1 John 1 & John 1 (Testify, week 1)
Chuck Townley and I have an ongoing discussion about the word “testimony.” And when I say “ongoing” I mean that we’ve been talking about this on and off for probably two years now. Testimony. Like many of you, Chuck has had some bad past experiences with that word. He has heard “testimonies” that included people bragging about things they shouldn’t be bragging about. People talking about what God has done but really subtly taking the credit themselves. Not walking humbly. And I totally agree with Chuck: that’s pretty ugly. I wouldn’t want to hear a testimony like that.
But “testimony” and the related verb “testify” are classic Christian terms and I’m on a mission to reclaim the language of our faith. Many of our words have been used badly but maybe instead of getting rid of them, we could try using them well. So for the rest of the summer we are going to explore the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Faith in a series that I’m titling “Testify.”
This is the right time for us to study this statement together for several reasons: 1. We have a lot of new people, many of whom I know have not before been part of a United Church of Christ. And if you’re going to get involved with a church, it’s important to know how they tell the Christian story. 2. We want to be consistent. We want to tell a Christian story that makes sense from beginning to end. We all have our favorite little ideas and other ideas that we think are Christian but we don’t really like them. However, most of us can’t tie all those ideas together into something that is logically consistent. 3. “A belief that is unspoken is incomplete.” That’s a direct quote from Roger Shinn, a man who helped write the UCC statement of faith. “A belief that is unspoken is incomplete.” He goes on to say, “But a belief that is well spoken become a power for life and action.” A power for life and action. That’s what I want. That’s why I think now is the time for us to explore this statement of faith together.
Now for those of you who are skeptical about “organized religion” (as many people are these days, with good reason) you may be feeling a little uncomfortable with a statement of faith. After all, creeds and belief statements have been used in the past to keep people out. But that’s not the purpose of the UCC Statement of Faith. Let me explain it this way: creeds and belief statements can be used as a fence, a boundary marker, clear lines that determine where the property ends and thus a tool for saying who is in and who is out. That’s not what this is.
The UCC Statement of Faith is not a fence. It’s a campfire. It doesn’t mark the edges; it marks the center. This distinctly Christian statement of faith articulates the core convictions of our community, it’s what’s at the heart of our life together. But fire has no clear boundaries. Some folks may station themselves right up close to the center, finding that this statement describes their own personal experience very well. Other individuals might stand a little further out, and that’s fine too. If you want to be part of this community, we welcome you. We want you to know that this campfire is what’s at our center, and you can stand as close as you want. This statement of faith is not a test; it’s a testimony. It’s not a list of doctrines; it’s a story. If you’ll let me stretch the metaphor a bit, the statement of faith is the campfire we gather around and the story we tell as we gather there.
We all have stories to tell. We all have testimonies. Because God speaks to all of us in our own way and acts in our lives in different ways, we can all tell stories of how and when and where we have encountered God. We all have a testimony, not about ourselves but about God and what God does. As we tell this story together this summer, you’ll see that it’s oriented around the actions of God, what God does. It’s a story, just like the Bible is a story. This statement of faith is a story of God in motion, living and active in the world.
This is what Christians have always tried to do. The New Testament book of First John begins with a testimony. Verses 1 through 5 say,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life was revealed; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was revealed to us. … We write this to make our joy complete, and yours too. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.1 John 1-2, 4-5
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
God is light; in God there is no darkness at all. That’s not an explanation. That’s a testimony, the beginning of a story. When we tell a story we have to find the balance between poetry and precision. When we tell a story, sometimes we find that poetry is more precise than prose. Because often the truest things are the hardest to say, aren’t they? In those moments symbolic language gets us where we’re trying to go. So if you’re looking for a technical explanation of the mechanics of salvation, you’re not going to find it here. This is a storybook, not an instruction manual.
So with all that build up are you ready to hear at least the beginning of this statement of faith? Here it is:
We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify:
“We believe in God.” – This is the only time in the whole statement we will hear the word “believe.” And if you Google “church belief statements” as I did this week, you’ll find that most of them include the word “believe” a lot. A lot more than just the once. But this is not a belief statement. It’s a statement of faith. There’s a difference, as you well know, because I say it a lot. Let’s think about it this way. What does it mean if I say, “I believe in you”? It means I know you so I trust you because I know you. It’s experience and trust and confidence in your character and in what you will do. Now what does it mean if I say, “I believe in U…FOs”? That’s different. That means I have a cognitive, mental assent to the existence of extraterrestrials. Same English word, “believe,” but very different meanings.
So what do you mean when you say, “I believe in God”? Is it like “I believe in UFOs” or is it like “I believe in you”? Is it about mental assent to existence or is it about experience and trust and confidence. See often we think it’s about existence. But truly it is, or it should be, about trust. When we begin a statement of faith by saying, “We believe in God” it’s a statement that at the core of this community is a trust in the character and actions of God that is based in our collective experience. We start by saying “We believe in God.”
We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit — present before anything and anyone else was, not bound by time or place, not belonging to one group of humans, as present now as back then and in the future, flexible and fluid and as hard to capture as wind and breath.
And yet, the Eternal Spirit is made known to us in Jesus our brother. This ever-present fluid presence is made known to us, deigns to come to us timebound earthbound small-minded creatures, wants to be with us, and so shows up in the person of Jesus. This is incredible. This is the beginning of a great story. The gospel of John starts this way. It says,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. …The Word became flesh and blood and lived among us. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.John 1:1-5, 14, 16
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
In the beginning was the eternal word, one with God, source of all that was and is and will be, life and light, stronger than any darkness. The Word put on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.
And we have seen it. We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify. We have seen it, we have heard it, we have touched it with our hands, and so we have a story to tell. We may not have seen or heard Jesus or touched him with our hands, but we have still seen God. We have seen God’s works in our lives and in the world. We have heard God’s voice still speaking to us in the still small voice and in the voices of others and in words of our sacred text. And we have felt God. So now we testify. Not bragging about things we shouldn’t be bragging about. But speaking our truth for the encouragement of others. We tell a story: the story of God, and the story of us, and the story of me. The Word of God is living and active and we don’t want to keep that to ourselves. We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify. Amen.
Who do you believe in?
What have you experienced?
What story can you tell?
To what can you testify?