You will be my witnesses - Talk at Southmore retreat

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I understand this this weekend is a retreat weekend for you. The principal goal of a retreat is to focus upon God and seek Him more earnestly in prayer. The talks given in a retreat are intended to encourage points of reflection and inspire our prayer.

It is in this spirit that I speak to you this afternoon.

There is a text of Sacred Scripture that I wish to use as my special focus. It is a text that has particular significance for young people in Australia because it is the text chosen by Pope Benedict for the World Youth Day held in Sydney in 2008.

The text is taken from the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. It reads, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and the you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth”. (Acts 1:8)

When were these words spoken? They are part of the parting words given to the Apostles prior to the Ascension. In many ways they take up from the end of St Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 24:49 the Lord gives some final instructions and says, “And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised”.

He then gives them the instruction: “Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with power from on high”.

So just prior to ascending to the Father the Lord tells his disciples that they are to take his message to the very ends of the earth (so we can say here in Tasmania that this has been accomplished!). But he tells them that they must firstly wait until they are “clothed with power from on high”.

Of course we know that these words were fulfilled with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost.

This afternoon I would like to comment on one word used by our Lord. That word is “witness”. He says that “you will be my witnesses”. What does the Lord mean by this? How are we to be witnesses?

What is a witness?  A witness is someone who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced. We speak about a witness to the accident. We refer to someone who is asked to testify in a court as a witness. They are able to give an account of what has happened.

So Jesus is saying to his disciples that he wants them to give an account of what they have experienced. This will mean that they will speak to people about their experience of Jesus – his personality, his preaching, his miracles.
They will speak specifically about what happened to him – his death and his resurrection in particular.

They will give an account not just of the facts, but move to speak about who Jesus is. They will explain that he is not just a good man who can inspire. They will give witness to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is the Messiah the Jewish people had been waiting for.

They will give witness to the fact that Jesus came to rescue humanity from the powers of darkness and sin. They will give witness to the fact that his death on the cross was an act of sacrifice for the sake of redeeming humanity.

They will witness to the fact that in Jesus God has acted to save the world. This reveals the fact that God has extraordinary love for humanity.

One passage often quoted captures all this so clearly: “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life”. (John 3:16)

This is what they were to witness to.

A witness gives an account of their experience. A witness is different to a teacher. A teacher provides information or explains things. A witness on the other hand simply says that this is what I have experienced.

A witness is one who gives a personal account, rather that offering a formal presentation. A witness does not need to be an expert – in this instance, a theologian. A witness simply says that this is what I have experienced and I offer you my experience.

Jesus called his disciples to be witnesses. They had been with him. They had seen his miracles. They had sat and listened to him preach. They had come to understand why it was necessary for him to die on the cross. They had seen him after his resurrection.

St John says it very well in the opening of his first letter: “Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands: the Word who is life – this is our subject” (I John 1:1)

Now we cannot say what St John can say. We have not been physically in the presence of Jesus during his earthly life. Yet we can say that we know Jesus. He has touched our lives. He has come to us intimately in Holy Communion. Certainly we have come to know his personality and the events of his life through reading the Sacred Scriptures. So we do know him. We do love him. We know what he means to us personally.

So there is something we can witness to. Jesus simply wants us to give witness to our faith in him and our love of him.

Still this probably seems to be too much – and it is. It is very hard today to be able to speak openly of our faith, even to our friends and our classmates. Jesus understood this and this is why he told his disciples not to commence doing this until they were “clothed with power from on high”.

This brings us back to the question of the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that left to themselves it would be an impossible task for his disciples to be witnesses not only in Jerusalem but to the ends of the earth.

The key agent for this task is not us, but the Holy Spirit. Listen to these words of Pope Paul VI (Evangelii Nutiandi #75): 

It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood.[118] But it can equally be said that He is the goal of evangelization: He alone stirs up the new creation, the new humanity of which evangelization is to be the result, with that unity in variety which evangelization wishes to achieve within the Christian community. Through the Holy Spirit the Gospel penetrates to the heart of the world, for it is He who causes people to discern the signs of the times- signs willed by God- which evangelization reveals and puts to use within history.  

In the task of being a witness to Jesus Christ, we are not alone. It is the Holy Spirit who works within us. We are instruments of the Holy Spirit. He is the one, as the Pope says, who inspires what we say, but also the one operative in the heart of the listener.

Witnessing is always an act of grace.

Jesus wants us to witness to him. This is an invitation, but also a command of the Lord. It is not something we can simply dismiss. The Lord knows he is asking a lot, but he says he will help he will give us the Holy Spirit.
Our reflection and prayer on this question of being a witness will lead us to pray – Lord send forth your Spirit upon me, give me the grace to be able to be a witness to you.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 12 December 2015