Today we continue our series on Joy as we work through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Having discussed the themes of prayer and humility the past few Sundays, today we pause to reflect on the theme of Joyful witness. Witness and Evangelism bring with them a variety of internal and external reactions from each of us. Those of you participating in a Lenten Life Group have already entertained the question of what these words might bring to mind for you. Some of us have more comfort around these terms than others. For several years I would have placed myself in the, “These words make me uncomfortable camp,” and I admit a part of me still resides there today.
In High school, I had auditioned for and been accepted into a Christian singing group. This group was made up of all sorts of teenagers from various cities and churches in the area. They pulled us all together in a church basement somewhere for a time of introductions. Now I had done this before, been in a new place with new people. I’m an off the chart extravert so I figured I was ready and set to go. I was familiar with the usual ice breaker activities and awkward get to know you questions. Hi my name is Susie. My favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate with marshmallow cream. Usually these questions and moments of introduction were quick and from the hip requiring little effort or preparation on my part. This particular situation however was quite different.
They opened our evening inviting each and everyone present to state their name and also to share their witness or personal testimony. I could physically feel my body and throat tighten. This extravert, with one word, “witness” was rendered speechless. Did I even have one of these? I preceded to listen as people shared their stories. Many were quite dramatic. Some came with dates and even specific times of when God had changed their life and when Jesus was accepted into their hearts…Others gave examples of how they encountered God in times of great darkness and hardship. I was really struggling to come up with my witness…so much so I question how much I really heard from others. I spent the entire evening in prayer. Praying to God that we would run out of time before it got to be my turn.
I think the Philippians were in a bit of a crisis at the time of Paul’s letter. Their leader was imprisoned leaving them wondering about Paul and his wellbeing and also about what to do with this gospel message and how it was to be spread in his absence. Paul had taught them much about what it meant to be a follower of Christ but because of him they didn't have much practice telling their own stories. Up to this point the Philippians I imagined deferred to Paul and other leaders like him for spreading the good news. It was not necessarily something everyone was doing. They relied heavily on their mentor to interpret the Gospel for them, to give evidence of God, and to be an example of the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Several years ago I sat in a similar place when my mentor who served as a witness to the gospel for me and my faith was very ill and was hospitalized. I wondered in those moments of her fragility what would happen to my faith if she did not live. My secrets and some of my dreams would perhaps die with her but would my faith too?
The Philippines through Paul are asked to think more broadly about witness and their own responsibility in it. Paul had come to understand Gospel as a way of being. A transparency with others as to how God was showing up in his life and directing his daily decisions. Gospel for Paul was witness. It was faith sharing. Fortunately for Paul his Joy was not tied up in his poor circumstances but grounded in his faith in God. He is urging everyone to proclaim Christ and he is not getting all hung up on whether a person’s intentions are pure or not. Witness for Paul takes the form of standing for what he believed in and pointing to God’s action all around him. Paul had gotten so good at being a witness for Christ that his message was not silenced or hindered by his imprisonment. Paul instead could give evidence of how God was working, how he was reaching other people, and people were being reached with the message of God’s love despite his situation.
I think part of our trouble today is that we have an awful lot of things that get in the way of our message. I'm sure on several occasions we have deferred to the witness of others and maybe allowed them or relied on them too much to either spoon feed us what it is we are to believe or proclaim or simply given the loudest person in the room the last word on what we claim to be gospel. We may have allowed individuals or institutions to silence us or mute what it is we claim to be gospel. We might take our que from tele-evangelists, a celebrity testimonial in a commercial for tennis shoes, or even a majority vote by the Global United Methodist Church of which we are a part of to determine what indeed it is we stand for.
The Philippians too are quite concerned when they write to Paul likely asking for some direction. After all his imprisonment is getting in the way of their message. They anticipate that Paul is as fearful and as discouraged as they are about his imprisonment. Assuming Paul is going to be feeling really down and defeated about his present situation. How was Paul coping? What was going to happen to him and to them his followers, this movement?
Paul responds in quite a shocking way. His priority is not a concern with how he is doing but how the Gospel is doing, writing, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel…” Because of Paul’s imprisonment a whole new group heard the Gospel that didn't before. “Most of the brothers and sisters have been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment. Some dare to speak the word with greater boldness than before and without fear.”
I do think this text calls us to be a bit braver in our witness. In fact it has become far more culturally acceptable for us to share our own stories. Take a look at the #metoo movement. There are women and individuals all over the world that have spent years in silence about previous abuse but are now locking arms and coming forward to tell their stories. We have made more space and time, devoted more resources to a study on Adverse Childhood experience to empower people to tell their story, or at a bare minimum adjust our lens from “what did you do?” to “what happened to you,” and in doing so we acknowledge we too have our own stories to tell. Many of you submitted stories of God’s role and presence in your life as part of an advent devotional. Thanks to all of you who are doing the work of sharing your stories so that others may be inspired to do the same.
Now I’ll admit we as a big United Methodist Church are struggling. There are threats of divide from all sides and perspectives. And as angry as I am, as saddened as I am about what we as a church have tolerated, participated in and continue to agonize about… the message… sent by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church is not all of our stories, and it is certainly not the story of a loving and grace filled witness of an inclusive God who stands for love and inclusion. But because of this experience, new witnesses are emerging, new voices are being heart and like the example Paul gives more people are “daring to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”
My mentor did not die as a result of her illness and hospitalization but my belief that relying entirely on her for my faith and ministry to continue did. My learning? That the joyful witness of another can inspire all of us to witness ourselves. The need for the Gospel to be spread is great. The need for love to be known to the people of our churches is great, the need in our communities is great… the need in the world is great. Not necessarily in a dramatic way, not even in an extravagant way, but we all have a responsibility to carry the witness with us out of these United Methodist Church doors and into the world. Our witness need not be grounded in poor circumstances but grounded in faith and love of God something that’s free for all and so incredible easy to share or practice sharing.
Whatever chains we might feel attached to at the present time are not stronger than the Love that God has for us, our church and the world. Collectively we must practice witness in the sense of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be or who we have been told to be, and start embracing who we are. Speak your truth about where you see God in the world and do it Joyfully. Scaring people, coercing people into knowing God might work for some, but we are joyful people asked only to speak of and point to a loving and gracious God that is accessible not to some but to all people. So if given the opportunity to witness today, this week… do so by putting love first. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Be brave in witness my friends. Let your lives bare the light of Christ in the world.