This might come as a shock to you but as a teenager, I was a bit…sassy. Always speaking out of turn, cutting my parents to the core with my fiery commentary on parenting, curfews, rules, and what I deemed to be their bad habits. When told I was in trouble, I would refute with an argument that sounded so solid in my head until it got me sent to my room. I spent many a night grounded, wrestling with my words. I thought for so long that what I was doing was telling my part of the story – that I giving testimony to what was really going on. And in reality, I was. I was all emotion, all honesty, all out there. But it wasn’t pretty. And that made it hard to handle; that made me hard to handle.
In the past year or so, youth all around the world have been emulating this tried-and-true teenage behavior of raw emotive talk by giving their own testimonies in the form of YouTube videos. Many of you might have seen the most viral of these videos by a young man named Jonah Mowry.1 Armed with a stack of index cards, Jonah wrote out his story, his testimony, and walked an audience of over 9 million people through a truth that harrows to the bone. Jonah struggled with bullying, with self-mutilation and suicide ideations since the second grade. He told the world all the horrible names people call him, how he cuts himself to take away the pain. From the tearful look in his eyes, it is clear his story could no longer be kept silent. So, Jonah let it out in a way he knew how, in a way that swept over the muttered denials from below.
It is easy to dismiss behavior like Jonah’s as showy or histrionic, rife with self-promotion and a complete lack of decency. It is truly hard to watch such raw emotion and quite frankly, I myself didn’t know how to handle it. But then I remembered those nights when I was filled and ready to tell my story without inhibitions and was jealous of how honest he could be – even if it was partly because his frontal lobe is undeveloped. I remembered how powerful it is to hear someone say who they really, truly are.
Jesus knew exactly who he was and had no problem saying it. We heard the story this morning. Remember with me: Jesus was taken to the high priests – all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. They were assembled in a makeshift judicial council, marring all the usual rules called for in an official Jewish court. We read in scripture "the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none."2 So instead those gathered lashed out false testimony – lies, unheard-of-accounts – while Christ sat in silence. Then finally, a question that merited a response was asked. "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" and Jesus responded in a way that harkened back to all of Israel’s history when time and time again God said boldly, "I am."
The guards took him over and beat Jesus, beat him out of anger, out of confusion, out of fear that the words he said might be the truth. That night all they had heard was falsehood, right? Testimonies were given that didn’t add up, that didn’t make sense. All the words from the priests and elders and rulers of the day contradicted one another, proving that this debate was really a farce laden in terror and self-protection.
Peter tried to respond, don’t you think? He always gets lambasted in this story as the cowardly man who stood in the courtyard denying his Messiah. But Peter was in the courtyard. Where was every other disciple? Had they followed Jesus at a distance, watching the angry mob beat him mercilessly? Certainly, Peter followed secretly and at a distance but he followed Christ to his trial. In our scripture passage this morning, we heard of how Peter sat with the guards, warming his hands by the fire. Someone recognized him, the light of the flames providing proof of who he really was. One of the servant-girls said, "You also were with Jesus, the man form Nazareth." He denied it. But – he didn’t leave! Anyone in their right mind would have left at the moment of recognition yet Peter stayed.
The girl found a group of bystanders and told the same story – "He’s one of them." Peter denied it again. A bystander repeated the truth and Peter cursed himself and said, "I do not know this man you are talking about." The rooster crowed. Peter broke down and wept as he remembered Christ’s prophecy about his denial.
A story within a story. A man up above, facing death at his trial, boldly tells the truth, saying, "I am the Messiah." A parallel story unfolds below, in the belly of a cold, dark courtyard where a man says, "I do not know him." Is this our own story within Christ’s story? It almost seems too obvious, doesn’t it? Christ in a room, sequestered and unreachable, speaking truth so high it seems impossible to attain it and far below in a parallel scene, Peter sequesters himself and allows no one to reach deep inside to pull out the truth gripping his tongue.
Obvious, but so ours, so ours since that day Peter denied the great "I AM."
