Some churches ask their members to speak up and make a witness; they expect their members to testify. The pastor extends the invitation: “Would anyone like to stand up and say a word of testimony for their Lord?” And if no one rises to their feet, the pastor takes another approach. “The Scripture says, ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, I will be ashamed of them before the Father in glory.’ Now, would anyone like to stand up and give a word of testimony for their Lord?”
Well, since you put it that way. And people begin to rise. One by one they stand and witness: testifying to God at work in their lives, providing courage and encouragement in days of fear and failure; testifying to their experience of the risen Christ, blessed assurance and amazing grace, in a time of uncertainty and lostness; testifying to the comfort of the Holy Spirit, present and palpable, breathing life and light, into a season of grief and darkness. (Cook)
To bear witness, to give testimony: from early days, the church has used these words, borrowed from the language of law, to describe the very human effort to express our experience of the Lord Jesus Christ in words.
Witness. Testimony. These words have fallen on hard times among God’s people; for words can wound and manipulate. Words can also heal and free.
Remember how Christians are made. Our faith comes to us. We do not create it. Our God comes to us in Jesus; who dies and is resurrected, who comes back to us; and gifts us with the Holy Spirit. That makes us witnesses. And as witnesses, Jesus bids one ordinary person to tell another ordinary person the story of God come close; close in Jesus; to testify. (Willimon)
A story is told about James Forbes, now pastor emeritus of Riverside Church in New York. Leading a workshop on preaching, Forbes began to have a little fun with his mostly mainline Christian students. People like us: Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans. “Some sermons,” he says, “have about as much passion as a corporate CEO’s annual report to the stockholders.” And then he suggests thinking about preaching as testimony.
“How long has it been since you gave your testimony?” he asks. The students shift uneasily in their seats. They sense where Forbes is heading.
“Let’s have some testimony time,” he continues. “Right here, right now. No notes, no days to study to craft and prepare; no time to polish your delivery. Just stand up and give your testimony. Tell us! What has the Spirit been doing in your life recently?”
What follows, according to one student, isn’t very pretty. One by one they rise and take their turn managing to say something, finding the territory of testimony unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
Commenting on the classroom experience, Forbes says, “Now, you do not have to do that from the pulpit. And yet if you don’t believe the gospel and have some experience of its truth, you have no right to expect your people to.” (Christian Century)
To give testimony; to bear witness: according to Jesus this is the church’s primary business. To show in our words and in our deeds, in our lives individually and as church, that everything Jesus does and says points to the truth of our God; who creates, sustains, and redeems our lives and in whose trustworthiness we find the hope we need to live.
Leading his disciples to the outskirts of Jerusalem, up to Mt. Olivet, Jesus speaks his final farewell. What he says is not what they expect to hear. “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They believe they stand on the cusp of a new political reality; a restored kingdom.
Jesus calls them instead to participate in a new kingdom; born of God’s imagination; a kingdom Jesus, himself, announces and embodies.
Jesus promises them a gift: the power of the Holy Spirit will fall upon them. He gives them as assignment: be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And then Jesus ascends into heaven. He leaves their lives with as much mystery as he entered them.
The disciples return to Jerusalem, and there all Holy Spirit breaks loose. The disciples tell their story of Jesus and they testify with such conviction and winsomeness that a community begins to gather: contagious, inclusive, innovative; remarkable for their glad and generous hearts; a community of people that others see and think God.
We live in a world full of stories. Seems every time I turn around these days, someone is talking about narrative. Narrative: the story we choose to tell about ourselves. Narrative: the story we construct to sell a product or promote a business. Narrative: the way we explain our choices and excuse ourselves. What we mean when we say narrative and what Jesus means when he says testify are not the same thing at all.
“We hunger for the story we can trust,” Reynolds Price one wrote, “and Jesus says that story comes from God, not us.”
God; who according to the psalmist lives as the guardian of orphans and the defender of widows; who gives the solitary a home and brings prisoners into freedom; who goes before us when we find ourselves wandering through the wilderness; who refreshes the weary land; who makes provision for the poor.
Jesus, in his life and in his death; in his resurrection and in his ascension; by his grace and in his mercy calls us to witness; to testify that in our lives and in our hearts; and by our experience; we know that this God is trustworthy and that God’s story is true.
Late in her life, the great Catholic Social Worker Dorothy Day said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”
I wonder: do we know someone who lives and speaks of God without embarrassment? Someone who testifies in word and deed to the ends of the earth—whether that be for them Anacostia, Alaska, or Afghanistan—of the goodness and grace of God? Someone who, in obedience to Jesus Christ can do nothing less than bear witness?
Minerva grew up in deep south Texas. Her home had no running water and dirt floors. Her father came to this country in the 1940s. A government program brought Mexican laborers to us to do “stoop work.” Stoop, because they worked all day long in the fields; stooped over harvesting crops. They ached all the time, working the fields that feed this country in times of war and in times of peace.
When the program ended, Minnie’s father returned to Mexico only to discover that he could not find work, which would allow him to care for his family. So Minnie’s father returned to us by swimming across the Rio Grande River. He became a butcher; her mother a public school cafeteria worker.
When she was in the third grade, Minnie helped her dad study for his citizenship test. The day he became a citizen, she says, felt like an accomplishment for both of us, a movement of God’s grace.
Education lifted Minnie out of poverty. A church made it possible for her to attend college and seminary. She has never forgotten Jesus at work in her life through the community of Christ.
Entering ordained ministry, her first church paid her $15,000. Today, Minnie is the first Latina female bishop in the United Methodist Church. She lives and serves in California, after serving in Arizona.
“Returning to a border state,” she says, “brought me face to face once again with the tensions that still exist between residents and immigrants. My father’s story continues to repeat in those who risk their lives to cross the border. And like my father, I believe most would prefer to remain in their native land. They came to this country out of great human need.”
Minnie invites people on all sides of the immigration issue to accompany her into the desert; riding on water trucks. There, they come face to face with those on a desperate journey toward life and hope that leaves them parched, weary, and often literally dying of thirst.
Minnie asks: “Can we give a cup of water in the name of Christ? Can we offer some gesture of healing to the brokenness of God’s family standing right in front of us? Can we testify in this way or do we turn aside?
And then she testifies; what Jesus has given her to see, what Jesus has given her to do. “I believe the church called by the Lord Jesus Christ to be a faith community of God’s welcome. What I can do is invite and welcome others to love and serve Jesus Christ among us; to accompany those who chose to be faithful, and to exhort all to be biblically obedient. And this I will do for as long as God gives me life; for as long as God gives me breath.”
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Karon Cook, telling a story of her church growing up, 1980s.
John M. Buchanan, “Can you give your witness?” Christian Century.
Minerva Caracano, unpublished remarks, various locations.
Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. 2004, Jossey-Bass.
William Willimon, “Witnesses to the Ends of the Earth,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 24, #2.