Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 19, 2015
Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:36b-48
Acts 3:12–19 • Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.
“Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away.”
Luke 24:36–48 • While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
So, if you don’t know this by now, I’m a language nerd. There are things about language that I notice that, it would be fair to say, few other people care at all about.
As I was reading the scripture lessons for tonight, I noticed something interesting. The word “witness” was followed by the preposition “of” not “to,” which I would have expected. It struck me as unusual and I thought perhaps that it was another instance of this newer translation, the Common English Bible, differing from the older New Revised Standard Version. But it became one of those things where I would keep saying over to myself to see what sounded “right”. “Witness to… witness of … witness to … witness of …” I had to conclude that “witness to” was definitely the version I was more used to. That’s certainly the one I use the most.
I was driving with a friend the other day when a car decided to make an interesting maneuver: signaling from the left lane, it moved across two lanes of traffic to turn right at the intersection. “Well, that was interesting,” I said. “We were almost witnesses to a major accident.” Of course, that statement was not that remarkable. I am frequently almost a witness to major accidents in this town. Just yesterday, crossing Mass Avenue, I watched as someone turned right out of Glover Gate and headed toward Ward Circle. In the wrong lane, swerving just in time to avoid a head-on collision with another car. I am pretty sure if it had happened I would have described it in that way. Witness to.
I looked up the phrase online and in one English language forum, there was an attempt to figure out the difference. The best guesses were that witness to implied the witness was observing outside the events and witness of was observing from inside the events. Another commentator suggested that witness to focused on the act of witnessing and witness of focused on the person witnessing, themselves.
II. THE TEXT
The reason I am obsessing over this construction is because the term shows up in both of our scripture readings tonight, with complementary phrasing. In the Gospel lesson from Luke, we read of Jesus’ second resurrection appearance in that gospel. After his appearance to the disciples along the road to Emmaus and his sharing a meal with them, the disciples he visited have returned to Jerusalem to tell the Twelve that Jesus had appeared to them. “While they were saying these things” Jesus appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were terrified but Jesus proceeds to demonstrate that he is real and not a phantom, showing them his wounds and flesh and bones, and finally, asking for something to eat.
He then proceeds to reprise the same act that he took with the disciples on the Emmaus road: he interprets the scriptures so that they can understand what has happened. He says to them:
“This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
And then concludes by saying: “You are witnesses of these things.”
In the reading from the Book of Acts, we have a scene following Peter and John’s healing of a man crippled since birth. Having been commanded in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene to walk, the man got up and began to walk and even leap around. The people seeing this were amazed. And so in response, Peter gives a speech describing how they were able to do this in the name of Jesus and he tells Jesus’ story as one who was betrayed and crucified but raised to new life. And then he concludes: “We are witnesses of this.”
It’s a nice symmetry: in the Gospel Jesus reminds them of everything they have seen, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and concludes by saying, “You are witnesses of these things.” In Acts, Peter gives a speech in which he tells the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and finishes, “We are witnesses of this.”
We ought not be too surprised, I guess, since both Luke and Acts were written by the same author and constitute two halves of a greater work. But it is nice, especially after the disastrous record of the disciples throughout much of the narrative, to see an instance of the disciples actually getting it. Jesus reminds them of his whole story and says, in effect, “You yourselves saw these things.” And later, the Peter is telling the crowd Jesus’ story and finishes by saying, “We ourselves saw these things.”
Well done, Peter. Nice job.
Of course the concept of being a witness is definitely one of those colored by our cultural understanding of the same term. The most common understandings of witness is in a legal context, where it’s either a witness to a contract or a witness to a crime.
And in both instances, the term has strong overtones of one who has seen something take place. That certainly was the main thrust of the analysis I found about the difference between being a witness to something and witness of something: whether you saw it at a distance or were in the midst of it. Or whether we are focusing on the act of seeing or on the one doing the seeing. Certainly that understanding of witnessing as “seeing” is reinforced by our most common cultural associations.
In the marriage ceremony, the opening lines usually say something like, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God and this congregation, to witness and to bless …” That is, we here assembled are witnesses to the covenant being entered into. We will watch it happen. Later, depending on the jurisdiction, a couple of individuals may be asked to serve as witnesses for the marriage license itself, signing the official copy as evidence that they saw the couple get married. You might be asked to be a witness to a will, in which you will sign indicating that you saw the author of the will claim the document to be his and sign his own name at the bottom of it. Some of you may need to get a document notarized and will come to Christine downstairs to get her to notarize it (please have $3 ready and make an appointment ahead of time). In that case, you are, in effect, enlisting Christine as a professional witness, one who will watch you sign a document and record that fact as a matter of public record.
