And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. (1 John 5: 7)
We live in a world of expert witnesses. There are a lot of them and the media loves them. Experts are deemed to have something to say based on their understanding of a particular matter or issue or their experience of a particular practice. Above all experts are to be believed. Two things need to be noted immediately: the first is that when experts disagree we are not supposed to notice; the second is that you and I are not experts so should not be expected to disagree with those who are. Enough said.
And yet you are an expert witness in your own field. St. John would understand your claim: he shares the same expertise as you and writes about it in the first of his letters and elsewhere. Of course St. John is in a different category from us because he is an eye-witness.
This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21: 24)
Even so, he would recognise that those who live in the Spirit bear witness to the truth because the Spirit is truth. The truth is the Gospel, salvation through Jesus Christ. For St. John in today’s epistle that claim is based on the water and the blood which flowed from the side of Christ which bear witness to his sacrifice and the water of life which he offers. From the gospel account:
But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. (John 19: 34-35)
For St. John this is not incidental – some additional information to bring the drama home to his readers. The water and the blood are representative of the truth to which the Spirit – who leads us into all truth – bears witness. They are not merely illustrative, but representative in the way in which we understand the sacraments: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. You know this and are in the position of an expert. St. John would understand that.
Christians are living witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ. The first Christians were quick to bear witness to the new way of life that belonged to the early Church. The testimony to it is found in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of St. Paul in particular. Knowing that Jesus was risen gave the faithful strength to live a new way of life based on the grace that is received from the Spirit. This new way of life was rooted in love and humility, in a compassion for those in need whether that need was material or spiritual. It was a way of life radically different to anything that had gone before it. For the Jewish convert it was an opportunity to live in the end-time in the knowledge that the words of the prophets had been fulfilled and that the age of the Messiah had dawned. Whatever the Jewish people had been through it had all been worthwhile because the claims of the Old Testament were true. For the Greek convert it was the end of their searching for the truth. There were philosophers who were already exploring monotheism as a means of moving on from the tired old stories of the capricious gods of Mount Olympus. Now their search for truth was over: the god of the Old Testament was the one true God and he had made himself known definitively in Jesus. Both Jewish and Gentile converts embarked together on the new way of life which Jesus’ death and resurrection made possible. In the Spirit they were all one.
Christians bear witness to Jesus. In this we are the experts, not because we ourselves are eye-witnesses because clearly we are not. Remember the words of Jesus to Thomas, ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ (John 20: 29). Of course we have access to the testimony of eye-witnesses in the Scriptures – and we may be experts on the Scriptures. Some amongst us work hard at that and I urge you to join them. But we are all experts because of the unity of water, blood and Spirit. We know that Jesus’ blood is shed for us on the cross; we know that he offers us living water; and we know that he sends the Spirit upon us. Here is the basis of sacramental worship and indeed of Christian life itself which is lived – as Jesus says – not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3: 6)
Christians bear witness to Jesus by living the resurrection life of Jesus through the Spirit. This is truly Trinitarian because it is the Father’s will that we should worship him and honour him in this way and it is his gift that enables us to do it. The Spirit then bears witness both to the Father and the Son through his indwelling of the faithful. There has been a lot of talk of ‘belonging’ in recent years and that is helpful: we belong to God, we belong to the Church. It is also helpful to talk of ‘being’ because an Easter faith determines and defines who we actually are. We are not just third party witnesses who just happen to know something about Jesus because we came across him in a book. We are actually living witnesses to the love of the Father, the life of the Son and the power of the Spirit. We live what we proclaim because that is who we are. It is not just an idea or an accident of culture that we proclaim, but Jesus himself through the Christian life. We may not always do it very well, but that doesn’t change who we are or what we should recognise about ourselves.
Recognising that we are experts in matters of faith should bring us comfort and help us to be more confident. It is true that the claims of faith through the Spirit can sometimes make us uncomfortable because our true selves are made known and our failings exposed, but we know that when that happens we can change and are offered forgiveness and healing. But most of the time we are strengthened by our knowledge of the truth of Jesus and can learn to be more confident in it. Once again you are living witnesses to the love of the Father, the life of the Son and the power of the Spirit. Do not let it go for nought, but stand firm in the faith.
To finish, we might remind ourselves that we are not a sect enjoying some private knowledge for our own benefit. We are part of the Church of God which exists to reclaim for God the creation he loves. Jesus’ resurrection and the new life to be found in him and in his disciples is the proof of the divine intention. Even the building in which we worship reminds us of this truth. In the reredos Jesus is depicted as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is attended by the angelic host. His death and resurrection are proclaimed in word and sacrament from lectern and altar. After the example of the first temple in Jerusalem there are images of the creation in which all of this happens – God’s creation which he redeems. Above the font the ceiling depicts the sky and the stars; around the pillars are carvings – just patterns here - traditionally of greenery (in some buildings animals too); around us there are lights. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1: 3). You sit in the nave which is the ship of faith to sail upon the waters. Above all there is the witness of lives of faith empowered by the Spirit, filled with trust and love which is just what the world needs in its sin and brokenness. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. (1 John 5: 7) In the Lord your expertise will not be wasted and your labour will not be in vain
Father Andrew Burton SSC
First Sunday after Easter, 2021
Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash