1 John: Testimony
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday of Easter / Ascension, May 24, 2015
1 John 5: 9-13
So the presidential field continues to widen and in this year before the election year, we are treated to a wide array of testimony by candidates about what they believe. There are interviews and books and, Mitt Romney even went two rounds in the ring with Evander Holyfield … I’m not sure to what that was meant to testify. But we soak up these various publications and performances because, I think, we hunger to hear true, personal testimony about how the candidates’ beliefs have been shaped by their lives. And also because of what we all know is the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Testimony has a long and powerful history in the Christian church. It is a unique form of speech that blends personal experience with faith commitment. In some Christian traditions, testimony is a regular part of worship as individuals stand and bear witness to how God is moving in their lives to heal, to save, to empower. In our congregation we often have members come and share their testimony as Dorothy did last week. Because we know that when we speak from our hearts about how we have seen God at work in our lives, in the church and in the world, that telling does something. It creates community. The telling allows hearers to find the resonances within their own lives and experiences; allowing space for the differences as well as similarities and so creating a nuanced web of connections between and among the speaker and the listeners.
And it does something else. It provides a form through which individuals bring to voice that which is central to who they are and in the process helps individuals claim their story publicly. It’s a process of bringing something in shadows or inchoate into the light, into speech. It can have a similar effect upon the speaker as when you’re searching and searching for the right word and then to your relief and joy, you find it. I think of the many people who have given their testimony here – (Caryl, Leslie, Kelly, Wanda, Sedinam – three times -, Deirdre, Will, Awa, and Norma). I think of the strength and intimacy and community that has been born from their courage to talk about the ordinary, terrifying, surprising and healing encounters they have had with others, with themselves and with God.
This morning’s scripture invites us to think about something related and yet different. What is God’s testimony? How does God testify? And what does God say and do?
The author of First John writes that “the testimony that God has given concerning the Son…is [that] God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” OK, we think. That’s a bit, well, dense and doctrinal. For the writer of First John, Jesus Christ is the word of God – Jesus Christ is the testimony of God. Jesus Christ, the person called Son of God and Human One, in word and deed is the testimony of God. Jesus doesn’t just testify about God, rather God’s testimony is made known through Jesus.
Now First John is related in style and language to the gospel of John. And in the gospel of John we have a different kind of picture of Jesus from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a lot of broad metaphors to describe who he is and what God’s purpose is. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the gate of the sheepfoldl.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” All of these metaphors point to the way that God shapes the world and cares for the world. And they underscore, through their imagery, that testimony is not only about words – it is also about how those words are lived. How is Jesus the gate of the sheepfold? How is Jesus the light of the world? How is Jesus the bread of life? And that’s where our testimony comes in. We are the ones who answer the “how” questions. We are the ones who bear witness to that how. God’s testimony in Jesus in this wonderful way, leaves space, for our testimony. Indeed, one is not complete without the other.
Our confession today which is taken from the Belhar Confession further develops this question of “how” and brings testimony from the terrain of the purely personal to the terrain of the collective. The now twelve confessions that are part of the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions are confessions not of Jeff G.— or of Betty P.— or of Pam N.— or of Vinodh V.—. These confessions are testimonies of the church. These statements, collected over 20 centuries of Christian witness, are OUR testimony as the church to the way we see God at work in our lives and in the life of the world. They come from various contexts, are stated in a variety of ways and, interestingly enough, their testimony can rub up against one another. But they are our testimony as the church. The Belhar Confession is the first confession to be added since the Brief Statement in 1990, and the first full confession since 1967. And if you look up and down the walls of the sanctuary, you will see banners, very old banners, whose dim yet stalwart witness, reminds us of the different confessions of the church and the way those confessions stand side by side as our common testimony of faith.
The Belhar Confession drives home that testimony is not only about what we say, it’s about what we do. We all know the expression “actions speak louder than words” and “do what I say, not what I do.” But that’s not what I mean. Words are not more important than actions and actions are not more important than words. Words and actions are equally important. Words are, in linguistic theory, considered “speech acts” insofar as they act upon the subject reading or hearing them; they have effect. In the section from Belhar, we are reminded that the unity that we proclaim is established by God’s spirit, is “simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.”
Again Belhar reminds us “that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another.”
As we close the Easter Season and our time with First John – it is fitting for us to consider: How have we seen God at work in our life as a congregation? I invite you to a time of silence and, upon my signal, to write on the index card how you have seen God at work in this congregation. When the offering is taken up, please place your card into the plate. We will then take these cards and place them on a banner in the church house so that we can see our testimony and rejoice in how our testimony completes God’s own.
This is our testimony.