A couple of General Conferences ago, a friend of mine who was a delegate came back and told me, “We made a saint at General Conference, Art.” Oh come on, I said, we don’t make saints. "Oh, yeah, we do," she replied. It turns out that out of the thousands of petitions from United Methodists all over the world, somebody sent in a petition that we should recognize Dietrich Bonnhöffer as a Christian martyr.
Now, Bonnhöffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the '30s, when people sympathetic to the new Nazi movement began agitating for the Protestant Churches in Germany to adopt racist and anti-semitic ideologies, to acknowledge the Führerprinzip (leadership of society by Hitler) and to make Christianity into something conformable to German nationalism. In 23 of the 28 Länder, this led to schisms within the Protestant Churches, and the launching of what was known as the Confessing Church – Protestant congregations and clergy who would not bow the knee to the State as god.
Bonnhöffer was one of those who resisted the expansion of the State’s supervision of the Church. He was eventually arrested and held in prison, and he was given a drumhead court martial and hanged, just 2 weeks before the Allies liberated the prison camp in which he had been held. His writings have been very influential in American theological circles.
So, okay, we were just recognizing him for what he did – remain faithful to Christ, even unto death. In officially doing so, of course, we’re also basically declaring him to be a saint – the only one we’ve ever so recognized – so, by golly, I guess we do make saints, at least this once.
I tell this story because the word “martyr,” meaning someone who suffers for one’s faith in Christ, particulary one who is killed for it, comes from the Greek word martys, plural martyres – a word that means, simply, “witness.” It’s the ordinary word one would use to describe someone testifying in court, or signing a document or telling a first-hand story.
So when Christ said to his disciples, just before his ascension into heaven, “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth,” he should be understood to mean that those present, who had all seen him alive again after his crucifixion and resurrection, would be able to say, “I was there – I saw it with my own eyes.” Indeed, the first mark of an apostle was to have seen Jesus alive again in the flesh, which is why when they got around to choosing Judas’s successor, one of the requirements was that he had to be someone who had been part of the whole movement from John’s baptism to now – someone who would be, as Peter said, “a witness to his resurrection.” And later on, Paul – who was definitely not part of the group back then – would base his status as an apostle on the vision of Christ that knocked him off his horse on the way to Damascus. “Am I not an apostle?” he wrote to the Corinthians, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” So the first and obvious meaning of “witnessing for Christ” is to testify to what you know – or believe – about Jesus.
But, of course, actions speak louder than words, and one shows one’s faith by how one lives more than by what one says. And how the early Christians lived set them at odds with everybody else round about. The early Christians were profoundly counter-cultural, and this set up a lot of antagonism between them and those in the cultural mainstream. That antagonism eventually led to persecution, and to “martyrdom” in the sense we normally use the word.
People who take Christianity seriously and try to live by it still arouse antagonism in others, and there are plenty of places in the word, even today, where people suffer for their faith in Christ. But whether or not one’s actions are approved or disapproved by the larger society, it’s important that our lives show forth our faith. I mean, if you believe in thus-and-so regarding the nature of ultimate reality, then you ought to so live as to reflect those facts; if you think ultimate reality is otherwise ordered, then you should reflect those facts in how you live. But someone who saysS he believes in X, but lives like he believes in Y, is either confused, or cowardly, or a hypocrite; in any case, his witness doesn’t carry much weight with others.
The early Christians’ behavior impressed their non-believing neighbors in several ways. First, the Christians were very non-participatory in all the usual organs of society – government, education, popular entertainment – because all of those venues were riddled through and through with pagan practices, and the Christians were determined to acknowledge no other divine power but that of God-in-Xt. This made them appear anti-social to many, while to the government, it made them appear subversive.
Second, the Christans had a sexual ethic that was utterly uncompromising. They were not naïve – it was impossible to be naïve in the days of the Roman Empire – but they held themselves to a standard that seemed repressed and weird to most other folks, but from which they derived immense satisfaction. And even as others thought they were way too tightly wound, they admired the Christians' purity of life and devotion to each other.
Third, the Christians were known for their good works toward everybody, including those who were not themselves Christian. When the emperor Julian, the nephew of Constantine the Great, attempted to reinstate paganism, he ran up against not only the political power of the now-legal Church, but also its social reputation. By the 4th Century, you see, Christians were not only supporting their own widows and orphans, but many other people’s, too.
Finally, even during times of public disfavor and official persecution, it was very rare for Christians to deny Christ when pressured to do so. Not that officialdom didn’t try, but the Christians believed in their religion and adhered to it far more tenaciously than most folks did – a fact that impressed many and gained favorable comment even from those who disagreed with them.
Now, times change, issues change. We are not now living in the Roman Empire. And the legalization and popularization of Christianity that began under Constantine made Christianity mainstream for many, many centuries. You cannot simply extrapolate from 2nd or 3rd Century conditions to the 21st Century and say, “this is how Christians should live.” But that said, you also cannot simply say, “that was then and this is now” and go whoring after “being relevant,” which is how some people excuse their apostasy. There will always be tension, even antagonism, between a lifestyle founded upon faith in Christ and lifestyles founded upon other realities, and we just have to accept that as part of the cost of following Christ.
Our goal is not to show off, for people who are showing off are more concerned with appearances than with substance – more concerned with respectability than with holiness – and that’s not the point. But if nobody ever notices -- if you spend your whole life following Christ and that fact never makes you stand out in the sewer of modern culture, then you really need to ask yourself if you’re doing this right. In any case, how you and I live our lives is a reflection upon what we believe in, and all of us are either a good advertisement or a bad advertisement for Christ.
But back to that other, original meaning of “witness.” Yes, we witness by how we live our lives – and our behavior probably speaks louder than our words – but there’s a time and a place for a word to be spoken, and it may be that your word will carry more weight with somebody, or in some situation, than anybody else’s. So you’ve got to give some thought to this.
There are times, for instance, when you’ve got to make known where you stand on something – some issue to be discussed or some thing that has occurred in your work or school or community. It may be that you need to express disapproval or shame at something, or it may be that you need to express approval or hope for something. Both negative and positive statements can be important. But whatever it is, your witness needs to be your witness: “I think . . . I feel . . . it seems to me . . . I don’t like it when . . . I can’t agree with that.” Most people adopt the values of those around them, and fear to be left too exposed by being different. But the person who has the courage to be different – and whose differentness is directly related to one’s faith in Christ – will make an impact. You may lose the vote, but people will value your opinion, and it will make a difference.
But it is not just in our willingness to be different, to go a different way, in which we should stand out for Christ. In our love, in our encouragement, in our strengthening of others, in the way we trust and believe in them, and finally in the way we forgive those who have injured us or disappointed us, we show the Spirit of Christ, which is very different from the spirit of the dog-eat-dog world. Words matter, and “a word in season, how good it is!” You and I have the power to influence others, to lift burdens and to shape debate. And it may also be, in the end, your witness that brings another to Christ.
And again, it’s not that you are called upon to explain the faith once delivered to the saints, or to speak authoritatively as to doctrine, or whatever. Your witness is your witness – it’s the story of how and why you came to faith in Christ. It’s a story no one else can tell
And somebody may need to hear it, someday.
Somebody may need to hear you tell how you started following Christ. Sometime, somebody may need to hear you tell about your failures – even your sins – and how you and Christ dealt with those. Somebody may need to hear you talk about your doubts some day – and why you keep on following Christ. Somebody may need to hear you tell about your joy in following Christ, or your experiences in prayer.
And not all stories are for all hearers, but every now and then, you will find yourself talking with somebody, and you will realize, it’s important that I share this with you. Sometimes, I tell you this story because I think it will help you; sometimes, I tell you this story just because I want you to know you’re not alone. And sometimes, of course, we don’t even know that what we have shared has made a difference in somebody’s life.
Deanne’s oldest bro didn’t believe much in Christ when we got married. He came to real faith in Christ somewhat later, and part of the background – a small part – of what made him reconsider Christ was something we said and did: something I would never have thought important.
Back when we were first married, we had an old car which we could barely afford to fill with gas, let alone do maintenance on. Dan told me, “You guys used to pray about everything. I remember one time, you prayed that your tires would hold together so you could get home.” I said, Well, yeah, that’s just what we do. And he said, “But you meant it. And then you drove off, trusting in God to get you home.”
It’s not all about prepared speeches, but about what you say when you don’t think it’s important – just like it’s not mostly about taking a stand, but about how you live your life every day – that testifies to your faith in Christ. So, while witnessing is a spiritual discipline, and being good witnesses for Christ is what he charged us to be, if you aim to just be and do and say what he wants you to, you don’t have to worry too much about how your witness will be received. He’ll take care of that. You just worry about following Christ, with all that implies. Others will notice, you can be sure.