Homily: Don’t Be a Bystander

June 2, 2019 – The Ascension of the Lord

The following is a homily I will be delivering at St. Pius X Church in Indianapolis today. Readings include: Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, and Luke 24:46-53

When I was a classroom teacher, one of the subjects I taught was Psychology. For one lesson on perception, I conducted an experiment. Before I share the story of the experiment with you, please keep in mind it was 1987 and school safety and security concerns were much different than they are today.

I asked a friend of mine to enter my classroom as I was teaching. He was instructed to knock whatever I had in my hands to the floor, rummage through a couple of drawers, push books and papers off my desk, all while mumbling incoherently throughout. He then walked to the back of the room, looked out the window, returned to the front of the room and exited.

The purpose of the experiment was to record the students’ perception of the event, how much detail they could recall, and what variables affected their perception and recall. However, I discovered something else.

I told the students the police would be notified and would need as much information as possible. I said if they were comfortable doing it, I wanted them to put their name on a piece of paper and write down as many specific details as they could recall.

Of the thirty students in the class, only about half turned in a paper to me. Of those that did turn in a paper, several simply wrote that everything had happened too quickly or gave some other excuse for why they could not provide any details.

There were thirty witnesses to the event, but only twelve felt comfortable sharing what they experienced.

I am sure you have heard of instances of crimes, sometimes horrific crimes, taking place in front of a handful or even dozens of witnesses, and yet no one calls the police to make a report. Eyewitnesses took it all in, were appalled by what they saw, and yet did nothing. Those who were eventually identified as witnesses said they did not report the incident out of fear – fear of getting involved, fear of repercussions, fear of the unknown.

On the other end of the spectrum, each day we are witnesses to the presence of Christ in our lives. We experience beauty in nature – a beautiful sunrise, a soft breeze blowing, flowers blooming. We feel warmth in our heart as we pray. We see the face of Christ in others. We are witnesses to all these things. We take it all in, are amazed by what we experience, and yet do nothing. What is our excuse for not sharing these experiences with others? What are we afraid of?

As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, our readings focus on the call to be witnesses. Before ascending, Jesus told his disciples, “It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead for the forgiveness of sins. You are witnesses of these things…you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

In order to understand what it is that we, as today’s disciples, are being called to, let’s first take a look at the formal definition of witness: A witness is someone who has personal knowledge of something and can attest to that knowledge.

Jesus would take this definition a step further. Rather than “can attest to that knowledge,” Jesus would say, “must attest to that knowledge.” A witness to the faith is someone who has personal knowledge of Jesus Christ and must attest to that knowledge.

If we have the knowledge and don’t attest to it, we are merely bystanders. That’s why the two men dressed in white garments said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” That was their way of encouraging the disciples not to be bystanders, but rather to share the good news.

In accepting the role of bystander, we are allowing fear to dictate our actions.

Some level of fear is understandable. Expressing our faith leaves us vulnerable. How will people respond to us? How will we be viewed? Are we courageous enough to share our faith with others and acknowledge the role of Christ in our lives?

Jesus anticipated that the disciples would be afraid. That is why, in these weeks leading up to Pentecost, Jesus told the disciples repeatedly that they would not be alone in this effort. They would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is repeated in all three of the readings today:

“…in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:5)

“God will give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” (Ephesians 1:17)

“I am sending the promise of my Father upon you and you will be clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

It is clear when we speak and act on behalf of Christ, we do not speak and act alone. By virtue of our baptism, we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Trying to wrap my mind around the concept of the Trinity gives me a headache, but I hold onto this simple image: God the Father is our creator; God the Son is our example; God the Holy Spirit is our voice.

This understanding of the Holy Spirit certainly ties in with our role as witnesses to the faith. Using our voice is what distinguishes witnesses from bystanders. However, for many of us, using our voice scares us the most.

It is important to understand that using our voice does not have to mean preaching from the pulpit or speaking into a megaphone on a crowded street corner. When Jesus instructed his disciples to be witnesses to what they had seen, he was not sending them off to give prepared speeches to the world.

Using our voices may indeed refer to talking about our faith. It might include preaching from the pulpit or speaking into a megaphone. However, it can also be casual conversations between friends, sharing God moments you’ve experienced in your day. It can be leading a prayer before you begin a staff meeting or before you sit down to a business lunch. It can be offering to pray with someone that has just shared a difficult situation she is facing in her life. It can be a personal, one-on-one discussion with someone whose beliefs are different than our own.

However, when it comes to being witnesses to our faith, we can also use our voice in other ways.

When we share our faith on social media, we are using our faith voice. When we read faith-based books, articles, or posts and then share them with others, we are using our faith voice. When we live life joyfully and show love and compassion for others, we are using our faith voice. When we stand up for the rights of those most vulnerable, we are using our faith voice.

To have a strong faith and not share it is selfish. By refusing to be a witness, we become a mere bystander. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t just stand there looking at the sky.

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