I have only been called upon to testify in court – to be a witness – once. Yet even though I have only done it once, that one time was more than enough for me. I didn’t get cheated when it comes to having that life experience.
My first time serving as a witness wasn’t in some local or state matter. Instead it was a case in federal court. I had to go to the federal justice building in downtown Chicago – a huge imposing structure – in order to testify. It was a federal case with a federal prosecutor and judge. Since it was the U.S. government bringing the charges, the witness on the stand prior to me was a F.B.I. agent.
Now I will confess that I was nervous. I don’t think I had ever been in an actual court room before. Yet now, here I was in the big leagues. And I wasn’t just there to observe things and give moral support. Instead I had been subpoenaed as a witness in a case that dealt with a very serious matter.
I took the stand and spoke the oath to tell the truth. I began to answer questions. And then I was asked a question about information that had been revealed to me in private confession. My mind raced as I realized that the hypothetical had now become my reality. In pastoral theology class at the seminary you are taught that the seal of confession cannot be broken. At ordination a pastor takes an oath that he will never divulge sins confessed to him. I had been taught that the confidentiality of this communication was recognized by the legal system. Yet never in a million years did I think I would ever actually experience this situation!
I responded that I wasn’t able to answer the question because it involved information that had been revealed to me in confession. I was relieved when the judge nodded in approval and indicated that the lawyer needed to continue on with a different question. And I was glad when the judge released me to leave the witness stand.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks about bearing witness. He is not speaking about witness that takes place in a courtroom, but instead something even more serious; even more important. He speaks about the witness that the Holy Spirit will give to Jesus, and also in turn the witness that the disciples will give to the Lord. This is a witness that will at times have serious consequences as they speak the truth.
In our Gospel lesson for today, the Seventh Sunday after Easter – Exaudi – we hear yet again from the words that Jesus spoke to the disciples on the night of Maundy Thursday. In these readings we have encountered a recurring theme: Jesus is going away to the Father and he is going to send the Holy Spirit. In fact we have already heard Jesus say that it is necessary for him go away; that this is a good thing. He has said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
Jesus’ departure, of course, took place in his ascension that we celebrated on Thursday. We will celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit in a week at the Feast of Pentecost. In our text Jesus tells the disciples what the Spirit will do, and what in turn, they will do. He says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
The Spirit is going to bear witness to Jesus. Later in chapter sixteen Jesus will say, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The Spirit’s job is to point to Jesus and to make known what he has done for our salvation. The Spirit does not point to himself, and any time in the Church you find someone pointing more to the Spirit than to Christ, you know something has gone wrong.
The Spirit was going to bear witness to Jesus. And the disciples were going to bear witness too, because they had been with Jesus from the beginning. Yet as Jesus speaks about the disciples bearing witness, he immediately tells them that this will not always go well. In fact, it is going to provoke hatred and harm from the world. Our Lord says, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”
Jesus said that the disciples would receive the world’s hatred. And this was simply because the world had hated Jesus first. The world hated Jesus for two reasons: because of the witness that he gave about the world and because of the witness that was given about Jesus.
These two points are found at the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus was speaking with Nicodemus. Jesus said, “For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
Jesus Christ is the light who reveals the darkness, the evil of the word. Jesus said that the world “hates me because I bear witness concerning it, that is deeds are evil.” The problem is that we are inclined to think that the deeds of the world are not evil. We live in a sexualized culture – where the misuse of God’s gift of sex is found at every turn – on the internet, on TV, in the movies, in the music, in the magazines. Have we begun to see things in the way of the world - have we ceased to view these things as sinful? Have you recently had sex with someone who is not your husband or wife? Have you watched pornography and indulged in lustful thoughts? To the world, this is just part of life. To Jesus, it is evil that cuts you off from God.
What about the way we speak of other people? The internet has magnified our ability to communicate. But it has also done this in an impersonal manner that insidiously promotes harmful and mean speech about others. What are you saying about others in all of the settings of life? Do you defend our neighbors? Do you speak well of our neighbor? Do you seek to help your neighbor’s reputation? Do you explain things in the kindest way? Or do you look for opportunities to tear down your neighbor and to share gossip that harms their reputation – because we all know that the only news that is real gossip is news that says something bad about a person.
Where you have done these things - or any other sin – repent. Confess your sin. And then cling to the knowledge that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The Father sent the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, to the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who takes away your sin. Raised from the dead, the Son gives you life – life with God that will have no end.
He is the only one who can do this. That is what he said about himself. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And because Jesus said this, the world hates him. It hates him because Jesus removes every pretense about self-sufficiency and self-reliance of the human being. It hates him because Jesus declares that he is the Way and every other way is a lie.
This is the witness that Jesus declared. He proclaimed it about himself. And he pointed to those other things that bore witness about him. As he told his opponents, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that bear witness about me.” He said to them, “For the works which the Father has given me to accomplish – the very works that I do bear witness about me.”
And now after his ascension the Spirit continues to bear witness. He gave witness to Christ through the apostles. And now he gives witness through the inspired word. As John says in the Gospel, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” That witness continues on through the Church as we share the message about Jesus Christ with others. For by the word of the Gospel the Spirit continues to bear witness – he continues to confront people with Jesus Christ. As John said in his first letter, “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the witness, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
We have received this life by being born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. And now as we live by faith, we bear witness. Yet we do not only bear witness by what we say. We also bear witness by what we do. At the Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
The life that Christ has given us; the love that he has shared with us prompts us to live in ways that bear witness to Christ. The Spirit moves us to act in service and love, for in doing so we fulfill our Lord’s words: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”