What Have You Seen?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, April 15, 2021

Before his crucifixion, Jesus’ primary agenda with his closest followers is to make them disciples. Followers. He seeks to change their way of living so that it looks like his own way, demonstrating faithfully the priorities of his kingdom.

After his resurrection, Jesus’ agenda for them involves a major adjustment. In his post-resurrection encounters with his followers, he focuses on their role as witnesses.

On Easter morning, the risen Jesus directs Mary to tell the rest of the disciples what she has seen. In his post-resurrection appearances to his followers, Jesus seeks to eliminate any doubts about whether they have really seen him – he shows them his wounds, he eats with them, he meets them in groups of up to 500 so they can all check out with each other what they’ve seen.

Each of the Gospels reports different aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses. Each of them sees something different, because all have their own unique perspective.

A good lawyer will try to seat multiple witnesses in trial proceedings, each of which provides detail that supplements what others have reported. Similarly, the witness of the Gospels is strengthened rather than weakened by the variety of its reports.

The job of courtroom witnesses is first and foremost to tell what they saw happen. In their role as witnesses, the apostles’ core message after Jesus’ resurrection was simply what they had seen: “Jesus has risen! We saw him and touched him and heard him!” They told what they saw. And it turned the world upside-down! (Acts 17:6)

Easter is not a doctrine, but a story. Eventually the apostles found a way to make sense of the Easter story by referring to their Scriptures and remembering Jesus’ teachings. But it was the story, not their explanation, that lay at the heart of their proclamation.

The story of the cripple being healed by Peter and John at the Temple was also recited repeatedly in the early days of the Christian movement, both by Jesus’ followers and by their opponents. It spread through the region like wildfire.

Our job as Jesus’ followers today is still, first of all, to tell a story. Yes, we need “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,”[i] but we also need to tell the stories of Jesus at work today in what we have seen and experienced. What difference has Jesus made for us? How has being part of the community of faith had an impact on our lives? Where have we seen prayer answered? We need to tell these stories, both for the sake of those listening and for our own sake.

I grew up in a church where there was a “testimony time” most Sundays. Such an opportunity is provided in Presbyterian liturgy (see Book of Order W-3.0305 and 3.0306), but it is rarely utilized. Perhaps we are simply averse to give an open microphone to the congregation for fear of people taking too long, or saying things we haven’t vetted. Yes, testimony time can be messy. But it can be powerful. The power of stories of God-at-work in our world is something we should encourage at all costs.

As a pastor, I have often been approached by people carrying a story of something truly extraordinary that God has done for them, yet hesitant to tell it because they don’t like to draw attention to themselves, or they worry that they might sound a bit crazy. I assure them that it is perfectly okay to tell me their God-stories, that I won’t think them strange, but will celebrate with them.

I love to tell the stories of how I have seen God at work in the life of our presbytery. I have seen God at work in and through the diversity of our congregations, as God’s people sincerely pray, read Scripture, care for each other, and reach out to the world from very different places on theological and political spectrums. I have seen pastors and congregations form bonds of genuine friendship, deep respect, and mission partnership across lines of difference that seem insurmountable, except by the grace of God. What a testimony of the difference the Gospel makes, to a world locked in the grip of overwhelming toxic divisions!

God can and does reconcile individuals and congregations that seem fraught with irreconcilable differences. This is the essence of the Gospel, of what God does through Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:16-20) The Gospel works! What I see at work across the presbytery is abundant proof of the power of the Gospel.

Where have you seen God at work in your own life and congregation? I’d love to hear it from you. And I encourage you to tell it to your friends. Perhaps you can begin with a testimony time at church, and go from there.

Your fellow-character in God’s story,

[i] From the gospel song “I Love to Tell the Story” by Kate Hankey, 1866.

This entry was posted in Letters from the General Minister and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.