Feast of Saint John the Evangelist
1 John 5: 1-13
You will likely know that during the last two years we have been invited to minister in two dioceses in eastern Africa: in Kenya and Tanzania. We are ministering in Africa as we do in the Middle East, in the British Isles, in Canada and the States: a ministry of spiritual formation. Whether at home or away, we seek to offer silence and sanctuary, guidance in prayer and spirituality, and a vision for wholeness. With one ear we listen to people – their longings and needs – and with the other ear we listen to God’s revelation in Holy Scripture and in the tradition, reasoning, and experience of the local church. By God’s grace we are mediators as we help people hear and follow where God’s presence and revelation is breaking through in their own lives, their needs, their hopes and desires. We help people “pray their lives,” to use a line from our own Rule of Life. Our work in eastern Africa is mostly with leaders – with priests and seminarians – though we have this wonderful privilege of meeting many of the people, young and old, whom they serve.
One of the experiences and expectations of the African church is the sharing of testimonies – people testifying to their faith in Jesus Christ. Sermons, which are typically delivered with great charisma, are usually punctuated with the preacher’s own fervent testimony, but so are conversations among Christians in the by-and-by. I recall some years ago traveling on a mission in Zimbabwe with a number of my brothers. We had stopped one day at a small market to pick up some supplies. Our Zimbabwean host suddenly clapped his hands loudly, summoning the attention of all the people in this marketplace, and he proceeded to tell them (quite to my surprise): “Br. Curtis will now give his testimony in Jesus Christ in less than 30 minutes.” I was “on.” The people listened; my brothers smiled, and from atop a wooden box I gave my testimony with all my heart. But that is not the norm for us here in the west – not the norm at least for most Episcopalians – to give such an auricular testimony. In our culture, the word “testimony” is largely monopolized by the court of law, and in the courts “giving testimony” oftentimes has an adversarial or forensic quality. It’s a shame for us to lose the word from the vocabulary of the church, where testimony always has a quality of encouragement.
We could say that the whole of the New Testament is a testimony. Some of this testimony had been told from generation-to-generation, and was finally written down. Other parts of the New Testament were written down by the hand of the testifier, such as the epistles of Paul and John. The first epistle of John begins with a testimony:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us…”i
The Greek word used here for “testimony” and in our lesson appointed for today from 1 John, is martureo, which means to bear witness, i.e., to affirm what one has seen or heard or experienced. (It’s the same word, martureo, from which comes the English word “martyr.” And so a testimony, at its core, is something for which you give your life, something on which your life absolutely hangs.) I have been thinking a lot about testifying. Part of this is that I – my brothers and I – hold Africa in our hearts and minds and prayer, the brilliant witness and desperate needs of the African church. Part of it is the disingenuous quality of so much testimony that we see beamed out over C-Span and reported in the newspapers. And part of it comes from our own Mission Statement where we claim a “vision for wholeness” – a world that is whole, and a nation and church that is whole, and people who are whole. Wholeness is reflected in many ways, including in our own speech. (The English words “whole” and “holy” come from the same etymological root.) Several “testimonial components” come to mind for those of us who profess with our lips to be followers of Jesus Christ.
- For one, to speak from a place of integrity (integrity, which is related to the word “integration.”). We need to stay on speaking terms with who we are and what we vow to be as Christians. There are some phrases from the Scriptures that are commendable: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Words are so powerful. Just a word, a sentence, can bring things into being and can bring things to an end. In the creation account, in the beginning, God called things into being. God said, “Let there be,” and there it was. And God’s first task to Adam was for him to give names to creation. In John’s gospel, in the beginning was the Word, full of grace and power. Our own words have enormous power and need to be used with clarity and charity and without guile. This past week we had the honor of welcoming our new Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, to the Diocese of Massachusetts. Following her visit I was speaking to our brother and bishop, Tom Shaw, who gave testimony to Bishop Katharine’s faithful deportment. Tom said, “She’s always the same: how she speaks when she is standing before the House of Bishops is identical to how she speaks in a crowd of well wishers, or with me as we were traveling together by car this past week.” Tom said there is a wonderful sameness of Bishop Katharine in all settings, without guile, without pretense, which is such a powerful witness in itself. What a wonderful testimony.