And of course, there is the sense of witness as in one who has not simply seen a formal act take place, but who has seen a crime take place. The first thing that police do on a crime scene is look for witnesses. Who saw this take place? Did anyone hear anything? Out of the many asinine acts of driving that take place outside in Ward Circle, one will occasionally result in an actual traffic accident. I once saw a cab just drift into the next lane and crash into another car. I was a witness and told the driver of the affected car as much.
Those of you who have been in Washington long enough will have seen the particular array of souvenir t-shirts found in this city. Among the various “Washington, D.C.” shirts, the occasional “FBI” shirt, and all the shirts for children that say “Future President of the United States,” there is one that always made me laugh. In large letters across the chest it says, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME” and in smaller letters underneath it is written: “Federal Witness Protection Program.” I hope the person who came up with that one is retiring comfortably.
But there is something about that shirt that reveals a fairly profound truth about witnesses that we often overlook in our ordinary sense understanding of the word. And it underscores something very important about the concept of what it means to be a witness. And it matters not whether you’re a witness to or a witness of.
See, people don’t wind up in the Witness Protection Program because they saw something; they wind up in the program because they saw something and they were going to testify to what they saw. Our English sense of the verb witness is often so wrapped up in the sense of the observing, the seeing, that we forget that the more important aspect of meaning is the testifying.
IV. YOU ARE WITNESSES
In the Old Testament, the word עד ‘ed “witness” shows up all the time. Frequently, the word shows up in the context of someone who has seen something. But more frequently it shows up in the context of one who has seen something and is testifying to it. “Witness” in this sense is not the same as one who was present at the scene of a crime or an accident and saw it take place, it is more in the sense of a witness, called to the witness stand and asked to testify.
And the word even shows up in places where it is obscured by the translation. Anyone who has ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark knows all about the Ark of the Covenant. But what that very common phrasing obscures is that the underlying Hebrew says nothing about the covenant at all. The Hebrew phrase is ארון העדת aron ha-‘edat, literally: the chest of the testimony. The tablets are not the covenant, they are the testimony to the covenant. And they serve as a witness to it.
And in the New Testament, the lesson becomes even more powerful. The term underlying the English word “witness” means “a judicial witness, a deponent (i.e., one who gives a deposition)”, “a witness, a testifier.” Likewise, the related verb means “to testify, depose, to give evidence, to bear testimony, testify, to bear testimony in confirmation, to declare distinctly and formally.” All verbs full of action far more involved than simply watching something happen. There is a positive declaration associated with it.
But even more so: the actual word that means “witness” is the Greek word μαρτυς martys, from which the English word martyr comes. And the connection between the two concepts becomes clear: those who were martyrs, who gave their lives rather than submit to the demands of empire and injustice and oppression and renounce their faith, died as witnesses to Christ. Their witness involved far more than simply watching, and even more than simply describing what they’d seen. Their witness involved being willing to put everything on the line because of what they’d seen. Being a witness is a powerful act, not a passive one. [1,]
When Jesus tells the disciples that they are witnesses of these things, he is not reminding them only that they had seen these events unfold. He is reminding them that they are to testify to what they have seen. And that, Peter does. But not simply by telling a story and saying ‘We saw this.’ But by testifying to what he had seen in word and action. His healing of the man crippled since birth was an act of witnessing. His daring before skeptical crowds was an act of witnessing. His brave testifying before the Sanhedrin was an act of witnessing. His realization that God’s grace was available even to the Gentiles and his willingness to baptize the household of Cornelius was an act of witnessing.
When the church resisted the claims of the Empire and continued to profess their faith that Jesus not Caesar was Lord, even to the point of losing their lives, they were witnessing. When Martin Luther stood up before a corrupt church and insisted that God’s grace was greater than ecclesial power, he was witnessing. When Sojourner Truth worked to end slavery and promote the rights of women, she was witnessing. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer rejected the false claims that the Nazi state was a manifestation of God’s purposes on earth, a rejection that would place him in a concentration camp, he was witnessing. When Rev. Frank Schaefer decided that his understanding of the love of God compelled him to preside over the same-sex marriage of his son and would not repent of it, even though failing to do so might eventually cost him his ordination, he was witnessing. Whenever any Christian goes beyond having seen and heard the story of Jesus, but lives it out, testifying to that story with their entire being, that is an act of witnessing.
Ultimately, it matters little whether we use the preposition to or of, because the net result is the same. Jesus is not telling us what we have seen, he is telling us who we are. “You are witnesses to these things.” We here have known the love and grace of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that part. Jesus is reminding us that we’re supposed to do something with that knowledge.
And so we go into the world, carrying with us the gospel, to testify, to work for justice, to speak up for the marginalized, to welcome the stranger, to comfort the afflicted, to work for reconciliation and peace, and to build communities of welcome for all. For we have heard the Gospel, we have encountered Christ, and we are witnesses to these things.
 This is a concept mirrored in Arabic where the word shahîd “martyr” is an intensive form of the word shâhad “witness.”