The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. George’s Church, Nashville

“If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater” (1 Jo. 5:9).

“Testimony” is a word with legal reference going back to the Romans, to evidence offered in court or to the certification of a claim. “Witness” is an alternative word used by translators of the New Testament, and has the same weight though a different, Old English root. The Greek New Testament word doesn’t have that same legal root but means something more like “confession”, something one believes after reflection, and is now eager to “fess up”.

“Testimony” as we use it often means “third person” testimony: “then she did this”, “then he said that”, “then they signed that”. It’s testimony to something a bystander sees, someone who witnessed what was going on and is now testifying to it. Our word here in fifth chapter of the First Letter of John doesn’t have that connotation. It’s “first person” testimony: “then I did this”, “then I said that”, “then I signed that”. It’s not about what other people did, but about what we’ve done ourselves.

It’s also what I would call “considered” testimony: the sort that a rigorous cross-examination of a witness would be eager to reveal as prejudicial to the testimony. An “interested bystander” is no good in court. Testimony like this is worthless. “Don’t tell us what you think: tell us what happened.”

But here in this context it’s not prejudicial; it’s essential. When it comes to the early Christian idea of “witness”, it’s not just what you saw but what you think, what you believe, that’s important. In other words, the “New Testament” is a testimony to faith, and we cannot be “disinterested bystanders” in the life of faith.

The “testimony” that the apostle is writing about in our reading today is testimony about Jesus Christ: the one who was born, lived and died in Galilee and Judea in the time of Herod the Great and then under Pontius Pilate, and who has now been raised from the dead. Earlier in the letter John talks about “eye witness” testimony, the “you are there” kind of witness. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 Jo. 1:1) – to this he testifies.

By the time we get to this point in the letter, however, John has a wider range. He’s talking about something more. Not just eye witness testimony, but testimony that even those who have never seen Jesus or heard him speak can bear witness to. “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 Jo. 5:11). This is truth, based on reflection, involving interested parties, which John is calling his readers to pass on.

As we celebrate confirmation today, there are a number of witnesses involved. The great thing about a celebration like this is that everyone is involved. Each of us gets a chance to be a witness, not just to the events that are taking place but to the more profound actions of God that underlie our own actions here today.

The parish of St. George’s has borne witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. The faith and commitment we celebrate today didn’t appear out of nowhere, but is rooted in the apostolic faith that has been witnessed to time and time again here at St. George’s. We are witnesses that Jesus Christ is alive and not dead, and present in our midst now.

Our confirmands themselves are also bearing witness. They too have reflected on the meaning of these things and committed themselves to the Christian life. They are bearing testimony and making confession to the power and reality of new life in Christ. “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 Jo. 5:11). They are giving us considered testimony that is the fruit of their faith.

Christian testimony cannot be “third person” testimony, a truth about others that doesn’t involve us. The witness we offer is something we have a stake in; it’s the expression of the thing most important to us. The eternal life our reading speaks to is a life and death matter, of ultimate importance. We cannot be bystanders in the life of faith because we are (thanks be to God!) involved in the matter.

One final point. If we are all witnesses today, and our confirmands themselves are witnessing, then there is also a greater Witness involved. “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater” (1 Jo. 5:9), as we began this sermon. The Book of Revelation calls Jesus himself the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). God gave us eternal life through Jesus Christ, and that life is in his Son. By believing in him we receive the testimony, and bear the witness, here and now in a world that needs the message.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee