Faithful Witness

21 August 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Matins, 21 August 2005

by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster

Faithful Witness

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3: 17-31; Revelation 1

Patmos is one of a group of little islands off the west coast of Turkey. In the first century it was used as a place to which political prisoners could be deported on the orders of the Emperor, or confined under a less harsh regime on the orders of the local Governor. This was probably what had happened to the author of the Book of the Revelation, who says he shares with his readers 'the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance' and that he was on Patmos 'because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus' (Rev 1: 9). He calls himself 'John' though, like the 'Peter' of the Epistles of Peter, he may not have been the apostle John. He may have been a writer from the next generation of Christians who wrote in an apostolic way, building on what the apostle John had said and taught.

The Book of the Revelation is one of five books in the New Testament that have all been attributed to John: the Fourth Gospel and the 3 Letters of John are the others. There are striking variations in content and style among these five texts, so it makes sense to think in terms of a body of Johannine material that stems from the witness of the apostle but has been edited and developed in something like a Johannine school or circle of Christian believers, with links to modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor, and especially with the great city of Ephesus on the west coast, not far from Patmos.

One of the key reasons for thinking that the Johannine material is based on eyewitness testimony is because all of these texts claim to be presenting is 'faithful witness'. The first Letter opens with the words : 'We declare to you what was from the beginning: what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it' (1 Jn 1:1-2). One of the key themes in all three Letters is that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, was a living human being, with flesh and blood, and that those who teach anything else are liars. There are lots of 'spirits' abroad telling the churches this and that, and the test of this spiritual teaching is simple: 'By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus (some texts say, superbly, 'that dissolves Jesus') is not from God' (1 Jn 4:2).

I can think of no better introduction to the Gospel of John. This is precisely what it is about: that the Word of God 'became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth' (Jn 1:14). What the Gospel claims to be, from start to finish, is faithful testimony to this life-changing truth. The Word of God, God's self-expression in creation, bringing light to all, has been known from the beginning; but now God's self-expression has taken human form: God has spoken in a human life of glorious truthfulness and a human death that is God's reconciling gift to humankind. Again and again, the Gospel returns to this theme of faithful witness, witness that can be trusted, witness that is tried and tested and is to be relied upon. 'There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [this John is John the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light' (Jn 1:6-8). 'He who saw this has testified so that you may believe. His testimony is true and he knows that he tells the truth.' (Jn 19:35). 'This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true' (Jn 21:24). Time and again, as we hear the Fourth Gospel read aloud, we are urged to accept it as faithful testimony: 'Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life through his name' (Jn 20:30-31).

With the Book of the Revelation, the situation is different because what is being presented is testimony not to earthly but to heavenly events. Nevertheless, the aim is the same: the record of this vision is written so that the Christians of Asia Minor, who share with John the Seer in 'the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance' (Rev 1:9), may go on believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and have life through his name. John the Seer shows the same concern for faithful witness that we find in the Gospel and the Letters of John. As the Gospel assures us it gives faithful witness to earthly events, so the Book of Revelation assures us it gives faithful witness to heavenly events: the two forms of witness are complementary because there is only one Jesus who has been seen on earth and now reigns in heaven, and Jesus Christ himself is the One who gives perfect witness to the purposes of God. The Book of the Revelation opens with a double claim to faithful witness: there is the faithful witness of John the Seer, and there is the faithful witness of Jesus Christ. John is witness to a witness. He calls Jesus 'the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth' (Rev 1:5); and he says of himself that he testifies to 'the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ' (1:2).

This is what gives his writing its place in the Scriptures. The Seer says he was in the spirit on the Lord's Day and he heard behind him a voice like a trumpet saying, 'Write in a book what you see and send it to the churches' (1:11). This is what he says he has done, and this is why he writes, 'Blessed is the one who reads the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it' (1:3). His written testimony is for those who read it to hear and to live by. That's why it was read as our second lesson this morning.

There is an important point here about how and why the Church, and Christians who are Church-members, read Scripture. We don't read Scripture because it was dictated by God, or because it is without factual error. We read Scripture because it is the written witness to Jesus Christ that has been accepted by the Church as utterly trustworthy. It is rightly called infallible not because it is without factual error but because, when read in the light of Jesus Christ, it will never fail us. It is our never-failing witness to Jesus Christ and he is our never-failing witness to the grace and truth of God.

There is a further point that needs, I think, to be made about how the Church, and Christians who are Church-members, read a human life. The Greek word for ‘testimony' is martyria: a 'witness' is a martyros. From the time when the early Church was persecuted, the word 'martyr' began to be used for anyone who was put to death for their faith. It never was, and it never could be, used for anyone who committed suicide, especially in a way that caused harm to others. For what the Christian martyr witnesses to by the way he or she lives their life, and by the way they die, is the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ, whose prayer for those who put him to death was, 'Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing'. To the author of the Book of the Revelation, it was the way Jesus died and the way that he lived which made him thefaithful martyr, the one whose witness others could trust and, in their lives, reflect. It is in this sense that it we might speak of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé community, who was tragically stabbed to death last week, as a faithful Christian martyr, for in the whole of his long life, as in that of all faithful Christian martyrs, was reflected the glory of Jesus Christ, the first and the last, who was dead and, see, he is alive for ever and ever, Amen.

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