“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 world of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us…”
I John 1:1,2
Declaring What We Have Seen and Heard
I remember leading a retreat once for students, and one of them saying to me, “Tell me what you know.” There was a real hunger, not just for theories, or doctrines, or explanations, but for a real experience of God. And that’s what the world is hungering for.
-Br. David Vryhof
I’ve always been impressed by the very tangible and concrete language that the author of the First Letter of John uses to describe the experience of the Christian community and their relationship with Jesus. He says, “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 testified to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father, and was revealed to us.”
Now, recall that this letter is written in the early part of the second century, some 80 years after the death of Jesus, so the author, and the people of whom he’s writing, could not have been physically present when Jesus was on the earth. They could not have seen him and touched him with their hands, literally, but they used this very tangible and concrete language because their experience of him is still so real and so authentic that this language seems to fit their experience.
We say in the Creed that the Church is “holy, catholic, and apostolic.” And in the Catechism, in the Book of Common Prayer, the question is asked, “Why is the Church described as apostolic?” And we say the church is ‘apostolic’ because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, and is sent to carry Christ’s mission to all people.
So there’s a sense in which our witness is a passing on of a tradition that we’ve received from others, that goes back all the way to the time of the apostles, and we receive this tradition and pass it on to the next generation. That’s part of our charge, and part of what we need to protect and to nurture.
But the faith also has to be rooted in our own experience. Our witness cannot be simply to a tradition that we’ve received, to teaching that we’ve received, but it has to be something authentic and real, that’s based and rooted in our lives. We would never call a witness to the stand who hadn’t been actually present during the situation, who came onto the stand and said, “Well, I wasn’t there, but I heard that this is what happened.” That’s not an authentic witness. We want someone who has actually seen something, who knows something, who’s heard something, who was there, for whom the experience was real and tangible.
So our witness also has to have that first-hand quality. I remember leading a retreat once for Harvard University students at the monastery, and one of the students saying to me, “Tell me what you know.” There was a real hunger, not just for theories, or doctrines, or explanations, but for a real experience of God. And that’s what the world is hungering for from us, “Tell us, not only the tradition you’ve received, but tell us how relating to Jesus, living with Jesus, has made a tangible difference in your own life.”
And so, I invite you today to consider that. What is your witness? What is your testimony? What is your first-hand experience? How has being in relationship with Jesus changed your life, and what do you have to declare to others?