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"Can I Get a Witness?"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 17, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Luke 24:48

Today and next Sunday for Eastern Orthodox Christians, around 1 billion people throughout the world are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, "Easter," as its commonly called. Easter is a joyous celebration for the followers of Jesus, and I am glad to be in that number. And you, even if you have your doubts about the facts and claims at the core of this celebration, doubts about Jesus and His resurrection from the dead, doubts about His status as the Son of God, or doubts whether or not He really is the only Savior of the world, even if you're not ready to embrace these claims about Jesus, you can still be curious about how it happened. That now, nearly 2,000 years later, so many people are still celebrating Jesus, crucified and risen.

So how did it happen? That what started as a small, obscure group of people, following a marginal Jewish peasant from the back woods of the Roman Empire, how did that come to dislodge a century's-old tradition of classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization, making Jesus the most talked-about Person in human history? How did that happen? You don't have to be a Christian to ask that question. You might just be curious about how the events unfolded.

Professor Rodney Stark was just that sort of curious person. Writing as a religious agnostic, he explored the question of how it happened. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, he answered the question using tools of social science. First, he looked at the question as a math problem. What rate of growth would be needed? What growth rate would it take for a small movement of a few hundred people in the year 30 AD, then by the year 300 AD to embrace roughly 10 percent of the Roman Empire, around 6 million people. Turns out it's only about 3 percent per year.

Now with such a small rate of growth, the expansion of the Jesus movement would've been so slow as to be mostly unnoticeable for the first 100 years. At a 3-percent growth rate, there would've been only several thousand Christ followers by the year 130 AD, and even 200 years later with such a small growth rate, the movement would embrace only about 1 percent of the empire's population. It's not till the 300-year mark that the expansion starts to sound miraculous. Because from the year 300 to 350 AD, we go from 6 million Christians to 30 million Christians. And in case you're wondering, this wasn't because Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. That didn't happen until the year 380 AD. So during these 50 years, 300 to 350, Christianity was still, at times, opposed by those in power. Nonetheless, during this time the Jesus movement would grow to embrace more than half of the empire's population.

But it's not necessarily miraculous, Professor Stark insists. It's just arithmetic. All this can happen with a small but sustained exponential growth rate of 3 percent per year for 300 years, growing in the way new movements have always spread among people: through personal relationships, through family ties, and friendships. Lois becomes a follower of Jesus. She raises her daughter Eunice in the faith. Eunice tells her son Timothy stories of Jesus. And soon little Timothy's telling all of his friends about Jesus, too. And the movement grows, imperceptibly at first, like a mustard seed, like yeast hidden in the dough.

So it seems Christianity became the global multicultural movement that it is today, not by mass conversions in football stadiums, but by a friend talking to a friend, a mother to a son, a sister to a brother. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't miraculous. What's miraculous about it isn't the rate of growth, but it's how that small but significant rate could be maintained across three centuries. Professor Stark said it like this: "Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders, and thereby lose the capacity to grow."

So, if you and I want to know how it happened, that a billion people today still are celebrating Jesus and His resurrection, then what we need to know is how those early followers of Jesus remained open to outsiders, eager to reach out and build bonds with strangers, with doubters, even sinners.

So, to find out how the Jesus movement has persisted through 20 centuries, spreading across cultural and ethnic boundaries, spreading in spite of wars and pandemics and all manner of disasters, spreading and showing no signs of stopping, to understand it, we return to the scene of the crime and observe through the eyes of a first-century investigative journalist named Luke.

Luke tells us. Now, look, there was a man named Joseph who was from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He was a good man, a righteous man. He had not consented to their decision and action regarding Jesus. And he was waiting for the kingdom of God. And this man, Joseph, went to Pilate, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and requested the body of Jesus. He took it down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and he placed Him in a tomb cut from stone where no one had yet been placed. Now it was the Day of Preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. And the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how His body was placed in it. Then they went back and prepared spices and ointments for burial.

And though, on the one hand, they rested on the Sabbath day, according to the commandment, on the other hand, on the first day of the week, early in the morning, they came to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared. But they found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. And they entered, but did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened while they were perplexed about this, look, two men in radiant clothing stood by them and they were frightened and they bowed their faces to the ground. But the men said to them, "Why are you seeking the living One among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how He told you when He was still with you in Galilee saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise." And they remembered what He had said.

And going back from the tomb, they announced all these things to the eleven apostles and to those who were with them. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them who kept on telling these things to the apostles. But their words seemed to them like an idle tale, like foolish talk and they kept on disbelieving them.

But Peter rose and ran to the tomb. And stooping down, he sees the grave clothes by themselves. And he returned and was marveling to himself about what had happened. Now, look, there were two of them, two of the followers of Jesus, that very day walking to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were conversing with one another about these things that had happened. And as they were conversing and discussing with one another, look, Jesus Himself drew near and started walking along with them. But their eyes were held back so that they did not recognize Him. They didn't know Him. And He said to them, "What are these words that you are exchanging with one another, as you walk along?"

And they stood still, looking sad. And one of them, named Cleopas, answered Him, "You're the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn't know about the things that happened there in these days?" "What things?" He said to them. And they said to Him, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, a Man who was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers delivered Him over to be condemned to death and crucified Him. But we were hoping that He was the One to redeem Israel. But also, besides all this, it's now the third day since these things happened and even more, some women from our group amazed us. After they went to the tomb early in the morning and did not find His body there, they returned saying that they had seen a vision of angels saying that He's alive. And some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said. But they did not see Jesus."

And He said to them, "Oh, foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that the Christ, the Messiah, should suffer these things and enter His glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He thoroughly explained to them in all the Scriptures the things about Himself.

Now, they came to the village where they were walking and Jesus acted as though He were going to keep walking. But they strongly urged Him saying, "Stay with us, stay with us, because it's evening and the day is now far spent." And He went in and stayed with them. And it happened while He was reclining at the table, after He took bread and blessed it, and after He broke it, He was giving it to them and their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. They knew Him. And He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, "Wasn't our heart burning within us as He was talking with us on the road and opening to us the Scriptures?" And rising in that very hour, they returned to Jerusalem, seven miles to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven apostles and the others saying to them, to the two, "The Lord has really risen, and He appeared to Simon."

And they, the two, told them about what had happened along the road and how He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were discussing these things, Jesus Himself stood among them. And He says to them, "Peace be with you." And they were startled and frightened, thinking that they were seeing a spirit. But He said to them, "Why are you troubled? And why are doubts arising in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Touch Me and see. Because a spirit does not have flesh and bone, as you see that I have." And after saying this, He showed them His hands and His feet. And while they were still disbelieving for joy and marveling, He said to them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" And they gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and He took it and He ate it before them.

And then He said to them, "These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And He said to them, "So it is written that the Christ, the Messiah, would suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead. And that repentance, returning to God, for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His Name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You all are witnesses of these things. And look, I am going to send the promise of My Father upon you. So stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." And then He led them out as far as Bethany. And He raised up His hands and blessed them.

And as He was blessing them, He parted from them, was carried into heaven. And they worshiped Him. And returning to Jerusalem with great joy, they were continually in the temple blessing God. That's from the Gospel of Luke 24.

In year 362 AD, the Roman Emperor Julian wrote a letter addressed to one of his pagan high priests, a leader within the bureaucracy of the state religion. Julian, the emperor, wanted to kick off a campaign to start pagan charities—services that could keep up with what those Christ followers were doing. The emperor noted how those wicked Jesus followers, "Support not only their poor, but ours as well. And everyone can see that our people lack help from us." When this letter was written, 330 years had passed since the events we just heard recorded by Luke. And in that time, more than half of the Roman Empire, around 30 million people, had been embraced by the Jesus movement, even though their emperor was still against it. How did it happen?

This seemingly insignificant movement spread socially, slow and steady, across classes, cultures, and ethnicities. Rodney Stark, the social scientist I mentioned earlier, writing as a religious agnostic, explained it like this: "To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christians offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christians offered friendship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christians provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by war, by violent ethnic strife, Christians offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christians offered effective nursing services."

