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The Privilege of Witness

By April 12, 2017 2 Comments

Version 2Like many churches, mine is hosting services throughout this Holy Week.

On Monday, I was asked to start off the proceedings with a short meditation. Perhaps because I am a teacher, I have been struck quite often of late of the great privilege we have to be witnesses: to notice and celebrate God’s work in the lives of people around us. And I’ve been grateful, too, to be reminded of the immense difference it has made in my own life to have friends who are willing to be a witness in mine.

So here’s what I shared:

Why have we decided to gather? I mean, really? On a Monday?

It’s certainly an interesting exercise to imagine our way through the events that led up to Jesus’s final sacrifice on the cross. To try and understand the betrayal, the suffering, the anguish of each day in that terrible week so long ago. But isn’t it really just an “exercise”—after all, Jesus has been good and risen for over 2000 years, reigning in glory. Celebrating Easter seems like it should be enough.

I want to suggest that part of what we do here this week is to enact one of most important roles we have as Christians: that of witness.

I love that the word witness is both noun and verb. We both do “witnessing” and we are witnesses. As such, we testify to what we have seen done in our lives and in the lives of others, and as importantly, our very lives themselves are testimony. That is, in the way we live our lives, in our very being, we attest to what we believe.

And what we believe is that the story of redemption is the story of a God who saves us by name.  We do not have a distant God who works some far-off magic to save a generic “human race.” No, we have a personal God who saves me and you. Indeed, at the heart of a theology of covenant, we see a God who asks us to participate with him to do God’s work in God’s world.

Obviously, God doesn’t need us to do a thing—he fulfills both sides of that covenantal bargain—but in saving us, he invites us not just into restored relationship with him but into a life of active proclamation for and about him. He invites us to be witnesses.

And this is true in both the Old and the New Testament. Consider Isaiah 44 (6 & 8):

6 “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.

8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”

Imagine that: God calls on us to be a witness for him. As if he needs support or proof!  Clearly, the heavens and earth are already declaring the glory of God. But amazingly, God seems to thinks we’re necessary to the project, too.

And part of being a good witness is to give account of the whole story: not just the act that saves us but the acts from which we are saved. The meditations we undertake during Holy Week remind us again of so many of the ways we fail in our relationships with God and each other. Our disloyalties, our violence, our pride. Our big talk and our lack of action. Our timidity and our jealousies. Our misguided scheming and our imprudent plans. To not bear witness to these realities would be to misrepresent the power of sin that the Resurrection conquers. We must give witness to it all.

Thankfully, telling the sad tale of sin is only a part of our narrative task. It seems particularly significant to me that in the first post-Resurrection sighting of Jesus, Jesus invites Mary Magdalene and the other women to go and spread the good news. Given the status of women in 1st century Palestine, Jesus’ inclusion of women in the work of witness demonstrates the radical capaciousness of the Gospel—this is a story for everyone to participate in and for everyone to tell.

And like that passage in Isaiah, the New Testament resounds with the importance of our role as witness. In Acts 1:8, Jesus himself quite famously gives us this task:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The apostles, too, over and again assert the centrality of this role:

Acts 2:32: God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.

Acts 3:15: You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

Acts 5:32: We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

So how, then, do we continue to live into our call to be witnesses? One way, of course, is to listen to and re-tell the stories of those in that “great cloud of witnesses.” But this can’t just be a remembrance of things past. If we truly believe that the power of the resurrection is the power to transform lives, then we need to give voice to God’s work in our lives today.

We do that part of our witnessing job by beholding and celebrating Christ in the lives of around us. We often seem to forget that our great privilege as the church is in seeing the work of God in each other—and helping to assist with that work by noticing and encouraging it.  So that each manifestation of the fruit of the spirit—the joy in this person, the peace in that one, the faithfulness of another—might add praise to praise. Sometimes we don’t even see these things ourselves until someone sees them for us. But the building up of love comes from seeing evidence of God’s handiwork wherever we look—and we are essential to each other in this work.  In On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine puts it this way:

…the apostle Paul, no less, though cast to the ground and then enlightened by a divine voice from heaven, was sent to a human being to receive the sacrament of baptism and be joined to the church. And Cornelius the centurion, although an angel announced to him that his prayers had been heard and his acts of charity remembered, was nevertheless put under the tuition of Peter not only to receive the sacrament, but also to learn what should be the objects of his faith, hope, and love.  All this could certainly have been done through an angel, but the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his words to human beings through human agency….There would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learning nothing from other humans.

So every story we share—small stories or large—is evidence of a living God. Or as Frederick Buechner has said:

It is well to remember what the ancient creeds of the Christian faith declare credence in….For better or worse, it is a story….It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives.  If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present.  If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.

In our words and our deeds, in the stories we tell and in the stories we embody, let us proclaim boldly and with great joy the good news of God’s redemptive love, shown to us abundantly, moment by moment.

Let those who have ears hear—and then give witness to the mighty acts of God.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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