The Testimony of Witness

message for you.

This is my sermon from Sunday. If you’d like a little background to this, you can check out yesterday’s post “In Search of a New Frame for Evangelism and Mission.” This is my attempt at an initial response to the questions I raised there.

Opening Queries For Discussion:

This is the final week of our Quaker testimonies. Can you recall what we have talked about?

Why does this matter to you as a church? Why does it matter to talk about the Quaker tradition and practices? Or does it? Is talking about all of this just baggage and what keeps people from being a part of our church?

Up front I want to clarify how I am using two words: For many, tradition just means authoritarian and dead ritual, but I understand it as our common and living history, our special language (like meeting houses, etc), our practices, our stories and our particular theology, the tools and resources we draw on as a faith community. And Mission for many is colonialist, marked by Westerners being insensitive to the culture and religion of the rest of the world, trampling on thousands of years of other people’s history. But for me mission is the ever changing ways in which we announce (whether through word or action) the truthfulness of an event that happened 2000 yrs. ago. It is done first and foremost in the manner and pattern of Jesus Christ, who is the central missionary of the New Testament.

The two main questions I want to address this morning then is:

  • Does tradition and mission have anything to do with one another?
  • And what is a Quaker understanding of mission?

These are great questions to continue to ask and a perfect to ask both at the beginning and the end of a summer series discussing some of the more traditional practices of Quakers. You be the judge. When we talk about the testimony of truthfulness, or peace, or plainness, or mutuality, or when we talk about queries, and tell the stories of important Quaker leaders like John Woolman was it all just detached history for you, or did you find ways in which it made sense to you as a Christian today? Do you think these are the kinds of things that might actually aid people in becoming part of the church, or hinder?

For me, it is my own experience and conviction that says what people are looking for in their search for God is a community of faith that actually stands for something, that actually lives out a different way of being in the world, that doesn’t take the stance that they are right and everyone else is wrong and going to hell unless they join them, and that truly has different values, different virtues and practices than what we can get in America today.

Witness

A year and a half ago I co-led a workshop in northern California on convergent friends, who I take as Quakers that ask and wrestle with these two questions. During that weekend I did a little talk on one of my favorite Quaker missionaries, Everett Cattell and tried to lay out a different understanding of mission that isn’t based on 18th century theology that is tied to revivalism, altar calls or understanding of mission as going into heathen nations but still takes Jesus’ example and call to go and make disciples very seriously (Matt 28).

In that workshop many people couldn’t get past the word mission. Too many have had a bad experience around this word. For many it smacks of colonialism, triumphalism, and Western arrogance. It reminds many of the Bible thumpers and the bull horn street-corner preachers which betrays a theology that says “We Christians missionaries will take the GOOD NEWS to the ignorant heathens of the world and we will change them and make them more like us.”

On one hand, I sympathize with this is concern, on the other hand, I want to recognize that there are may ways to understand Christian mission of which this is only one way. And let me be clear, when I say the word mission, this is the opposite of what I mean. And like I learned at that weekend back in No. California, I should have just used a different word.

So I want to briefly offer a few words about how we can understand what I am calling “the testimony of witness” from the Gospel of John chapter 1. And then I want to say a few more words about how early Quakers understood what their “mission” or witness was to be.

One of my favorite theologians, James McClendon, has a book titled coincidentally(?) “Witness.” ((Affiliate Link))  In that book he argues that the church’s work in the world, as a missionary following the great commission, needs to be understood in light of a three chord stand (like a rope) and which connects nicely to John 1 (of which I’ll say something in a moment). McClendon says, we the church:

  • Need to learn to pay attention to and discover God already at work within society’s crevices (37). (Culture)
  • Need to be able to truly hear and be converted by the Gospel ourselves, we need to witness God’s work in us which will in turn allow us to uncover a truer picture of existing culture (it is one obsessed with violence, love of self, greed, etc.). In so doing this the church seeks to uncover the illusions and lies with which each human culture perpetually deceives itself. (Critique)
  • Become the people of God who do not merely proclaim the Gospel but embody it. It “constitutes an alternative social ethic -alternative, that is to the violent ethic of the world that rejects the way of Jesus. This Gospel formed culture provides by its very existence a challenging witness to any host community. When the church is faithful, it offers such a witness to all nations” (45).

These three chords can be observed in John’s Gospel as well:

  • Where we see that Jesus as missionary. The Light has entered the world and dwelt as flesh among us. (3-5, 9 and 14).
  • John the Baptizer is a witness to the light, he has witnessed it and is now able to testify to it and that testimony is prophetic and challenges the darkness and uncovers its illusions and lies. (6-8).
  • And while the light is rejected by many, it is accepted by some, and for those who accept it they become children of God, or the community of God who is transformed into being a community that, as the rest of the Gospel shows, struggles to embody this Light in all that it does (12-13).

To sum up this understanding of witness we can say that the mission of the church will always a) assume and be attentive to God’s work already within the world and find ways and work to join it rather than take the stance that we are the sole arbitrators over everything God in the world; b) will always first work to be itself radically transformed and converted by the Gospel and in turn it will challenge the illusions and lies within our culture; and c) it will work to become the people who embody Jesus Christ (children of God) and don’t simply proclaim him, they will be an alternative social community that by its very existence is a witness to God’s love for the world.

You can see then that this is a far more holistic understanding of what “witness” that offers deep connections with what is relevant to people today, while being rooted in something historical and traditional.

A Quaker Testimony of Mission

So then what does being a Quaker have to do with all this? Where does our tradition and witness connect?

Early Friend birthed a mass movement of people through an announcement of an event “Christ has come to teach the people himself,” they were co-workers with God, participating in the mission. They were also readers of John’s Gospel. It is quite literally one of the most often quoted books within the Bible by early Friends. So I want to suggest that this three chord in John is seen in the Early Quakers as a movement of witnesses to the Light.

Wilmer Cooper writes:

“Early Friends were both zealous and aggressive in proclaiming their message to the world. They seemed to have an apocalyptic sense of end time, and like their NT forebears, felt called to reach as many people as possible with the Gospel message; yet they seemed relatively unconcerned about establishing new settlements or meetings that would become identified with the Friends movement” (157).

They did not go with the intention of establishing organized missions or settlements. They followed the tradition of an itinerant minister, concerned to carry a message to certain individuals or groups” (170).

In other words, this was an organic message for all, one that was outward or missional in focus, which involved both the personal as well as the social person. They set to witness to all of the world that Christ had come and that Christ was coming because they had witnessed and experience this themselves.

Seth Hinshaw writes:

“Early Quakers were persons whose lives had been electrified by the power of the living Christ and who felt called and commissioned to go forth to change the world” (158).

They called themselves publishers of truth and wrote theological pamphlets as well as political ones, they challenged the structures that oppressed the poor and perpetuated violence. They did all of this, from my perspective, rooted in a John 1 style of mission. Witness for Quakers was then radically holistic. This is why many Quakers were missionaries, sometimes in the form of itinerant, or traveling ministers, sometimes in the form of people who travelled to foreign lands and sometimes as people who stayed put and did creative and much needed social work in their area. Witness for Quakers has been through announcing the message of Christ through a variety of means: philanthropic work, political activity, business and commerce, missionary outreach, relief work, publishing, eduction, prison reform, working for civil and human rights, etc.

They saw themselves as co-workers with God, joining God’s work in the world, participating in the mission of Christ. The call was not to join their work, but participate as co-workers with God.

For example Maragret Fell, had her own unique sense of mission that came from her reading of John 1. She repeatedly quotes 1:9 “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” For instance, in a letter she wrote to Oliver Cromwell, who was the military leader of the English Commonwealth in 1653 (when she wrote this) and in many ways an enemy to Quakers she says,

“Friend above words I am moved of the Lord to write a warning to thee from the Lord God of Heaven and Earth that thou harken to the Light of God in thy conscience, which is the Light of Christ: who doth enlighten everyone that comes into the world, that by it thou may be guided, lead, and taught. And now is the mighty day of the Lord come and coming, wherein he is teaching his people himself, by his own immediate light and power which is eternal” (36).

What did you notice about this? What stands out is that she assumes the Light of God is already working to instruct, guide and transform Cromwell. She does not start out by telling him he has no truth, he is utterly lost and a wretched sinner. No instead, she draws on John 1 and works to call the truth out of Cromwell. She works to invite Cromwell to notice that God is already calling him, already trying to guide and enlighten him in the way of the truth. And Fell’s letters are rife with this kind of invitational, participative drawing out of God’s work already within people.

Closing:

Tradition and Mission are connected in as much as we as a church work out of a unique understanding of what it means to be the people of God in the world. We as Friends believe, along with Margaret Fell, that Christ has come and is coming, that the Light of God is already at work within the world, and in each person and therefore it is up to us not to bring “truth to our heathen neighbors and nations” but rather to call out and invite people to begin to listen to that of God within them. We believe that we witness to the world not only by pointing out where God is already at work, but where the social structures need to be challenged and changed, where they are covered in lies and in illusions. We know this because we ourselves are being made new by the Gospel, by the work of God in our own lives! And we witness to the truth of Christ as we embody the Gospel of Christ as a different kind of community, one that doesn’t say you can join us only when you get it right, only once you say the right words, but rather we’ll join you, and we’ll walk with you and help you find where God is working in your life.

Just as the Word became flesh and lived among us and made our concerns his, we as Camas Friends Church in turn do this for others, we accompany them, and invite them to attend to the Light of Christ in their conscience and in doing so that is a great witness to the Kingdom of God.

Open Worship.

[Flickr image from @bbaltimore]

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.