Originally composed June 26, 2015, for Charm City Vicars.
I’m not crazy about the phrase “witnesses for Christ,” as I think it’s often unclear what is meant by it. In the same curmudgeonly fashion, I am irked by prayer petitions/bids which run, “Lord we (just wanna) ask/thank You for the opportunity to be your witnesses.”
First of all, I don’t think that God gives us mere “opportunities”, like so many lacunae waiting for our flourishing script, so many big blank easels waiting to be filled with our originality in the form of pious abstract expressionism, as it were. (Side-note: I actually like quite a bit of modern art; just roll with the metaphor for now.)
As much as we may want to “express ourselves” and take advantage of “opportunities” to carve out “ministries” which bear our personal stamp, the awkward truth is that Scripture doesn’t really speak the language of “opportunity”— or “self-expression”, for that matter. Neither the word nor the concept figure that largely in Holy Writ. I think that makes sense, because when you get right down to it, God doesn’t traffic in vagueness. Mystery? All the time. Vagueness? No. Not to poison the well too much, but the only two uses of the term ευκαιρία (opportunity, chance, occasion) in the New Testament are in St. Matthew xxvi, 16 and St. Luke xxii, 6: “καὶ ἀπὸ τότε ἐζήτει εὐκαιρίαν ἵνα αὐτὸν παραδῷ“; “and from that time he [Judas] sought an opportunity that he might betray Him.”
Moreso than “opportunity,” Scripture speaks of calling, or, as we Lutherans are wont to say, vocation. God doesn’t just open the cover of the piano before us little children who can’t even find Middle-C and say, “Go ahead and take this opportunity to express yourself” (cf. Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Traveled). We wouldn’t even know where to begin— and please don’t try the “joyful noise” line here. Rather, He calls us: to saving faith in Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, to walk in good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do, etc. He does this very definitely, very concretely.
For earthly life (quick show of hands— who all is living on earth?), God calls and instructs us by His Law and says, “Walk ye in it.” That’s not an invitation or an opportunity. It’s a command. What does walking in God’s Law look like specifically, though? This is where Luther’s Catechisms are truly invaluable, specifically in the explanations to the Ten Commandments (Large and Small) and the Table of Duties (Small). However, much of what is described in these sections of the Catechism is rather unglamorous. Virtually nothing described therein seems like it would require anything like a “steering committee” or even matching funds from Thrivent… yet we’re to somehow believe that it describes our divine callings? We wanted opportunities to be “witnesses for Christ,” and all we got were these lousy vocations to meet our neighbors’ basic needs.
So that’s my beef with “opportunity.” I’m sure it can be used correctly; personally, I just tend to use it when I don’t quite know what else to say. No, our prayers our not heard because of our precise words. Still, when I pray ex corde, I have lately been trying to pray more thoughtfully, thanking and petitioning God in the language of “gift” and “vocation.” Instead of, “We thank You for this opportunity to come together as friends over these hoagies,” perhaps, “Thank You, Lord, for our friendship; thank You that You have called us by the Gospel and anchored our friendship in the common bond of the peace we have in You. Thank You for this our daily bread.” Hopefully this more catechetical mindset will become second-nature, replacing my latent “we just/opportunity” penchant.
Then there’s the phrase “witnesses for Christ.” What’s potentially problematic about it is the fact that no living soul for the past twenty centuries has been a personal witness to the events recorded in the New Testament. We rely on the inspired written testimony of the eyewitnesses, those who did see, hear, and touch Jesus Christ in His state of humiliation, and in His resurrected and exalted state. We, however, did not witness these historical events. We are to believe even though we did not see the Man Jesus before our very eyes as the apostles did, even though we do not see Him now, at least not in a naturally-sensible way. “Seeing, touching, tasting are in Thee deceived,” runs the majestic Hopkins translation of Aquinas’s Adoro Te Devote;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
What are we to believe? The testimony of the witnesses, which we confess to be God’s Own Word. How are we to believe? Through the preaching of those who have been sent.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Christ tells the eleven right before His Ascension, “and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; emphasis mine— duh). St. John in his gospel records the following words of Our Lord: “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” (John 15:26). As much as we might like to apply these final words to ourselves, I don’t think we can: we were not with Christ since the beginning (presumably of His ministry). Wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached, the holy apostles are still His literal witnesses, through their written Word and the proclamation of the content of that written Word. When they died, they didn’t stop being the people who had witnessed His earthly life. Try as I might, I will never be one of them.
So we’re not witnesses in that primary sense. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that the phrase “witnesses for Christ” may indeed have an application which is good, right, and salutary. Think of what a witness is in the context of a criminal court: someone who has been called to the stand to tell what he knows. The language that’s used is vocational, literally: “Would the prosecution like to call a witness?” Without this vocation, which is a rather obvious and pedestrian sort of thing, can one really be a witness? Or what if a witness were to take the stand, but then step out of this vocation to simply tell what he knows? The judge, the jury, the attorneys, et al, would rightly dismiss him. No one would take him seriously.
What is a witness? Someone who has been called to the stand to tell what he knows.
First off, let’s not confuse being a witness with being a lawyer. Perhaps you have a calling to be God’s lawyer in this metaphorical sense. Great; that sounds like apologetics, and it has its (small and often overstated) place. Whatever the case may be, though, lawyering is not the same as witnessing. To summarize Luther: you can make arguments (in the classical sense of logical proofs) for God, but not for the Word-Made-Flesh. The existence of God is accessible to reason; the Incarnation is not. Even the heathen can confess that God exists and that He is One. “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.” Traditionally, we’re all still standing at this point in the Nicene Creed, but just wait a bit: “Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum … Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis. Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.” How can reason grasp this? How can it withstand this? It cannot. If it attempts to remain standing in the face of this mystery, it will be broken. It must be subdued, or it will become madness. Thus at the point at which these words are intoned, we bow or genuflect if we are able.
A witness is even more utterly unlike a salesman or a lobbyist. If a witness were to take the stand in court and try to sell a used car, everyone assembled would rightly think he was an idiot. “As long as we’re all here, let me take this opportunity to ask you: are you happy with your current grocery-getter? Because I have a limited-time-offer for you that’s out of this world…” No, that’s not what a witness does. That’s not what he has been called to do. Pitching God-in-the-Flesh as though He were a magazine subscription, a pet cause, or a debt-solution is sacrilege. Period.
If I am to be in any sense a witness, it will be because somebody who has God in the dock has decided to call upon me to give testimony regarding what I know. This is why I don’t need to seek out “opportunities” to witness. Nobody does. What would the point of that be? Is my scrounging for an opportunity better than God’s vocation? When He wants my “help”, He’ll let me know— through an external word. He always has, and I trust that He always will.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating quietism, or not volunteering to do things or go places, or hiding out. On the contrary, I think we should be quite visible… if our vocations entail that. And I think that we must strive to add virtue to our faith (cf. Peter 1:5), so that the world, seeing our good deeds, might praise our Father in Heaven. We can make ourselves visible through our deportment, our conduct, perhaps our garb, yes, in order that the spiritually needy, the spiritually incredulous, or even the spiritually hostile might know whom to approach, whom to engage, whom to bother.
Or whom to kill. Martyrdom is a good way to be a witness— the best, actually. But we’re not to go angling for it. Our Lord does not smile upon suicide by cop. Even more so than other vocations to bear witness, a martyr’s-death is a crown that is bestowed, not chosen. Wherever we are, though, we should not make ourselves visible as our selves; rather, we should make ourselves visible as Christians, “little Christs”, justified children of God anointed with the same Spirit of Sonship, who follow in the train of our Elder Brother. We should not hide, no, but neither should we hunt.
In my previous post I said that it is my intention (and that of my brother seminarians serving as summer vicars) to dress in ecclesiastical garb every day this summer— when we’re working, that is. This is, in a way, a passive form of witnessing. On the other hand, I probably won’t be doing a whole lot of door-to-door knocking inviting people to come to church— not that such a practice is necessarily bad; it’s just not my vocation. I am to be of service to my pastor. He is the one who has been called and ordained to the ministry; I am not. I do not have “a ministry”; he does. (In fact, if we’re thinking about the Ministry aright, it seems strange to refer to a ministry.) If, through my pastor, I receive an external word which says, “Vicar, why don’t you go knock on doors on this block of 33rd Street?” then that will change things. I will do as he says, recognizing that God has put him as an authority over me.
All of this is not to say that I will not, or that I do not, initiate conversations. As anyone who knows me can attest, I certainly do initiate conversations— I am what is called “a talker.” I regularly amuse and occasionally embarrass my wife by getting into conversations with random strangers when we’re out, and we’ve only been married for a little over a month! It’s been said that such variety is the spice of life, and I couldn’t agree more. But such variety and spontaneity is not the meal— have you ever tried eating a bowl of curry powder by itself? How about a shaker of pepper?
Me, my intentions, and my (un)sanctified opportunism are not what make a work good, but God and His vocations.
God is a God of order. He has called me to be a son, a brother, a student, and a husband. Above all these— and truly in all of them— He has called me to be a Christian. These various vocations are not vague, but definite. It would be imprudent stewardship for me to ignore them and instead walk around all day attempting to start conversations with strangers, even if I had the best, most evangelistic intentions for each of these conversations. Why? Because me, my intentions, and my (un)sanctified opportunism are not what make a work good, but God and His vocations— not the raw, bright ideas that bubble up inside of me, but the Word of God, which comes to me from outside myself. It’s the same for you.
A river that overflows its banks is not freer than one which flows to the sea; call it free if you wish, the fact remains that such freedom is chaotic and destructive (in most cases; yes some rivers flood regularly and irrigate the land, but the success of my metaphor depends upon you not envisioning these rivers). Freedom is not found in the absence of law, but in delight in the law which directs one’s doings in accordance with our vocations, our telos (to speak in the manner of Aristotle). When when we work within our vocations, we have the blessed assurance that God’s will is done and that His Kingdom does come, solely by His Fatherly divine tenderness— as we work and through our works, yes, in which He deigns to makes us co-workers with Him, but never because of them in some ultimate sense. In all such work, God crowns His own gifts. Thanks be to Him, now and unto the ages of ages.
Under the +Mercy
T. David Demarest