And how did these followers of Jesus keep up this steady embrace of outsiders, skeptics, cynics, and sinners? They listened to the account of Jesus, the one we just heard. How Jesus destroyed death so that He could go on embracing people, embracing those skeptical and forgetful of His promises, embracing those who denied Him and abandoned Him, embracing even those who killed Him. It was for people like that, people like us, for whom Jesus sacrificed His life and took it up again, so that every person on the planet would be invited to turn back and be embraced with a life and a future in God's coming kingdom that has no end.

That's how it happened. That's how it is happening. And that's how it will continue to happen. We just keep listening to the story of Jesus and asking God for help to live like we believe it.

And if you want to be a witness of it, I invite you to pray with me.

Lord Jesus, Your kingdom is coming with us or without us. But we ask that it also comes through us and among us. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for April 17, 2022

Title: Can I Get a Witness?

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with Dr. Jeff Gibbs, an emeritus professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He teaches the good news of God as He's revealed it in His Son, Jesus Christ through the New Testament of the Bible. Welcome back, Jeff. Christ is risen!

Jeff Gibbs: He is risen indeed, Michael. Hallelujah!

Mike Zeigler: I know that you have devoted much attention to walking though these last chapters of the Gospel according to Luke—very heavy, climactic chapters—in Luke's account of the life of Jesus. We get to 24 and we see that God's promise is good. That Jesus told them this was going to happen, they didn't believe it, nobody saw it coming, but God came through anyhow. I'm thinking maybe to someone who's listening, who's just wondering if this is all just absurd or wishful thinking to believe in a God who works against evil, even sometimes using evil for His own purposes, if someone is in that place right now, what would you want to say to them?

Jeff Gibbs: If I had my wits about me, the first thing I would say is, "Yeah, it is hard." Especially if you confront the evil that still exists in the world today. Especially if you have been traumatized by that evil personally. It would be folly on my part to say anything other than "It's really difficult to believe in that kind of a God who can be at work in a world still so often evil and even through that evil." So, that might be the first thing I'd want to say is it's really hard and I want to acknowledge that and then maybe I'd shut up and listen and hear their story for a while, maybe a long while.

Easter is the hinge. It's the linchpin. That's why the apostle says that "If Christ does not raise, you're still in your sins." That's why he says, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." That's why St. Peter can say he can bless God in the midst of suffering. Because Peter has suffered and he's writing his first letter to Christians who are under pressure but he blesses God and says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ." What has He done? "Caused us to be born again unto a living hope." And how did He do it? "Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

And so that's the answer. Why doesn't He reverse all the evil today? Answer: It's not the right time. I realize that's not a very satisfying answer when you're in the middle of it. But the day is coming—and this is why Christians have the hope that we have—that the day is coming when He will cast down the mighty from their thrones, the wicked rulers who oppress people. And He will exalt those of low degree, so that the day is coming when God will not turn the world upside down, but when He will turn the world right side up.

And in the meantime, those who belong to Jesus are called to be a different kind of people. We relate to one another in a different way. We invite others into a community that has different standards, the chief of which is that we're all the same before God. And the innocent One died for us all, and God raised His innocent Son from the dead for us all. It's like a new world has started in Jesus, and we get to be part of that. Here's the hard part: by faith, and so often not by sight.

Mike Zeigler: So we, as His followers are enduring our time of darkness, our time not getting it, not being able to see what God is doing, but we can trust that what God did for Jesus, He's going to do something like that for us, even if it's not until that final day. Is that a right way to think through it?

Jeff Gibbs: Yes, indeed. It's exactly right. So yeah. All bets are off. Jesus is Lord. I've come to think, Mike, actually, I couldn't prove this, that when, especially in the epistles, the confession that Jesus is Lord is almost the same thing as saying God raised Him from the dead because His state of humiliation is over. Although our Lord will always be gentle, He will never be lowly again.

He was exalted to God's right hand, and now He rules all things. So, that's our faith now, even when we see evil. Right? And that's our hope for the future when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that, oh, there it is. Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Christ Is Arisen" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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