For the last few weeks, I’ve been ruminating on the following passage:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. (John 1:6-8)
John the Baptist was sent to bear witness of the light. What does it mean to bear witness? In the fundamentalist churches of my youth, bearing witness clearly meant handing out gospel tracts and learning methods to convince people why they need Jesus. Like a faithful soldier, I attended all the witnessing training programs and learned the models for presenting the gospel.
On Saturday mornings, a group of the faithful would hit the streets, knocking on doors and taking “religious surveys” that would never be collated. These were just a front for getting people to talk to us, so that we could then show them why they need Jesus. I learned a variety of techniques and methods of asking questions and even body language that might help draw the potential converts.
By the time I was out of college, all of this seemed a little suspicious to me. Sharing the gospel seemed a bit like selling Kirby vacuum cleaners (which I also attempted). Our whole approach felt like Jesus was simply a product we were trying to convince people that they couldn’t do without.
Me, like many others in my generation, watched far too many mean-spirited people beat up their listeners with the gospel. I couldn’t help but think that these people don’t look anything like the Jesus I see in the gospel.
So many of us began to think that the best way we could bear witness to Jesus was to live like him: to respect people, to be faithful in the little kindnesses of everyday life. For many of us, St Francis of Assisi’s word became our motto: “Witness all the time and when necessary use words.”
Witnessing shifted from proclaiming a truth in words to living a truth through our lifestyle. I still believe this is profoundly important because our faith, if is real, will be embodied in our actions. But there is a danger to this idea as well. And this what has been on my mind lately.
If we reduce witness primarily to a series of non-verbal acts that reveal our life of faith, it might be easy to reduce Christianity to a form of ethics. And that is one step away from suggesting that aren’t all religions really same: they’re about how we treat people, about living right, and so on.
But Christianity is not primarily about ethics it is about a person.
Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus has been challenging and convicting me personally about this idea of bearing witness. I went to sleep last night and dreamed and dreamed and dreamed all night about a strange series of little pictures that would not make sense to others and I could not even fully replicate here. But the dreams awoke me, and I knew a person was speaking to me (Jesus) and I responded by getting up from bed and writing. So here are a few thoughts on being a witness to a person, the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God.
Paul says that if Jesus really did not rise from the dead, we are of all men most miserable. In Christianity, we’re making the absurd claim to know a person intimately who lived over 2000 thousand years ago. The focal point of Christianity is not ethics, theology, or rituals. It is a person. We claim that Jesus of Nazareth, the man who lived at a particular place and time, was crucified at a particular place and time, and then overcame death and resurrected at a particular point in time. The resurrection was a vindication of Jesus’ claim to be more than just a man but to actually be God.
Jesus made claims about relationship within God (between himself, the Father and the Spirit), which altered the world’s understanding of God and over time radically reinterpreted the meaning of person for humans as well (that’s another essay).
We actually believe that the man Jesus is actually God and is actually alive right now and is actually capable of speaking to us and entering into relationship with us. We claim that his act in the cross directly addressed the problem of sin and evil in this world and made a way for humans to enter into a relationship with God that had never been possible.
If in our witness we fail to ever mention Jesus, there is something wrong. The woman at the well did not run back to the village and then act out a lifestyle that attracted people to follow her back to the well. She used words. She said “Come and see!”
The problem is that we live in a world that distrusts words and experiences. We fear using words for personal embarrassment or because we don’t want to force ourselves on other people.
But if I go with my wife to a party of my peers, she would appreciate if I introduce her. If I ignore her all evening and hope people will know how important she is by my actions, it is unlikely anyone will walk away knowing how I feel about her. On the other hand, if I talk about her, tell stories about her, show her picture, and reveal her to others then they will begin to meet her long before she is physically present. This is the same with Jesus.
The hang up of course is physical presence. We are used to meeting persons with physical bodies. So to build relationship with a person is not limited by their physical body seems hard to understand. While Jesus has a body, his primary means of entering into relationship now is not through that body but through his Spirit. This seems too far out for some people.
But in truth we meet and interact with many people beyond their physical body: letter writing for example. When a person writes a letter, they are present somehow in the words of their letter. And reading their letter (especially when it is written to us) is like being in their presence. I’ve read books by many authors who’ve been dead for many years, yet I feel as if I know them in their words.
Today we have telephones and emails. We can talk, tell stories, share our lives with people and never actually physically meet them. And yet, it feels as if we know them. And in some ways, we may know them better than the people we know physically. I’ve personally built some friendships online (with people I have never physically met) where I have come to know people on a deeply intimate level. (Of course one might argue, how do you know those people aren’t lying? And my response is trust. Just as I trust the person who is physically present is not lying as well.)
Just as letter writing, emails and telephones use words to convey the presence of persons and bring us into relationship, Jesus is present to us in the reading of his words: primarily the words of the Bible. Instead of reading it like some ancient musty text, we listen for Jesus the person speaking to us. This is not to deny the physical, concrete situations that led up to the writing of each Biblical text, but it is to suggest that the spirit of God inspires this same text and this same spirit reveals Jesus and has chosen to reveal Jesus in and through the text.
When I speak words, I impact you in ways that go far beyond simply acting. Acting, living, modeling may in fact give me a right to speak to you, but non-verbal is incapable of communicating specifics. If I want to meet someone, at some point, I am going to use words. Words pass through the outer world and somehow pierce our inner world in a profound and dramatic way. Words can incite anger. Words can bring tears. Words can surround us with good feelings. Words can bring hope. Words can clarify our feelings.
Words are fundamental to our expression as humans. The word passes through the ear to the mind and ultimately to the heart. Christians make the claim that Jesus does the exact same thing through his Spirit. He uses words, inspired words. The words in the Bible have inspired countless generations and touched people in their hearts with the person of Jesus. Before we discount this as some over emotional fluke, we must come to terms with those who have claimed such an experience: many hardcore rationalists like Thomas Aquinas and CS Lewis.
Some of the greatest thinkers in history have made such a claim. They claimed to meet and form relationship with the person of Jesus. The rich and poor, the intellectual and the simple minded, the educated and the illiterate—all make claims to know Jesus and experience his presence through prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, preaching, fellowship, dreaming, and even journaling.
We won’t meet him in quite the same way the woman at the well did, but the impact is just the same. And if he has not impacted us to the core of our being, then the question is have we truly met him? If he seems completely intangible and more like a concept than a person, then we should ask the Holy Spirit to make him known to us, to speak to us, to open our hearts to his presence. And we should set aside time to listen.
I fear we rarely acknowledge him, when he is speaking. We reduce our faith to ideas or feelings or actions, but his Spirit centers our faith on a person who entered history and yet lives now and is present to us.
Christianity can easily be equated with great ideas, beautiful rituals, personal improvement, ecstatic experiences, and while all these can be present, the heart and soul of it is the person of Jesus. We may perfect our ability to defend the faith through a variety of philosophical arguments, we may become exemplars on service to the poor and needy, we may have visions and see angels and have all manner of dramatic experiences, but we could have all these things and still never meet the person of Jesus.
And yet this is the great claim of Christianity. We believe he speaks to us personally. We believe he is present in the midst of his church. We believe he is transforming us through his presence. May the Spirit of God have mercy on us and open our eyes and hearts to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
As we encounter the Lord and Savior of our souls, may he become so real to us that bearing witness will become much more than a systematic method or technique, may it flower beyond simply non verbal pantomime and eventually, we might not be ashamed to acknowledge him but like the woman at the well, joyfully exclaim how Jesus has blessed us beyond measure.