Witnesses to the Ends of the Earth
Ascension of the Lord
If you were to visit the ends of the earth, where would that take you? I would like to say I’ve been there and back. I love to travel and am always eager to use my passport. So last July, I returned to Australia to visit with Fr. Kerry, a good friend of mine who was celebrating his 50th anniversary of priestly ministry. While I was there, we took the opportunity to visit the west coast (me for the first time), and travel to Perth, Fremantle, and Albany on the southern coast of Western Australia. … Local Western Australia time was twelve hours ahead of Eastern standard time, so I didn’t have to adjust my watch. At one point it occurred to me that being in southwestern Australia, I was as far away from home as I could possibly get – a 12 hour difference, the southern hemisphere, the other side of the world. If I jumped in the air even for a few seconds, I would even be that much farther away still without having to leave the planet. So relative to Waynesboro VA, I was equally distant from home whether from the east or west, north or south. I was at the ends of the earth.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus instructed his apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. I checked a world map. If that meant as far away from home as possible, that would have been somewhere in the vast Pacific ocean just south of Hawaii and the equator, the closest land possibly being Tahiti. Can you imagine any of Jesus’ closest friends making their way to Tahiti? I bet they didn’t even know there was such a place as Tahiti. Not only were these places at opposite sides of the planet, they are also worlds apart, one hostile and desolate surrounded by vast expanses of desert, the other lush and inviting, effectively an island paradise. But Jesus wasn’t very likely sending his apostles to Tahiti. We can be sure he was telling them they should be his witnesses at home (Jerusalem), among their neighbors (Judea and Samaria), and to the ends of the earth – to people who were least like themselves, whose lives were most unlike theirs, whose culture and values they would consider foreign, and who had never heard of him or his message of repentance and reconciliation. I suppose the church has long interpreted that detail quite literally through the centuries, providing incentive for missionaries to explore new lands and embrace new cultures. But we can safely say the early church didn’t have very far to go to find new lands and cultures. And in less poetic language, Jesus was instructing his apostles to be his witnesses to all people everywhere.
And what does it mean to be a witness? One definition says a witness is one who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard or experienced. In a court of law, a witness is one who furnishes evidence. Simply put, a witness has firsthand knowledge or experience of someone or something, which now he/she can give an explanation of or evidence to others. Jesus had journeyed with his apostles for the duration of his public ministry, teaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, reaching out to the stranger, the outcast, the children, and the sinner. His apostles had been with him the whole time he was regarded as a prophet by the crowds who came to listen to him speak. They sat with him at table the night before his passion. They saw him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, saw him nailed to it by the Roman soldiers, saw him taken down from it and laid in his mother’s arms after he breathed his last. They were aware his body was laid in a tomb. They heard he was missing from the tomb on the third day. They were in the upper room when he stood in their midst, extended his peace to them, and breathed his Spirit upon them. They knew who he was and what he came to accomplish. Now he was sending them to do just as he did, to proclaim what he taught, to invite others to repentance and reconciliation, to draw them to experience conversion and a renewal of their minds and hearts, to challenge them to pick up their cross and follow in his footsteps. More than anything, he was sending them to bring others to himself, to get to know him firsthand and experience his healing and forgiveness. These in turn would themselves become new witnesses to draw the next generation and still more peoples and cultures to know Jesus and follow in his footsteps … all the way to the ends of the earth.
Now we, too, have been drawn to him by other witnesses, those who have travelled the path of Christian discipleship before us, who have first met Jesus themselves and can speak convincingly from that firsthand experience, who have preached to us the good news of salvation that first transformed and purified them, who have themselves known and experienced the healing and reconciliation Jesus speaks of firsthand. If we did not find convincing the witnesses who came before us, there’s a good chance we would not ourselves be convincing to those who come after us. Then the message we proclaim would be mere hearsay, not our firsthand knowledge or experience. We all know what it’s like when the one proclaiming is not convincing, when they just seem to be going through the motions, when their heart and soul are somewhere else. My sensei, my karate instructor will occasionally remind her students that we display “kime” (power and focus), but beyond that, drive and passion and heart and commitment. People around you will know it when they see it. It’s not something you can fake. Now we don’t always know what she means, but we will try hard and keep trying until we get it. I hope she tells us when we do.
When Jesus instructed his apostles to be witnesses of his person, his message and his purpose to all people everywhere, it wasn’t going to be easy. He seems to tell us that his witnesses are to always be whole-heartedly committed, positively-driven and deeply passionate. We cannot be his witnesses if we do not know him, if we have not ourselves encountered him, if his message has not first transformed us, if his vision and purpose do not compel us. It’s not something you can fake. I know we aren’t all there yet. I don’t even know if I’m there yet. But we have to keep trying until we get there. Hopefully, someone who knows will tell us, or maybe we will know when we’re there.