First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 13, 2018
Happy are they who know good and do good.
Their love for the good feeds them continually.
They are like trees planted near the river,
whose roots go deep and wide.
They thrive, bear fruit in season, and
weather drought without wilting.
Those who are not so grounded
will blow around like dry leaves in the wind.
Root yourself in Good, and live.
- Translated by Christine Robinson
1 John 5:9-13 The Message (MSG)
9-10 If we take human testimony at face value, how much more should we be reassured when God gives testimony as he does here, testifying concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God inwardly confirms God’s testimony. Whoever refuses to believe in effect calls God a liar, refusing to believe God’s own testimony regarding his Son.
11-12 This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life.
13 My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion.
Over the last six weeks, several folks in our congregation have very courageously engaged in our Adult Education series about developing our testimony. I say this was courageous for several reasons.
First, of course, this involved getting up in front of people and talking. Not only that, it involved getting up in front of people and admitting that you really do personally believe in at least some of this God-stuff we typically reserve for the anonymity of the church pew. In addition, it involved getting up in front of people and confessing you’ve had an experience in your life you attribute to this God.
We’re all reasonable people here. Presbyterians are better known these days for our Ph. D.’s and systematic theologies than we are for our testimony. Because testimony is inherently subjective. That is why court witnesses giving testimony are questioned and cross-examined. “Sure, you think you saw a man in a black sweatshirt, but how good is your eyesight at night?” “Sure, you think you experienced a oneness with some infinite mystery, but can you explain how that aligns with the doctrine of the Trinity?”
Religious testimony is tantamount to seeing a ghost or being abducted by aliens. Around here, people may be more likely to want to hear about your encounter with Big Foot than your encounter with God. We do a great job of making it absolutely shameful to talk about our faith in Jesus Christ, our belief in God, our experience of the Holy Spirit. That sort of stuff is for the hypocritical Jesus freaks. It’s emotionally manipulating. It’s theologically suspect.
And yet, we will gladly listen to all kinds of other testimony.
We’ll gladly hear the testimony of suffering. All day long, we’ll listen to those who witness to the power of the world’s darkness and agony. We’ll lean forward and make eye contact with anyone who tells us that life is red in tooth and nail. We won’t contradict the one who tells us religion is a drug for the masses or call them crazy.
We’ll also gladly hear the testimony of scarcity. We are entranced by those testifying to the lack of love, the lack of goodness, the lack of peace in this world. We don’t question those who witness poverty, cruelty, and violence.
The testimony of self-interest is also welcome to our ears. Testimonies to individualism, tribalism, and partisanship all ring true. We lift our hands and shout, “Testify!” when we hear a witness preaching the gospel of having it your way and my kind of people and the mid-term elections.
Can I get an “Amen”?
We will hear, and not judge or ridicule or be embarrassed by the testimonies of achievement, power, violence, and vanity. But the testimony of God? Not so much.
The testimony of God is embarrassing. God - the Almighty, the Omniscient, the Omnipotent, the Omnipresent – sets all that aside to testify to God’s loving kindness, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and peace. God’s testimony lives in the same skin as human testimony. It drinks the same dirty water, walks the same dusty roads, and sleeps in the same fragile tents as human testimony. God’s willingness to be humbled and made lowly in this way is one of the most profoundly disturbing realities of the divine testimony, and it is embarrassing.
It is embarrassing because it contradicts all the other testimonies we hear. It sounds nothing like hopeless suffering, scarcity, or self-interest. It is hopeful beyond belief and abundant beyond reason and generous beyond sanity. And it is vulnerable and weak.
And that is precisely the strength of God’s testimony. God’s testimony is not threatened by human testimony. Muddled into the messy midst of human testimony is exactly where God wanted the divine testimony. Because that is the only place God’s testimony has any strength.
God’s testimony had to be something we could see and hear, touch, and even taste and smell, in order for it to have any power. God’s testimony had to experience humanity so that humanity could experience God’s testimony.
To say that God’s testimony is the Son, Jesus Christ, is to say that God’s testimony is not something we believe, like a rumor, or believe, like a myth, or believe, like a ghost story. It is something we experience, like gravity, or experience, like love, or experience, like wind. We believe it because we experience it. It is something that acts upon us, not something we try to figure out or blindly trust. We believe God’s testimony, the Son, Jesus Christ, because we experience a connection to the ground of our being and to the heart of other beings and to a force we see in the way it moves the world around us.
