Sermon from February 14: Witnesses to These Things
Witnesses to These Things
Transfiguration; February 14, 2021
I bet that if I took a poll I would find that more of you are disappointed that I’m not preaching about Valentine’s Day than are disappointed that I’m not preaching about the Transfiguration. Well, be at peace: I will talk about St. Valentine today. The Communion prayer will draw from the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. So there; we have our bases covered.
Those of us following the Year of the Bible are reading Acts 5 today, which has that wonderful, terrible story about Ananias and Sapphira. I’ve always wanted to preach a stewardship sermon about them, and here I am skipping my chance to do so in order to focus instead of the confrontation between the Apostles and the Sanhedrin. You have the established spiritual authority – the Sanhedrin – facing off with this upstart claim to spiritual authority – Peter and the other Apostles – and you can see who comes off looking better. Then again, the book is called the Acts of the Apostles, not the Acts of the Sanhedrin.
No one on the Sanhedrin dares deny that they were the ones who decided that Jesus needed to be crucified; let’s give them that much credit. If they were modern American politicians they would probably simply call it “fake news.” They did condemn Jesus; but they don’t want the Apostles turning the people against them by promulgating the story that they had in fact crucified God’s Messiah. They figured Jesus was a fake, so before the Apostles could cause too much unrest in Jerusalem, they ordered them to stop saying all these things. And to that Peter replied, speaking for all of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses to these things.”
Peter was in the courtyard outside the building where the Sanhedrin met; he knew they had condemned Jesus. And Peter was one of the first of the men to see the empty tomb, after the women brought them the news. Peter saw the risen Christ by the lakeside, in the upper room; he ate and drank with him, as did all the other apostles. According to the Apostle Paul, about 500 folks all told saw the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15:6) and knew that he was, therefore, truly God’s Messiah. Rabbi Gamaliel, who is esteemed in Jewish tradition as one of their greatest teachers, advised the Sanhedrin not to fight it too hard. If it’s fake, it will die out on its own.
Since you and I are living in an age in which it is hard to know whom to trust – we seem to choose our source of news, for example, based on our political preferences, which strikes me as completely bizarre – I want to pause and ask us why we trust these so-called apostles. Why do we believe this strange story of a crucified carpenter being God’s Messiah? Why do we take the word of a bunch of unemployed fishermen?
I hope you don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say; I’m simply trying to be intellectually honest. I, at least, don’t take their word simply because it’s in the Bible and the Bible is the word of God. That is circular reasoning. Here are some reasons I take their word for it.
One is that they backed up their witness with their lives. If you want to, you can claim that the “signs and wonders” that Luke writes about are exaggerated, but you cannot seriously claim that the persecution they withstood because of their witness was exaggerated. As we continue to read Acts this month and the first part of March we will see more of it: the apostles said they were witnesses to the Crucified and Risen Messiah and they maintained they were telling the truth, even through imprisonment, beating, trial, and in some cases death. You don’t give your life for a fraud. They were convinced they had seen the risen Lord Jesus, not just one of them but many of them claimed it, and not just one time but many times. And “they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (v. 42).
So here’s where I’ll talk about St. Valentine. I will combine stories that may be about two different men and treat them as one, since the historical truth is lost in the shadows. Valentine was a Christian priest in the town of Terni, about sixty miles from Rome, during a time of severe persecution of Christians. Valentine had the reputation of a healer; when he would pray for the sick, they were known to recover. So a wealthy Roman named Cratan asked Father Valentine to come to his home to pray for his son, who was terribly ill. The priest came, prayed for and cared for the boy, who recovered; Cratan and his household were baptized as followers of Jesus.
Word of this came to the Emperor, who had Valentine arrested. Valentine told the monarch about Jesus, and the Emperor was very moved, but nonetheless had the priest convicted of the crime of being a Christian and he was sentenced to death. While in prison, waiting for his execution, he learned that one of the officers had a daughter who had lost her sight; Valentine prayed for her and she regained her sight, so that officer and his family became Christians.
On February 14, 269 Valentine was taken outside the city to a spot beside the road and was executed by beheading. He was buried there. About eighty years later, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, ordered the building of a church over the spot where Valentine was buried and declared that henceforth February 14 would be St. Valentine’s Day.
What does that have to do with romantic love? Nothing. The reason we observe Valentine’s Day as we do is that in the Middle Ages people said that birds began looking for their mates in the middle of February. Days were marked by what saint is remembered on that day, so St. Valentine’s Day became associated with lovers. I tell you the story so you know about the Christian priest who is behind the day, but also so you have another witness to these things to remember: a man who loved Jesus and was a witness to these things to the day of his death.
The ability to compel someone to accept something by threatening them with a sword or a gun or with torture is not a reason to believe it. But the willingness of someone to hold to a belief even through persecution, imprisonment, and death is a strong reason to take it seriously. That lends credibility to the witness of the apostles. But there is something else: it makes sense of everything else.
Rabbi Gamaliel warned the Sanhedrin not to put too much effort into destroying faith in Jesus; if it isn’t real, it will die out, he said. It didn’t die out. True, lots of people have abandoned Christianity, perhaps because of what we have done to it, especially in this country. But those who have known Jesus do not abandon Jesus. People continue to put our trust in Jesus, continue to rely on him for salvation, for guidance, for hope and he continues to come through for us. You know that I am something of a science geek, and among science-and-faith nerds today is Evolution Sunday. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a good example of science explaining how things happen; it is an elegant, simple explanation of the means of diversity of life. Likewise, general relativity and quantum mechanics are good explanations of physical phenomena; plate tectonics are a good explanation of the source of earthquakes and volcanoes and such. The sciences are a magnificent source for understanding how our world works.
But they do not tell us what it’s about. The sciences do not try to tell us what it’s about. Evolution tells me how life changes and emerges; it does not tell me what life is for. I need to look elsewhere for an answer to that question, and the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is an elegant, love-filled explanation of what our life is for. Evolution tells me how life happens; Jesus tells me what life is about.
Let me plant that idea in your head and you consider what to do with it. You can listen to the high priest tell you to ignore it, not to speak in that name. You can listen to Rabbi Gamaliel and leave it alone, let it die a quiet death or, perhaps, grow quietly in your head and heart. Or you can listen to Peter and to Mary Magdalene and to Mary the Mother of Jesus and to James the brother of Jesus and to Paul of Tarsus and to Hildegarde of Bingen and to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to St. Valentine, who every day in the temple and at home did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. They are witnesses to these things.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master