This past Sunday, I preached a sermon on the subject of witness. In it I told a story that is probably familiar to most of us, Christians and non-Christians alike. You can read the whole story in the sermon (it’s at the beginning), but the gist of it is that, when I was in college, in my days of secular humanism and seeking, I was cornered by a Jesus person who was in sales-pitch mode. Maybe that works for some people, but for most non-Christians that I know, there is nothing as sure to shut them down as asking whether they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal savior. Even now, my first instinct is to respond to that question with distance. Though I’m more likely these days to respond, “He accepted me, thanks.”
I lay out a few of my issues with this definition of “witness” in my sermon. But even as I critique it, there is a part of me that envies those salespersons, that wishes I could bring myself to the level of faith that those “witnessers” seem to have. But it seems like, to do that kind of sales job, you have to have the level of faith, the lack of doubt, that I have never been able to come by. Because, frankly, I still have questions. I still have doubts. I still wonder what this whole God story means, and whether I understand it correctly. What’s more, if I do understand it correctly, it just doesn’t bear believing. There is nothing inherently believable about the idea that God would become human, even when God doesn’t have to, that God would choose to die, that God would consistently open doors that ought to be shut, and most of all that God would, purely out of God’s love, invite me, a sinner, into a new and righteous relationship with God. Honestly, this whole story seems like foolishness, and there are days when I find it hard to swallow. Which makes it awfully hard for this doubter to pitch the hard sale to a world of doubters.
And yet. We’re called to witness. So what’s a doubter to do? How do I witness if I don’t want to witness in this sales-pitch model, where my salvation and that of another both seem to hang on my ability to properly articulate the mystery that is so in-articulable, that I can’t even explain it to myself much of the time? If I live alongside those who do not confess a faith in Christ, friends and family members of other faiths or of no faith, am I supposed to be in some kind of permanent sales-pitch relationship with them? Is that what God wants from me?
I don’t see it. I don’t see it in the Scriptures, I don’t see it in the life of Christ, I don’t see it in the call to authentic community and love that we receive from the tradition.
Instead, I see a call to a resurrection life, a post-Easter perspective. Each day, we die to sin, and rise anew, with Christ, to live resurrection lives. It is not a life of earning our way to salvation, it is not a life where I am required to see each person I meet as another paving stone in my personal path to heaven. It is not a life where I have to stuff my fears and doubts and worries under a bushel basket, and pretend that they don’t exist, for fear that I will be discovered as a fraud. It is not a life where my salvation or anyone else’s depends on my ability to live properly, to speak well, and to sell Jesus as if he were Justin Bieber. The fact is that I have already been discovered as a fraud – a sinner and a doubter, who does not have the ability, and probably not even the desire, to live properly, to speak well enough, or to sell Jesus to everyone I meet. And Jesus came right ahead into my life – as a true friend – accepting me exactly where I was, and then challenging me, not coercing me, not manipulating me, but extending me the invitation to live in freedom, to live a resurrection life, where my sins and doubts and failings are not what names me or claims me. I am named and claimed by Christ.
How’s that for something that you can witness to? I don’t know about you, but I tend to be okay with talking about my own story. I tend to feel like that is about the only thing that I can tell with full authenticity, with full integrity. You probably tell stories about your own life every day. Meeting new friends, catching up with old friends – you tell the story of your life. You tell it with authenticity, not coercion. You tell it because you love these people and they love you, and you hope that together you will grow towards something. You tell it, not to sell anything, but simply because it is. Your story is God’s story, and God’s story is your story. Is it possible that this is the witness to which we are called? To simply share our stories, to be in relationship in the most true and authentic way we know how, because Christ has set us free to do so?