How often do we know that Jesus is literally in reach, in the same place, his words of assurance filtering through layers of stone and floor and wall and flesh and pestering us to repeat them to all we meet? How often are we just like Peter, coming so close to actually saying the words yet sputtering out nonsense instead?
Telling the truth, giving testimony, bearing witness to Christ’s own words, His own answer of "I am" is a practice. And it takes practice – lots and lots of practice. The good thing is, it takes practice in a community, in a family of faith, in communion with God’s people. So we start here; we start together.
Anna Carter Florence in her book Preaching as Testimony helps me remember that I’m, that we’re not alone in this journey of learning how to give true witness to the Christ who is the One True Word. We begin by remembering that this business of speaking – of saying the words of our faith, of whom we belong to and whom we serve – has been the struggle of God’s people for a loooong time. For generations, good church folk have tried to talk the talk – have tried to express their faith through words. This is called testimony, telling the story of our God as we individually know it to be true. Testimony is the church’s "mother tongue."3 To testify, we begin by simply talking. Florence reminds us, "Not all of the talk is pretty, but then neither is life. Some days the only thing you can do is praise God on your knees; other days you just bow your head and cry. The only rule in God’s family is that the talk has to be really and truly yours."4
"But we’re good and decently in order Presbyterians," we might say in response. How are we to actually say what we believe to those around us? We have to see them again at the clubhouse or at work or at the grocery store or at school. They’ll remember what we did! They will remember what we said! But lest we forget – we were made to share our story. When God created us, God gave us voices. What a risk, but what a gift. God knew that in giving us voices, we could deny the very Giver but we could also praise and enlighten and remind everyone we meet of the God who gave us voice in the first place.
To tell the story, to share our testimony about Christ, to tell others about the One who was unashamed to claim his identity, about the One who was bold unto death – it is a risk and it is scary. And we might think that we, too, are like Peter if we don’t shout out our love for the Lord or boldly proclaim our faith. We might think that in keeping quiet, we are denying Christ over and over again but…aren’t we Peter because we are not fleeing the courtyard at the first reproach? We’re here, right?
We’re here – standing in the courtyard, hoping that Christ’s testimony will filter down into our hearts, filling us up to the point where we are overflowing with witness and we can’t keep our sassy mouths shut. But until then, simply start talking. Tell others that you’re a member at a church or that you own a bible. You could even be a bit more scandalous and tell them you’re an elder or a deacon or a Sunday School teacher! Tell about your first memory with communion or baptism. Tell them about how the children at your church run to the children’s message and how the choir sings with passion. Your story about Jesus – the one who knows you are standing in that courtyard and knows you can hear him – your story will come.
When Jonah Mowry posted his story on YouTube, hundreds of people began posting video responses back to him, and back out for the world to view. Some of these stories were similar to Jonah’s but many were stories of hope and courage, stories that claimed that kind of truth that sticks to you for days, that you can’t shake. From one youth telling his story, so many more were able to tell theirs. The incredible choir of testimony is still expanding exponentially, people all over the world now encouraged to claim whom they are, claim their story, claim the hope that comes when they open their mouths and know that others will hear them.
It is my prayer and hope that when Peter learned of Jesus’ testimony, he began to think about what his own story would be, once he got out of that courtyard and once he became unafraid. It is my prayer and hope that hearing Christ’s bold proclamation filled Peter with enough courage so that when Peter was ready, he could begin to share his story. This is my prayer and hope for you, too. Might you hear Christ’s words remind you that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One and might Christ’s words give you courage to testify. Might you know that you do have a story to tell. Might you know that we are all waiting to hear it. Might you know that Christ has already gone ahead of you and knows that your words will impact the world, exponentially. Just start talking. Amen.
1. Jonah Mowry, "What’s Going On…" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdkNn3Ei-Lg
2. Mark 14:55, NRSV
3. Anna Carter Florence refers to Walter Bruggemann’s use of testimony as "mother tongue" in this chapter of Preaching as Testimony.
4. Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, p 74.