Can I Get a Witness?

· Social Justice,Bible

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:8 (NRSV)

I really like the idea of witness. Just as he is about to ascend to heaven, Jesus points
his disciples to the truth of witness: it is a matter of power. First, there is power in seeing what is happening or has happened: the power of being a witness. Second, there is power in sharing what one has been witness to: the power of the act of witness.

I’m reminded of this kind of witness when I think about an African American worship tradition. It’s a call and response style of delivering sermons initiated by the preacher’s call: “Can I get a witness?” And the church responds, “Amen!” This worship tradition has also been embedded in protests against social injustice.

What is the source of power in this witness? Too often, the Christian witness is limited to the salvific acts of Jesus—themselves further limited to his death and resurrection. Jesus did not confine his disciples to witnessing only those events. Jesus called them to “be my witnesses.” We tend to interpret this phrase as being witnesses on behalf of Jesus. But if we turn it around a little, the disciples are called to be “witnesses of Jesus”—witnesses of who Jesus is.

So I was refreshed when I read Acts 1:8 in the First Nations Version. It offers these words:

“Set your hearts and minds on the Holy Spirit, who will give you strong medicine when he comes. You will then tell my story in Village of Peace (Jerusalem), in all the Land of Promise (Judea) and High Place (Samaria), and then to the farthest parts of the earth—to all languages, tribes, and nations.

Here, the words “be my witnesses” are translated to “tell my story.” There is power in story! Story is more than claiming that Jesus saves in a spiritual sense. It is telling Jesus’s life story. It is witnessing to how Jesus modelled what it is to live a life of love for God and love for others. Jesus healed people who suffered. Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus taught people who were hungry for knowledge. And when he taught, Jesus often used parables. Stories.

“Parable” is translated from the Greek word parabolē, bolē meaning “throwing” and para meaning “alongside.” Consider a parable as a story that is thrown alongside real events—a story that opens the ears of the listener to the truth about what is going on.

King David’s ears were opened to his own culpability when Nathan told him a story about a rich man’s abuse of power. The abuse affected a lamb, a creature with which the former sheepherder would be familiar (2 Samuel 12:1–15). Likewise, Jesus expands Peter’s limits on forgiveness by telling a story about an unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35). He encourages his followers to make importune prayers by telling a story about an intrusive friend (Luke 11:5–8). He informs leaders of religious observance that God’s love is universal by telling a story of a good shepherd (Luke 15:3–7).

Jesus held the kind of power that subverted traditional ideas of power. He prized those who were among the most vulnerable, those who were excluded, people pushed to the edges of society. We only know this because those who followed Jesus witnessed who he was and what he did. And they have told us his story. Jesus turned over temple tables and raised the importance of those deemed too sick to be included (Matthew 21:12–14). Jesus called rich men to truly embody the law by giving their money to the poor (Mark 10:17–27). Jesus informed insiders that outsiders are loved by God (Matthew 28:18–20).

What kind of witnesses are we called to be today? Who are the people who are made vulnerable by the power enabled by social systems and structures? And whose stories do we need to share with the people who can effect change?

Can I get a witness?