This is what I saw...
EASTER 2 | 1 Jn 1:1-2:2; Jn 20:19-31
In my early 20s I walked away from my faith. I had good reason to—I’d been horribly wounded by a crazily fundamentalist church my family attended while I was in high school. The urge to walk away from the kind of abuse I withstood and suffered was healthy, but it left me unmoored and uncomfortable.
But once I was away, it was easy to stay away. Few of my friends at that point were very religious, and the lure of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll was pretty strong. The only reason I didn't sever my ties to Christianity altogether might strike you as odd—it was because of the Canadian folk singer named Bruce Cockburn.
Bruce was Christian, but he wasn't playing his songs in the ghetto of the Christian music industry—music made by and for and marketed only to Christians. He was one of the most popular artists in Canada, winning the Juno award—their equivalent of the Grammy—twelve times.
Here’s what got to me about Bruce. He didn't sing about dogma, he sang about wonder. He didn’t sing about who Jesus was, but about who Jesus was in his own life. He didn’t pretend to be perfect or enlightened or even particularly good—his songs just laid his whole messy life bare for all to see, and offered it all to God.
His songs were literally like nothing I had ever heard before, and I knew one thing for certain: if Bruce was Christian, then I couldn't completely rule Jesus out. And I also knew that whatever kind of relationship and mysticism and spirituality this guy had tapped into—I wanted it.
It is not inaccurate to say that I have followed the sound of Bruce’s voice all the way to where I'm standing tonight. It’s quite literally true. Outside of scripture and The Book of Common Prayer, Bruce’s music has been the single most important influence on my spiritual life.
Bruce’s experiential approach is very much the same as what we see in John’s writings—both his gospel and epistle. In his epistle John is writing to counter some dangerous teachings popping up in his community—people who were saying Jesus was only a divine being and not human at all. At the same time, he’s countering others are saying Jesus was just a nice rabbi, but there was nothing really special about him.
What’s impressive is the way that John responds—he doesn’t recite a catechism, or creed, or quote some authority. He doesn’t start expounding dogma. He doesn’t start explicating a doctrine. Listen to what he says: “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.”
This is what I have heard. This is what I have seen. This is what I felt.
You can argue about a doctrine until you're blue in the face, but when it comes to my experience, you know what? No one else gets to have a say about that. Because my experience is my experience. This is what happened TO ME.
Look at John's final phrase: We declared what we have experienced concerning the word of life.
That bears some unpacking. In Greek, this is “Logou Tays Zo-ACE,” which can be translated either “the word of life” or “the living word.” John is obviously talking about Jesus, making an allusion to the beginning of his gospel, which starts out “in the beginning was the Word.” What is this living word? Well what is the word? What is a song? What is art? It is an expression of who the artist, or the songwriter, or the speaker IS.
The proclamation of John’s commentary is one that should resonate deeply with artists, because John is saying that Jesus is God’s expression, God’s proclamation, God’s poetry, God’s art. When God spoke Jesus, spoke this Word, made this idea flesh, it revealed to us something of God’s own soul. Just as a painting or a song reveals something to us about the songwriter or the artist—when we look at Jesus, tells us something significant about God.
John is saying, “I heard that story, I sang along to that song, I studied that painting, and it CHANGED ME.”
I have no reason to doubt John’s word, do you?
But note that Jesus isn’t just the Word in this reading, he is “the living Word.” He isn’t something God said at long time ago, he is a song God is still singing, a dance God is still dancing. This is a performance we can still catch. This Broadway show has had a very long run—and it’s still going strong.
There is a theological word for what John is doing here: testimony. John is saying, “This is what I saw, what I heard, what I felt.” John is writing to express himself, too, and that expression, as art often does, changes the trajectories of people’s lives.
When the disciples met in the upper room and Jesus appeared to them, they told Thomas what they saw. Thomas didn’t believe them, not until it happened to him.
But other people would've been swayed by testimony alone, and Jesus calls them “blessed.” I was convinced by Bruce Cockburn’s testimony, and it led me to follow Jesus. Later I had my own experiences of the living Word, which I have not been shy about proclaiming—in my sermons, in my songs, in my writing, in my art.
This is, I think, part of what we are called to, when we follow Jesus. We are not called to follow a teaching, or a doctrine, or an ossified tradition. We are called to follow a living person, a work of art, spoken into the universe by God, a work of art that continues to evolve, to transform lives, to heal souls.
This is the Easter proclamation, isn’t it?
This is what we have heard.
This is what we have seen.
This is what we have felt.
This is what we have experienced.
This Jesus is not dead, but alive. This Jesus is active in our lives and in the life of the world TODAY. This song is still being sung and it is so beautiful that we have to join our own voices to it—we cannot keep silent, we too must sing.
Let us pray… God, “Testimony” has gotten a bad rap in recent years,
and yet you have given a unique story to each of us,
the story of your courtship, your wooing, your pursuit of intimacy with every one of us.
And that story is precious. It is a story only we can tell.
And it is not a story that anyone can take away from us or refute.
Give us courage to shout this story from the rooftops,
or at least not be afraid to speak of it to interested parties.
Let us sing it in our songs and paint it in our art.
Move us to express this living word today, just as you proclaimed it in the beginning.
For he is alive, he is active in our lives, and he is still giving his life for the world.
Let us not be ashamed of the name of Jesus, for he loves us as no other has or could. Amen.