Igniting spirited witness

Robust Christian witness involves love, forgiveness and hospitality, through word and deed, all prompted by the Spirit.

By Molly T. Marshall

Witness is a word that has fallen out of favor in many Christian circles. Maybe it was never as popular as our memory assumes since, after all, the word means “martyr.” It still works in the courtroom or car accidents; however, to many of us it conjures images of the door-to-door work of the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. It suggests memorizing a formula that we can spout the instant we discover someone is not “saved.”

Over the past couple of years American Baptists have focused on what it means to be “transformed by the Spirit,” and this emphasis is proving fruitful. It is the mission of God’s Spirit to complete the works of Christ through us. Fully God, fully personal, the Spirit is God’s abiding means of mission and witness through frail humans. “Closer than our very breath, closer to us than we are to ourselves,” as St. Augustine put it, the Spirit grants power for witness.

We have not always been eager to speak of the Spirit, fearing that someone might think us charismatic. We are all charismatic, let me assure you! The Spirit is the great gift of grace, working in and through us, almost imperceptibly at times yet always active. Perhaps Moltmann is right: the reason we don’t speak more about the Spirit is not because the Spirit is so far away, but because the Spirit is so near, becoming part of the fabric of our lives.

Baptists of the moderate and progressive stripe have devoted ourselves to pursuits of peace and social justice as a means of witness; and surely these deeds speak of our concern for human flourishing. We work in conflict resolution, we work to stem the tide of sex trafficking, we work to eradicate the suffering of children in poverty, and we work to slay ignorance — a ministry to which our seminarians bear witness. We know how empty words without deeds are. Yet, deeds need words, also. Witness requires both.

What words do you think persons most need and want to hear? It is said that the three most beloved phrases in the English language are: I love you; I forgive you; and let’s eat. The Spirit makes possible their faithful embodiment.

The Spirit ignites love for others. Most of us are pretty self-centered, “curved in upon ourselves,” as the ancient definition of sin portrays us. Rampant narcissism, as the Facebook phenomena attests, makes it hard to find emotional space to regard others “more highly than ourselves.”

In the Kabbalistic tradition, the secret name for God is the “wide space.” Just as God creates space for us in God’s own life, so we can do this for others. Part of the work of God’s Spirit is to create such spacious capacity within us that we might love others. Spirit prompted love constrains us to love others for their sake, not for our benefit.

The Spirit ignites the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness, in my judgment, may be the hardest spiritual practice. It is a voyage of discovery and of anguish, in the words of Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes. It is never an instantaneous transaction — not even for God. In the incarnation God makes this voyage of discovery and anguish, becoming one of us to understand what it means to be human and what violence human sin wreaks in creation.

Receiving forgiveness and being able to forgive are intrinsically related. To forgive another means that we stand with them; we are on their side. This is God’s story of love in Jesus — God is standing on our side. A clear witness can be born by being a forgiving people. This will go a long way to allay the suspicion many young adults have about the preponderance of judgment in churches.

The Spirit also ignites healing hospitality. We love to be invited to meals! In the early churches, a key sign of the Spirit’s baptism was “breaking bread together.”The Johannine story of Jesus cooking breakfast for his weary, hungry friends is a wonderful picture of the hospitality of God. It meets concrete human need. He knew they needed forgiveness; they also needed fish!

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, which provide home and meals for mentally disabled adults, writes that when people sense “that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation — I would even say ‘resurrection.'” Hospitality demonstrates God’s expansive welcome.

Robust witness involves love, forgiveness and hospitality, through word and deed. This is the work of the Spirit of God through us. God chooses human instruments to embody God’s own presence and grace.

We are granted the dignity of being a living sacrament — word become flesh — for God’s mission through the church. This powerful witness of grace makes visible God’s reign.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.