The 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth is sometimes cited in homiletics classes for having said that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. While Barth’s actual quote is a bit different from this engaging trope, it is true that current affairs should set the context for biblical proclamation and that Scripture must speak to our experiential concerns.
Today, of course, preachers (like the rest of us) are more likely to “hold” the smartphone, tablet or TV remote along with the Bible. But the fact remains that contemporary circumstances can often lead to discoveries of timeless wisdom.
That connection happened for me last week during the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s televised impeachment hearings. Irrespective of political party affiliation or opinion about the validity of the investigations, one exchange between a committee member and a witness especially captured my attention. It reminded me of an important scriptural principle that should shape the way that we Christians testify to the Truth we believe we have experienced in Jesus Christ.
The exchange was between Ohio Rep. Mike Turner and Dr. Fiona Hill, a former official of the National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs.
Turner opined to the witness:
“Dr. Hill, you have provided me probably the greatest piece of evidence that’s before us to illustrate the problem with hearsay…. This is the problem with, no matter how convinced we are, Dr. Hill, no matter how much we believe we know that what we’ve heard is true, it is still just what we’ve heard.”
“We’re here just to provide what we know and what we’ve heard. I understand that for many members, this may be hearsay. I’ve talked about things I’ve heard, with my own ears.”
Then she added:
“We’re here to relate to you what we heard, what we saw, and what we did, and to be of some help to all of you in really making a very momentous decision here. We are not the people who make that decision.”
When I place this contemporary event alongside the wisdom of the Acts of the Apostles and the experience of the earliest followers of the Way, I am reminded of what it means to be a witness.
Acts 4 tells the story of Peter and John who were in Jerusalem teaching and preaching about Jesus. The response from their listeners was so remarkable that the priests and the party of the Sadducees became concerned. The apostles were arrested and brought to trial, where they were ordered never again to speak about Jesus. But the witnesses declared, with courage and conviction, that “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Peter and John “were ‘bold’ to testify before hostile or skeptical inquisitors.”
The testimony of these two men before this first-century investigative committee summarizes the responsibility of a witness: to speak about what one has seen and heard.
Many interpreters of this passage have noted that Peter and John were recognized as “companions of Jesus,” and while that phrase confirms the personal connection that made their testimony believable, two other observations are pertinent for the ongoing task of proclamation. First, these witnesses were “bold” to testify before hostile or skeptical inquisitors about what they believed to be true as they had seen and heard it. Second, their words were not authenticated by their expertise or stature, but by something else, for they were both recognized as “uneducated and ordinary.”
Fiona Hill, viewed by millions of Americans who watched the hearings, was bold before those who opposed her testimony. Even those who disagreed with her conclusions could admit that she was unintimidated. On the other hand, she was hardly “uneducated and ordinary.” She was educated at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and at Harvard University’s Graduate School. She also was quite extraordinary both in her personal mettle and unquestioned expertise.
Yet, it was neither her courage nor her credentials that validated her testimony and made her such a credible witness. Just as it was for Peter and John, it was her willingness (and determination) to testify about what she had seen and heard.
Therein lies an important lesson for us as Christian witnesses.
What justifies our proclamation about Jesus Christ is not our sharing “hearsay.” It is not quoting a string of Bible passages, linked together in a persuasive and logical fashion to prove our theological point. It is not our references to the experience of St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Lottie Moon, John Wesley, Watchman Nee, Mother Teresa, Catherine Booth, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Sojourner Truth, Walter Rauschenbusch, Desmond Tutu or any other inspiring Christian practitioner or activist. It is not our repeating the words of Billy Graham, Beth Moore, Peter Marshall, Barbara Brown Taylor, James Forbes, Marcus Borg, or some other favorite preacher or teacher. It is not raising our voice, shedding tears or belittling other perspectives.
“What makes our witness so powerful is … the obvious evidence that we have been ‘companions with Jesus.’”
Rather, what makes our witness so powerful is the calm, reasoned and honest recitation of our experience with the Almighty because of our relationship with Jesus. It is the convincing testimony that what we say we believe is really true because we have personally experienced it. It is the obvious evidence that we have been “companions with Jesus.”
That distinctive difference translates our witness from sheer hearsay into indisputable, firsthand testimony, which is powerful and potentially life-changing. It will not guarantee that those who hear us will respond positively. They may still doubt our words, but we will have been faithful to the charge Jesus gave us when he said, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV).