I was called to serve once as a character witness once in a murder trial. The young man on trial was deacon in the church I was serving right out of seminary. He’d assisted in his mother’s suicide and had been indicted on a first degree murder charge.
I was horribly nervous going into the courtroom that day. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I guess I went in thinking it was going to be Perry Mason or Law and Order. No one had given me any instruction other than when and where to show up. After I was sworn in, the defense attorney approached me and said very matter-of-factly, “I’m going to ask you some questions about the accused and I want you to tell the truth as you know it.”
And that’s what I did. I witnessed to the truth as I knew it, as I had experienced it from my perspective. I gave my testimony.
That’s where the word comes from. Biblically, to give testimony, to witness, comes from a courtroom metaphor. Namely, God’s courtroom. This shouldn’t be news to us. There are plenty of courtroom scenes in Scripture. Add to that the fact that in early American history church sanctuaries doubled as courtrooms during the week. That’s the history of having the American flag in a sanctuary — it was a courtroom during the week.
But what happens in this courtroom, in this sanctuary? What happens here that involves testimony?
Imagine for moment, that you are involved in a horrible car wreck. The car you’re driving hits another car. It’s clearly you’re fault. The road was straight but you veered off. You weren’t paying attention, you were distracted from what you should have been doing and you caused this wreck. You realize all of this as you tumble down a hillside, to the sound of broken glass and bending metal. At the bottom is a dark black lake. Your cars crashes into the water and begins to sink. You can’t move. You’re bleeding and battered body sits motionless as the car descends deeper and deeper into the watery abyss. Suddenly, a figure appears outside your window. He breaks the glass, reaches in and grabs you with a grip that will not let you go. He takes you up, up, up through the dark water. You still feel like you’re going to drown, you don’t have a breath left in you, when suddenly you break through to the surface. You gasp for breath as you’re carried to the shore. And as you lie there you realize that your savior is the driver of the other car. He is injured too, very injured, and it’s not long before he dies on the lake side next to you. Guilt fills your soul — the wreck — it was your fault. You did this. Perhaps he wouldn’t have died if he had not saved you — but he did save you — and it did cost him his life.
You’re called into court to testify. You’re subpoenaed to testify, to tell the truth from your perspective regarding this wreck and how your life was saved. You tell your story, expecting to receive your just dessert for causing this wreck and the death of an innocent man. But just at the last moment, the judge throws the whole case out and declares you innocent. Shock and amazement come over you and you look up from the witness stand for the first time and see that the judge is none other than the man who saved your life. It’s all very confusing, very mysterious. How? Why? But it is your story. It’s my story. It’s our story.
We share the same story but our experience of it is different. Our testimonies share some common ground but are unique to our person. Much like the gospels tell the same story from different perspectives, so too do we experience the saving grace of God in different ways.
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Unfortunately, for many of us, thoughts of “testimony” outside the courtroom conjure up images of religious fanaticism. The sort of emotionally manipulative, agenda driven, well rehearsed “testimony” that knocks on your front door and wants to give you a pamphlet along with a lecture about how you are on your way to hell in a handbasket. That sort of negative testimony has so overwhelmed our culture that many Christians simply err on the side of keeping their mouths shut for fear of being labeled a nut.
But we are, my friends, under a perpetual subpoena. We are called to testify in the whole of life. An essential part of what makes us disciples is our testimony. St. Francis’ of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” Certainly our actions are a significant form of testimony. The way we treat others, the justice we seek, the ministries we engage are all forms of testimony. But they’re not the complete picture. Sometimes, perhaps a lot of the time, words are necessary.
You see, what’s unique about our testimony is that it points to a greater testimony, a greater personal witness. 1st John writes, “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified in his Son.” (1st John 5:9) In other words, God has testified in his own courtroom. We might think of God’s testimony in general as Scripture. But God testified most fully in person; in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God became incarnate and lived among us that we might hear, receive, and experience his personal testimony. In Jesus Christ, the judge comes down off the bench and takes the witness stand not only to testify to the Truth, but to bear the cost of the verdict rendered.
Our calling, in the whole of life, is to give expression to the truth we know and have experienced most fully in Jesus Christ. And our testimony is not something locked in the past but is continually unfolding through our proclamation, study of the Scriptures, our worship, our life together.
But is our Christian testimony the only one that matters? One of the big questions we face in our pluralistic world is this: Are all testimonies equal?
Remembering that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16), we’re called to take the world seriously, not just the Christian part we agree with. What we learn through Scripture is that our testimony is not entirely ours. The Spirit plays a part in our testimony. 1st John puts it this way, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.” (1st John 5:10). The testimony we have in our hearts is God’s testimony in Jesus Christ. It is a good news testimony that is meant for the whole world.
But how exactly does this happen? How are we called to give our testimony on a daily basis, in a pluralistic world? Well, for starters, there are some forms of testimony to be avoided. Force-feeding Christianity is counter-productive and does not testify to the truth. The use of fear tactics and emotional manipulation is counter-productive and does not testify to the truth. Respectful dialogue that views all people as unique and loved creations is the level ground beneath the cross where our testimony begins. And it is there that we hear the Spirit speaking and saying to us, “You know what is good and you know what Lord requires of you: To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
May this be our testimony each and every day.
Copyright 2006, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.