand on the shoulders of midgets.” Is this the day for the rise of a few witnesses to the faith once given? A living martyr, to stand against the flood of apostasy in once traditional churches?
Easter is the test. One of my seminary instructors entered Episcopal seminary in Berkeley during the early 70s 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, many books were required reading, except one: the Bible. Being a rebel, he bought a Good News Bible and read it. It changed his life. He believed what he read in its pages, and as a witness he began to trouble the peace at his seminary. At graduation, the proctor for the oral exams informed all his classmates they had passed and would become deacons, but could they 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, and a vague sense that Jesus might just be okay, somewhere, even if we’d mislaid His body. When it came to my mentor, he flatly stated: “Jesus Christ bodily rose from the grave, alive.” The proctor blinked at this, hesitated, then said, “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 the Jordan and loudly declared his generation unclean, lost, faithless and unworthy to receive the blessing that was coming any day, unless they 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 not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” John 1:6-8 For his 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 believe.” 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: that 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 as His power in the Church for all time. Defining sin’s deviancy down does nothing to save anybody. The declaration of God’s forgiveness toward a penitent soul saves any that apply. When you know you are forgiven of all that you ever feared in yourself, will you then become valiant enough to testify for Jesus? Will you be His witness?
Testify. Witness. Be a living sacrifice, a holy martyr, a willing oblation offered up on the altar of life so that perhaps by your testimony the life of one other guilty soul might be saved.