In the epic Japanese film Rashomon, we hear about a murder mystery from the perspective of five witnesses. Each offers a subjective, self-serving, contradictory version of what took place. The witnesses just couldn’t get their stories straight. Fortunately for us, Jesus made sure that the disciples got his story straight, and they were good witnesses. It’s our duty as Christians to get the story straight, so we can be good witnesses, too.
In our Gospel passage, Jesus provides ample evidence that he had risen from the dead. He appears bodily to the disciples, shows them the scars of his Passion, allows them to touch him, eats fish in front of them and teaches them, just as he had done before. “This testimony refutes any conjecture that his appearance was illusory or metaphorical.” Jesus appeared to the disciples so they could bear witness to the truth. And they did just that. In our first reading, we find Saint Peter preaching openly in the Temple area that the very same Jesus, whom the people had put to death, was raised by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The disciples, the Evangelists and the Church got the story straight and handed it down to us through the millennia so we, too, can bear witness to Jesus to the world.
Jesus is speaking to each one of us when he says that “You are witnesses to these things.” If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable enough, the word for “witnesses” in the original Greek is “martyres” (μάρτυρες), which sounds an awful lot like our English word “martyr.” Jesus calls us to bear witness to him, even unto death. “To have seen the full light of the revelation of God is the greatest of privileges, but it is also the most terrible of responsibilities.” If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, if we’re going to claim that we believe all that has been revealed to us, then we have to bear witness to Jesus, and we have to be good witnesses, too, living just as Jesus taught us, even when it’s not easy or convenient to do so.
I can’t think of a time when we need good witnesses more than right now. Catholics are leaving the Church in droves. According to a 2011 Pew Research Survey, one out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic, and one out of every three people who were raised Catholic, no longer identify as Catholic. Catholics aren’t alone. The number of people indicating that they have no religious affiliation at all jumped from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. As you can imagine, lots of reasons are cited, but I can’t help but think that the problem lies in no small part with the fact that we aren’t good witnesses; we can’t get our story straight. There are six major ecumenical divisions in Christianity and thousands of denominations. Our understanding of objective truth that guided the development of civilizations for millennia has been replaced by moral relativism, where just about anything goes. People don’t know what to believe anymore, so they choose to believe nothing. If we really believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we need to get our story straight and bear witness to the truth.
How do we do that? How do we become good witnesses? Well, we start by getting to know God through Jesus Christ. “There are two senses in which we can ‘know’ God. We can know academic facts about him, knowing about his attributes, or we can know him through love, as a child knows a parent or as a person knows a friend.” I would argue that both are necessary if we really want to know God and bear good witness to him. Knowing God in the “academic” sense centers us in God’s revelation through Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. In this regard, I encourage you to dust off your Bible, but also to attend Bible study classes, read Church documents, especially the Catechism, and ask questions. Your priests and deacons LOVE to answer your questions and engage in healthy, friendly theological debate. Good witnesses know their facts.
Knowing God in the relational sense comes naturally to us. “To know God, to abide in God and to have fellowship with God has always been the quest of the human spirit.” Through prayer, the Eucharist, Adoration and Scriptural reflection, we develop an intimate connection with our Creator in the quiet of our hearts, we nurture our ability to find God in ever recess of our lives, and we learn to listen to him. Good witnesses are good listeners.
How else can we be good witnesses? We live just as Jesus taught us. Why should anyone believe the Good News and follow Jesus if we aren’t willing to follow him ourselves. Saint John tells us in our second reading that the way to know Jesus is to keep his commandments; our lives must be conformed to the example of Christ. Many people claim to know Jesus but fail to follow his commandments. If we want to know Jesus, if we want to bear good witness to him, we need to love, we need to forgive, and we need to show mercy. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. You know, most people we encounter in the course of a day have no idea that we’re Christians, let alone Catholics. But if we truly follow Jesus, if we consistently love, forgive and show mercy, if our hearts burn within us like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they’ll want to know what we know, and maybe even check it out for themselves. A good witness practices what he preaches.
At the end of Rashomon, we can only wonder what really happened on that fateful day in the forest outside the city gate. The witnesses couldn’t get their stories straight, and we’re left frustrated and confused. I’ll bet that’s exactly how the people who’ve left the Church feel. It’s up to us to slow the mass exodus from our Church. It’s up to us who still believe to make Jesus known to the ends of the earth by knowing and living what we believe. Jesus calls each one of us to be his witnesses to the world. It’s up to us to get the story straight so we can be good witnesses.
The Didache Bible (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) p.1406, note to Luke 24: 36-43.
 William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) p. 39.
 Thomas Reese, “The Hidden Exodus: Catholics Becoming Protestants,” National Catholic Reporter Online (April 16, 2011), http://www.virtueonline.org/hidden-exodus-catholics-becoming-protestants.
 Michael Lipka, “The Growing Number of America’s Rapidly Growing Religious ‘Nones’, Pew Research Center (May 15, 2015), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/.
 The Didache Bible, p. 1677, note to 1 John 2: 1-11.
 William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) p.45-46.