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Thursday, 12 May 2016

Testifying in the trial of life

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit of truth would testify on his behalf and also called on his disciples to also testify based on their relationship with him having been with him from the beginning (John 15. 26 - 27).

The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin explains that testimony is what is given by a witness in a trial. A witness makes his or her statement as part of a trial in which the truth is at stake and where the question, ‘What is the truth?’ is what is being argued. Newbigin has argued that this is what is “at the heart of the biblical vision of the human situation that the believer is a witness who gives his testimony in a trial”:

“Testimony, or witness, is a kind of utterance different from the statement of a fact that is self-evident or can be demonstrated from self-evident premises. It is not a logically inescapable “truth of reason”. A witness makes his or her statement as part of a trial in which the truth is at stake, in which the question: “What is the truth?” is being argued; it is not, while the trial proceeds, presumed to be common knowledge ... The witness stakes his or her being and life on a statement which can be contradicted ... The final proof of the statement will not be available until the trial is over and the judge has pronounced the verdict.”

Where is the trial? It is all around us, it is life itself? In all situations we encounter, there is challenge to our faith and there is a need for us to testify in words and actions to our belief in Christ. Whenever people act as though human beings are entirely self-relient, there is a challenge to our faith. Whenever people argue that suffering and disasters mean that there cannot be a good God, we are on the witness stand. Whenever people claim that scientific advances or psychological insights can explain away belief in God, we are in the courtroom. Whenever a response of love is called for, our witness is at stake.

What is the content of our testimony? Essentially it is, as Jesus said to his disciples, about having been with him. We are to be “a witness to the living God, traces of whose presence and actions have been granted in the events which are recounted.” Witnesses are those who have seen or experienced a particular event or sign or happening and who then tell the story of what they have seen or heard as testimony to others. That is what Jesus called us to do before he ascended to the Father; to tell our stories of encountering him to others. No more, no less.

So, we don’t have to understand or be able to explain the key doctrines of the Christian faith. We don’t have to be able to tell people the two ways to live or to have memorized the sinner’s prayer or to have tracts to be able to hand out in order to be witnesses to Jesus. All we need to do is to tell our story; to say this is how Jesus made himself real to me and this is the difference that it has made.

We know that we cannot prove the existence and love of God in any way that is self-evident to all people, just as atheists are unable to prove that God does not exist. Therefore, we are in a debate or trial in which the only evidence available is that of testimony and where we are called to be witnesses of all that we have experienced of God’s love and presence. We are not called to prove anything, to be erudite or experienced public speakers, or to have answers to every question that we may be asked. All we are asked to be are witnesses who give testimony by telling our story of encountering Jesus. The best description I have heard of doing that is, to gossip the Gospel. Just simply in everyday conversation with others to talk about the difference that knowing Jesus has on our lives.

My own story is one of growing up in a Christian family and of coming to faith as a child after hearing an account of the crucifixion at a Holiday Bible Club. That night I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus into my life. As a shy teenager very aware of my own shortcomings I later doubted whether I was good enough for God but in my late teens was shown Romans 5. 8, which says “while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” by a youth group leader and, as a result, recommitted my life to Christ. Over the course of my life I have felt God leading me to develop the particular mix of community action, workplace ministry, artistic activities and relationship building that characterises my ministry today.

That simple, undramatic testimony will I hope be an encouragement to those of you here today who, like me, don’t have dramatic testimonies to tell but who nevertheless have real encounters with God and real growth in faith to share as part of our testimonies. When we do so, we are witnesses to Jesus and to the impact and effect that he has had on our lives.

To be witnesses to him is what Jesus calls us to do and to be. As we will be reminded on Sunday at Pentecost, before he left his disciples Jesus said to them (Acts 1. 7-8), “... when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of all the earth.” Pentecost was the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of truth would testify on his behalf and that his disciples would also testify based on their having been with him. To testify to Jesus as a witness remains the calling for all who follow him.


Julie Miller - Jesus In Your Eyes.

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