I’ve been thinking about witnesses recently. The news has been full of them, from interviews in Brussels, to the women who testified against Jian Gomeshi in Toronto. We have the Reverend Gretta Vosper declaring that the sooner the United Church starts to be a church of atheists, the better off we will all be, because a faith in God only produces fanatics who use violence to get their ways.
And again we have witnesses referred to in our scriptures this morning. Luke’s gospel has the women going to the tomb, and their story discounted by the disciples. It seemed ‘an idle tale’, to be dismissed and disbelieved. Paul wrote that without our hope in something beyond our own limited lives we are indeed quite foolish. Our time is wasted and we have nothing that gives meaning to our lives. Who should we believe? How do we know we can trust the witnesses we hear from?
I found a few interesting witnesses this week who talked about atheism in surprising ways. There was an ancient historian named Celsus who denounced Christianity as a new form of atheism. He disliked it not because of the miracles or the virgin birth or even the resurrection, as gods coming back from the dead were quite common, like Orpheus, Hercules and Osiris. No, Celsus’ biggest problem with Christianity was that Christians weren’t snobbishly elitist and would socialize with anyone. And they were atheists because they challenged the idea that the Gods existed. It wasn’t just that they didn’t like Jupiter or Apollo or Athena, they had the crazy idea that only one god existed and that one God, even though God was a Three in One, was the only one to be worshiped. In Celsus’ books, that was atheism, and it was a stupid fad that would never last! Boy was he wrong.
Then there was Frank Schaeffer, who wrote a book with the title, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in GOD”.
You can imagine that as a recovering, former atheist myself, I found that very intriguing! Another thing that I read was that most atheists fall into one of two camps. They either see life as a gift or a burden. If they see it as a gift, they try to pack as much as possible into it, as life is short and one never knows when their number will come up. This can lead to a hectic lifestyle packed with exhausting activities, endless shopping trips and vacations in search of one thrilling experience after another. If they see it as a burden, they will sigh and say, “What’s the point of doing anything?” Both groups are struggling with death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that death forces those who place their faith in the grave to either ‘frantically affirm’ life or to hold life in ‘indifferent contempt’. Their lives witness to the sense of helpless hopelessness that so many modern families find themselves trapped in.
The Easter story is witness to a mysterious way of living, a mystery of purposefulness, a mystery of joy and hope and courage and peace. I trust these witnesses, not because they have all their details exactly the same, for that smacks of collusion and conspiracy, but because they have details a little different from each other, like each witness saw some part of the story from their unique point of view and remembered that bit instead of the other bit. Like a family get together when we reminisce about the time we went fishing. But the biggest reason I trust these witnesses is because of the way it impacted their lives.
Peter went from shamefully denying Jesus to becoming an outstanding leader, willing to face everything the Roman Empire could throw at him. Paul had his life completely changed from an arrogant status-quo type, to someone who preached love with great humbleness. Francis of Assisi went from being a spoiled rich playboy like Paris Hilton to a beloved saint who inspired the establishment of animal shelters. And there’s so many more that it would take months on Wikipedia to research them all.
In some mysterious way this crazy story that Romans hated, atheists scoff at, scientists challenge, and philosophers question, is still inspiring witnesses today to talk about how their lives are being changed.
That deep sense of mystery is still at work right here, right now. Every Sunday I see people who are being transformed by that Mystery, that Someone or Something, from fearful, depressed, helpless individuals into energetic, compassionate folks who love their neighbors no matter what. I see 'God' in joyful, free lives of compassion all around me. I watch grandmas and babies alike being marinated in a grace that gives the older folks courage to face down discrimination and injustice, and bathes the babies in love and trust. I see grandpas and five year olds being inspired to make a difference in the world. I see people energized by a Healing Spirit finding the courage and the patience to face cancer or family dysfunction with honesty. I see women walking away from abusive relationships because they finally get it in their bones that they are loved. I see hungry children being fed and angry men learning to be peaceful.
I've been an atheist and those were some of the saddest, depressing years of my life. However, Jesus made a difference in my life and continues to transform me, thanks to people who witnessed to me. We make a difference when we articulate what we believe, why we believe and how we act because of our beliefs. Remember the witness of Christians over the centuries who heard that still small voice encouraging them to make a difference; their inspired witness reminds me to confidently say, "Halleluiah, the tomb is empty, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!"