When I was in college, I struck up a friendship with a young woman in one of my classes. She and I sat next to each other, and during a discussion section, we began talking about issues of religion. We decided to continue our conversation over lunch. Sitting at the table, happy in the possibility of a new friend, it took me a while to realize where this was all going. She had a pitch and she wanted to make a sale. It wasn’t until she asked the key question that I cottoned on. “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” My heart sank. I thought we were heading for friendship, for a mutual give and take of ideas, an acceptance of one another where we were, and the possibility of growth and new understandings, seeing the world through the eyes of a beloved other. That’s what friendship meant, means, to me. The possibility that another person would see me, hear me, love me just like I am; and then push me to become more than that. But the moment that she asked that question, she clarified her position to me.
She was not after a friendship. She was after a sale. At least that’s how it felt to me.
Oh, she was perfectly prepared to accept me as a friend, but not until I had made some necessary adjustments to my worldview. And if I wasn’t prepared to make that change, it seemed to me that she was not prepared to call me friend. She made it clear that she was perfectly happy to continue to get to know me, to meet with me weekly or even daily, but it was also clear that the purpose of these meetings would be to cultivate me for Jesus,
to till the soil of my soul, and plant the seeds of belief, so that she could ultimately harvest me and place my salvation on her tally sheet.
I confess that this may sound harsh, and I acknowledge absolutely that she did not intend for me to read her this way. Her intentions were, I am certain, completely innocent, even loving in their way. But I am also willing to bet that a good percentage of you have had a similar experience, and that you know what I’m talking about. It’s not that there was anything wrong with her intentions,
but her methods made me feel like a commodity, like my soul was hanging in the marketplace, and she was hoping to be the highest bidder. This business-like approach to my salvation did not strike me as a particularly useful, helpful, or loving basis for a friendship with this young woman.
Much less a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior.
When you hear the word “witness,” how many of you think of a conversation like the one I had with that young woman back in college? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m actually asking. You don’t have to raise your hand, but I am curious to know. When you hear the scripture passages in which we are sent to be witnesses, when the risen Christ says to the disciples, “you are witnesses of these things,” when Peter says to the people of Jerusalem, “to this we are witnesses,” when Jesus appears to the disciples at the end of the book of Matthew and gives that famous commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” is this what you think you’re being asked to do? To become a salesperson for Christ? When you hear that baptismal promise, to proclaim Christ through word and deed, do you shrink, and worry that you are being asked to do something that you don’t know how to do? That feels false or contrived? Yeah, me, too.
One problem with this kind of witness is that I feel like it places me in an untenable position for relationship. If, as I said before, a true friendship is about a mutual give-and-take, an acceptance of another where they are, then a true friendship, an honest relationship, cannot be based on my need to convert another person to my belief system. When “witness” is something I do to another person, then they become an object, something that I am acting on or at or to. Which leaves them precious little space to be subjects in their own right.
So if that’s what witness means, then I have to choose between friendship and God’s command. Which seems contradictory to me. Jesus didn’t choose between friendship, relationships with people, and God.
He chose relationship – unfettered, unbound relationship – in God. He met people where they were, and he accepted them as they were. If we are called into right relationship with God and with neighbor, I don’t see how I can start from an agenda of coercion or manipulation, from an agenda of requirement, from a members-only point of view.
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he didn’t say to Simon and Andrew, “If you accept me as your Lord and Savior, I will make you fishers of men.” When Jesus called Zaccheus down out of the tree, he didn’t say, “Zaccheus, have you asked me into your heart? Oh, good, then I’m coming to your house today!” When he appeared to the disciples after his death and resurrection, he didn’t ask them if they believed before he said to them, “Peace be with you!” In fact, none of the disciples, the people who knew him best, greeted the risen Christ with, “Aha! We’ve been expecting you!” In all of the resurrection accounts, the people who saw him were astonished, amazed, afraid, and doubtful. In today’s gospel reading, it says that the disciples were disbelieving and wondering in their joy. And still, Jesus came to all of these people, and loved them, and grew in relationship with them, and died for them, and was raised for them.
For Jesus, it was always about the love first and foremost. Faith, if it came, grew out of the love of Christ, not out of anything that he forced out of them. Not out of a requirement or a litmus test.
And that’s good news for us who are called to be witnesses. Jesus called those disciples to be witnesses, even as they were standing there unbelieving. It wasn’t intended as a way of manipulating anyone into belief. How can you manipulate belief from someone else when you are still kind of working it out for yourself? I think that’s one of the things that keeps us from witnessing a lot of the time. We’re worried that, because we’re not quite sure how this all works in the first place, we’re going to witness wrong. But the first witnesses were doubters, too. So that doesn’t disqualify us.
What’s more, faith, when it comes, grows out of the love of Christ, not out of anything I do or say. In the book of Acts, Peter says it to the wondering crowds in the Temple after the lame man has been healed: “Why are you staring at us, as if by our own power or piety we had healed him?” It is the power and love of Christ that heals. It is the power and love of Christ, the Holy Spirit that Christ gave to us, that works faith. Martin Luther explained in his Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own strength or understanding believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. But the Holy Spirit calls me through the gospel, enlightens me with her gifts, and sustains me in my faith.”
In other words, I’m not even responsible for my own faith – it is a pure gift of the Spirit. And if I can’t make myself believe, if I’m not responsible for my own salvation, how can I possibly be responsible for anyone else’s? How can I make anyone else believe?
All of this, I think, takes a lot of the pressure off of the term “witness.” It means that I don’t have to sacrifice a true relationship with another person for the sake of witnessing. In fact, the best way for me to witness to Jesus Christ is to follow his example, by loving my neighbor as Jesus does, exactly as she is. In our adult forum hour this morning, we talked about the book Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it, Bonhoeffer talks about the basis of Christian fellowship. In true Christian fellowship, he says, we are to see our neighbor through the eyes of Christ, releasing my neighbor from every attempt to regulate, coerce, and dominate her.
This means her faith as well. Christ is taking care of that, and I do not have to.
Bonhoeffer writes, “Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s.” Even as I am allowing my neighbor the freedom to be Christ’s, I am myself being freed to love my neighbor, not as an object of my conversion conversation, but as a subject in her own right, a beloved child of God, one for whom Christ has already acted, in whom Christ is already acting, and through whom Christ might actually act on me!
That is the freedom of a Christian. The freedom to enter into genuine relationship with another person, not for the sake of my own salvation, not even for the sake of her salvation, but simply and most directly for the sake of Christ.
That doesn’t absolve us of talking about Christ. But in this approach to witness, we are talking about our own experience, sharing who we are, and how Christ has acted in us and for us and through us. Not because we have to make anyone else believe as we do, but because our story is Christ’s story, and Christ’s story is our story.
So what if we approach this term, “witness,” as a noun, not a verb? What if witness isn’t something we do, but something we are? When Jesus comes to his disciples after the resurrection, he doesn’t commission them to “witness,” but to “be his witnesses.” So perhaps, rather than forcing ourselves into models of doing witness, making other people the object of our witness, witnessing to or at them; maybe we could instead live into our baptismal identities, the promise that our story is indeed Christ’s story, that Christ’s story is ours. By stepping out into the world clothed in Christ, we are living out that story, living out of that story. We are witnesses, by virtue of our baptism. The freedom of a Christian, the freedom that Christ won for you, means that your very life is a witness to Christ’s way of seeing, to Christ’s way of being. Christ did not wait for the whole world to say yes to him, before he spread his arms on the cross. He said yes to the world.
And that was enough.