And the writer of 1st John just wants his audience to know…that’s all they need to know. After theological debates that have been fierce and hurtful and probably extremely confusing, the writer tells them that they don’t need to worry about complex doctrine or which rules to follow. They just need to trust what they already know in their hearts. He wants them to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion.
For the Johanine community, eternal life is not some far-off, after death, land of rest in the clouds with pearly gates. Eternal life is the new life in Christ we have now, in the present. It is a life that tunes out the testimonies shouting like curbside prophets that “life is suffering,” that “the world is a terrifying place,” and that “we must lock our doors and protect me and mine.” Eternal life instead hears the eternal testimony of the Son, Jesus Christ, the one who died for love and rose for love and lives for love.
And eternal life joins in that eternal testimony, proclaiming the hope and mystery and beauty of God’s ongoing testimony in the world. To have eternal life is to have a life that participates in God’s ongoing testimony in the world. What we witness, what we see, and touch, and taste and hear and smell, what we experience of the work of Jesus Christ in our lives and in the world today – that is eternal life, that is participating in God’s testimony.
One of my favorite movies as a kid was The Never Ending Story. In this movie, and the book upon which it is based, a boy named Sabastian hides in a storage room at his school and reads a book he “borrowed” from a mysterious antique dealer. As he becomes engrossed in the story, he eventually discovers that he is meant to be a participant in the story. In fact, his participation become vital to the story’s outcome.
In a similar way, we are not just passive recipients of the testimony of God. The story of God’s salvation is one in which we are meant to be active participants. And, in fact, our participation is vital to the story’s outcome.
But this participation in God’s testimony is no cakewalk. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
The word “testimony” in Greek is marturion, from which we get the English word “martyr.” It’s a legal term, meaning to witness or give proof, just as we would use the word “testimony” today in a court of law. But those early Christians who participated in God’s testimony, who told their stories of experiencing God at work in their lives and in the world, who laid hold of this eternal life, some of them witnessed, testified, martyred with their lives. They were sheep among wolves. Their testimony was not just the way they lived, but the way they died.
In 1938, the Rev. Paul Schneider pulled himself up to the window of his solitary confinement cell in Buchenwald concentration camp and preached an Easter sermon to the thousands of prisoners assembled for mustering. He said, "Comrades, listen to me. This is Pastor Schneider. People are tortured and murdered here. So the Lord says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life!’”
He testified, not to the horror and hopelessness and suffering inflicted by the Nazis, but to Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life. He witnessed to the truth of what was happening in that death camp: torture and murder, yes, but also resurrection and life.
In July of 1939, Rev. Schneider was the first Protestant minister to be martyred by the Nazis. He was not the last, of course, and not the most well-known. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is more often recognized for his martyrdom because of the writings he left behind. But Schneider testified, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” His parishioners, including the man who mopped the floors in the solitary confinement building, begged Pastor Schneider to not invite the wrath of the Nazis. But Schneider continued to tell the truth about the Nazi regime. He excommunicated Nazi sympathizers from his congregation. He told those who were concerned about him that “he did not seek martyrdom, but that he had to follow his Lord. His primary responsibility was to prepare his family for eternal life – not to ensure their material well-being.”
Schneider was murdered with a lethal injection in the Buchenwald camp infirmary. Despite Gestapo surveillance, hundreds of people and around two hundred fellow pastors attended Pastor Schneider’s funeral, including many members of what was known as the Confessing Church. One of the pastors preached at the grave side, saying, “May God grant that the witness of your shepherd, our brother, remain with you and continue to impact on future generations and that it remain vital and bear fruit in the entire Christian Church.”
The testimony of God is embarrassing. It is weak and vulnerable. It is found in desolate places: concentration camps, war zones, protests, women’s shelters.
But from that embarrassing witness, out of that weakness and horror, comes the fruit of the entire Christian Church. You see, the church is nothing without testimony. Without a witness proclaiming that God is actually at work in our lives and in the world, all we have is a lovely historic building, and nice people, lovely music, some good food and decaf coffee. The Church of Jesus Christ only exists insofar as it testifies to the transforming work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
So I am deeply grateful to all those who engaged in our testimony series. I hope you will keep telling your stories. Some of them are tragic. Others are funny. All of them are mysterious and beautiful in their own way. And I would encourage all of us to dig deep, and find the courage to tell our stories, to give a testimony, to witness to what God is doing in our lives and in the world. For therein lies eternal life.