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Ye Are Witnesses

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

At my alma mater, Oberlin College outside of Cleveland, OH

There was controversy every graduation.

The controversy was whether to walk through the memorial arch that sits on the town square,

which is the official route of the procession to receive your diploma,

or to walk around the memorial arch.

The arch commemorates 13 missionaries and their 5 children who lost their lives

in the Shansi province of China in 1900.

The congregational church in Oberlin had been sending missionaries to that region

for 20 years, and had had a lot of success.

Thousands of Chinese were becoming Christian.

But some Chinese thought that this foreign religion was a bad thing.

They were well familiar with colonialism around the world,

and didn’t want Western imperialism taking over their culture.

It wasn’t an idle fear, either—8 different countries had taken land in China in the same 20 yr period.

So they fought back in what has become known as The Boxer Rebellion.

Oberlin’s missionary families were among those slain in the violence—

Along with 32,000 Chinese Christians.

Walking around the arch was a protest that the Chinese victims were not recognized

and that the arch only seems to tell one side of the story.

The memorial arch is emblazoned with the words, Ye Are Witnesses.

It’s a quote from today’s Gospel lesson from Luke.

The disciples were faced with a controversy, too.

Jesus had died a gruesome death at the hands of the religious and political authorities

Being associated with him was dangerous.

But there were reports that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Some thought it was an old wives’ tale, but others believed it to be true.

The disciples didn’t know what to think or what to do next.

But while they were discussing these things, Jesus suddenly appeared among them.

He calmed their fears and eased their doubts by showing them he was real:

his hands, his side; he could even eat breakfast!

Then he reminded them that the scriptures had foretold his death and rising from the grave

and he gave them instructions:

You are witnesses, he said-- witnesses to my resurrection.

But what did this mean?

These disciples were still in danger- they could be under attack next.

Should they go into hiding? Mount a rebellion?

At a time like this, it seems that fight or flight are the only options.

But the disciples chose differently.

You can see it in the first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts is actually Luke’s sequel to his Gospel,

and he tells of how the disciples neither lashed out in violence

nor hid out of fear.

Instead, the disciples went public with their news: healing people in Jesus’ name

telling the story to all who will listen,

bringing peace and forgiveness in the name of Jesus.

It is really an incredible story.

One that if you take it down to its essentials, seems hauntingly familiar.

After all, religious and political violence are still happening today

Add to it the seemingly senseless violence in schools and on the streets

The complicated issues surrounding nations, human rights, and military action

And you can see why some people want to arm themselves or send troops

And others retreat behind closed doors and hope for the best.

But imagine if Christians today did what the first Christians did--

What would happen if Christians went public with their message about forgiveness and healing

if we were to speak out against violence of all kinds

care for people on all sides of a conflict

What if we were to live beyond our fear and put the hope of the resurrection out there?

It may seem impossible, but that’s what the people of Oberlin did a 100 years ago.

That Boxer Rebellion was every bit as brutal as the news we hear today

Mobs swept through Beijing, rounding up Chinese Christians, looting their neighborhoods

even burning people alive in their homes.

But the people of Oberlin did not retreat

Instead they started an exchange program where Oberlin students went to the Shansi region

to help with the organization of schools

and where they would receive training in language and culture.

The program still exists today, now sending students to five East Asian Countries

building bridges and making peace where once there was fear and bloodshed.

Ye Are Witnesses.

The missionaries were witnesses, telling the story of Jesus in dangerous times.

But founding the Shansi exchange program was also a witness

A witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection that moves beyond retaliation and fear

to peace making and gutsy love for all kinds of people.

It occurs to me that this is what is happening in Boston today,

as they commemorate the 5th anniversary of the marathon bombing.

Not only will there be a wreath laying ceremony to remember those who died

There are also service projects scheduled throughout the city,

From donating blood, to collecting new socks and gently used sneaker for shelter residents

To participating in a citywide program to thank veterans and another to clean up streets and parks.

It is a testimony not only to the resiliency of the people of Boston,

but also to their choice to invest their energies in things that build up the community.

It is a witness to the power of the resurrection, that new life can come from death.

And that’s our job, too.

Perhaps the violence we encounter most is emotional—bullying or negativity

Perhaps we have been wounded in some way and find it hard to forgive.

Maybe we just find it hard to know how to respond to the barrage of news we hear every day.

But whether we place ourselves in the larger world context or the context of our personal lives,

The message is the same to us, Jesus’ modern day disciples.

Jesus says to us: You are witnesses to my resurrection.

You have seen a different way.

Be a witness to the power of forgiveness to make new things possible in our world.

Be a witness to the power of building relationships to bridge the divide.

Be a witness to the power of God to bring new life out of death.

On the day of my graduation, I walked through the arch.

But a friend of mine, a rock climber, tired of all the controversy,

rigged up his climbing gear and went over the arch.

And I think that’s a good metaphor for what we are supposed to do as witnesses.

Not let these complicated issues and violence paralyze us or separate us into ‘us’ and ‘them’

but to rise above that, and search for higher, common ground

where we can all meet, hear from the other, and live out the peace and hope of Jesus.

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