- Words also need to be used sparingly. You may know that in the monastic tradition, the term “the Greater Silence” is used to describe the time from the end of our night prayers, Compline, until our gathering for prayer 12 hours later. During the Greater Silence we do not speak. When this practice of the Greater Silence lifts in the morning, we practice what many monasteries have traditionally called a “Lesser Silence.” It’s not that we don’t speak during the day, but we speak with intention. Our “default” is to listen, and then to speak if there is something to be said. I am far from being completely faithful to this practice of intentionality and integrity with words, but I am learning. My daily experience of the power of words – their power to build things up and break things down – is a near-continual reminder to me, perhaps also to you, how important it is to bridle our tongue and to hone our ears. As we read in the Epistle of James, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
- I think it is a wonderful discipline to always have a testimony of praise on our lips. For us who call ourselves “followers of Jesus Christ,” we need to be in touch with the “why” on a daily basis. “Why?” Not, “why did you become a Christian?” but rather, “why have you remained a Christian?” “Why are you abiding as a Christian?” This awareness is the makings of a testimony, and it’s important for two reasons. For one: our own sake. I think it’s so important for us to practice the presence of God now. How is God breaking through to you now? (Probably through something that is broken in your life.) How are you aware of God Emmanuel, God with you, God calling on you on this day, which the Lord has made? That awareness may actually be the channel for your prayer. Why are you still professing to be Christian? And secondly, I think it is so important to have a “live” testimony in our heart and on our lips because we don’t know when we will be “on.” In the first Letter of Peter we read, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.”ii
Prior to my coming to the monastery almost 21 years ago, I was a parish priest in the Diocese of Chicago. I was a Curate, and my Rector put this discipline to a daily practice. The Rector, Richard Lundberg (who is a member of the Fellowship of Saint John) and I would both be present for the weekday liturgies. Following the reading of the Gospel we would meet in the middle of the sanctuary and reverence the altar. In that split second while we were bowed, he would announce in a whisper which of us would preach that day. There we were, heads lowered, and he would whisper to me something like, “It’s mine” or he would say, “You’re on!” (Sometimes we playfully fought a little for just a second. I would say, “no way am I going to preach that” and he would say something like, “You want a paycheck this week?”) Anyway, that became our practice week-in and week-out. I initially found this incredibly intimidating, to have all of about three seconds to turn around and deliver a homily. But Father Lundberg’s practice was to always be ready to share the good news amidst so much bad news that people face in the course of a day. I would say this is a helpful practice for all of us: to be ready with a testimony to your faith in Jesus Christ, a testimony that would be cogent and credible to someone outside the church tradition… which is most everyone we meet these days on the street. No spiritual gobbledygook. If someone asks you today, in Harvard Square, why you are a follower of Jesus Christ, what’s the word, the authentic word in your heart and upon your lips? What is your testimony in real time? As we read a moment ago from the First Letter of John, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.”iii
- Lastly, the English word “testimony” comes to us from the Latin, testimōnium, meaning evidence, or proof. Many of us, I think, experience memory loss. I’m not speaking about cognitive memory loss (which happens!) but rather the loss of the heart’s memory. We need one another as living reminders of what we have known to be true, but may have forgotten in the haste of life, or because of suffering, or because of weariness. This is where sharing a testimony with someone, reminding someone of what we know to be true (or to have been true) for this person, may awaken the recall in this other’s soul. It’s like taking the starter yeast from a sourdough batter and adding it to another mix of ingredients to begin a new rising. We need one another. We see and hear, touch and feel Christ most clearly in the presence of another person, a living reminder.
I can say to you friends, gathered with us today on our patronal feast day, that you are not incidental to our lives. We need you in our lives, and we know it. We sometimes will hear our friends say that they have had a very real experience of Christ here at the monastery or at Emery House. And we brothers would tell you, if you were to say that, the reason this is so is because you bring Christ to us: the Christ in us recognizing and acknowledging the Christ in you. We are so thankful for you all, for your presence in our lives.
The psalmist sings out in testimony, “How can I thank the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” How can you thank the Lord for all the good things he has done for you? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer for you, but it’s already within your heart. Try to find the words today, and tomorrow, and the next to give testimony to the deepest love of your life.
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