• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Our Call to Bear Witness

Bearing witness is the common call and vocation of all Christians.

Jesus’ last command was to go into all the world and make disciples. Beginning with the Apostles, Christians in every generation have, by the Word of the Gospel, the example of Christ and the blood of martyrs, made disciples and established the one Holy Church throughout the world.

And we, by the witness of the Holy Church, have now taken our place within her. And we are challenged by the same call of Christ to go into the world and ‘bear witness’ to Him.

We know that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, who has come to fill us, will bear witness of Christ Himself within us.

When we look at the scriptures we see a common theme of witness, such as in John 1. John the Baptist, who came to bear witness to the Light, proclaimed to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God!” When they followed after Jesus to investigate, He invited them, “Come and see!”

When Andrew then told Peter of Christ, and when Phillip in turn told Nathaniel, they each invited; “Come and see!”

This is to be our invitation to others when we bear witness of Jesus. We don’t have to be great theologians, or able to articulate and argue the fine points of theology. Arguments rarely win anyone to the Faith. If an argument does influence someone, often it only results in an intellectual faith, a mental ascent to an idea, and while this may be a beginning, true conversion is still yet to come.

This is not to say that we should not come to learn our Faith and how to speak the Truth in the language of our Faith. This only comes with time and diligence in our own spiritual study, but still at the core of our witness must be that invitation, ‘Come and see!’

With this we can easily invite people who are interested to come here to this community of faith, and see Christ in our liturgy, in the icons and relics of the Saints, in the prayers and the beauty of worship. Here the Church herself bears witness to Christ and the universal Gospel story.

How we invest ourselves in this worship and in this holy temple is vitally important to the witness here.

We are blessed to have the gentle wisdom and discipline of our patron St. Benedict and the purity of heart of our patroness St. Scholastica as the root system of this parish. How we enter into the ethos of these holy ones is a great part of our witness in this parish.

But ultimately, as we go out into the world, it is our own lives which must invite others to come and see. We must take what we receive in the liturgy, worship and teaching of this Church and live it at home, school, work and in the marketplace of the world.

Our challenge in this vocation of witness is primarily to allow the life of the Lord Jesus Christ to permeate our lives so much that truly others see Christ in us. “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus.”

The Holy Orthodox Church teaches us that the salvific journey for each of us is the process of theosis wherein we take on the very life of Christ day by day until we become the image of Christ, and united together as the Church, finally we ARE Christ in this world today.

To do this we must work against the fallen human nature which seems so natural to us. We must fight the urge to compartmentalize our lives. It is easy for us to fall into the routine of putting church on the shelf when we walk out the door here. How we talk, the jokes we engage in, the lies we tell, the way we act toward others outside these walls may be quite different than when we appear before this altar looking into the eyes of Christ in His icon, ready to receive His precious Body and Blood.

How we speak, and how we behave is our witness to those around us, regardless if we are ready for it to be so. How we behave outwardly is a reflection of WHO we are inwardly. Our lives should be integrated, a simplicity of one, as triune God is one. We are created in His image and have the potential of His likeness, if we choose to cooperate with the merciful love of His Spirit. A true indicator of the degree of this balance is always who we are when we are alone. The choices we make, the thoughts we entertain, the activities we indulge when we think we are alone are a pretty good barometer of the person we truly are. Those things will find their way into the other parts of our lives, and someone is always watching. What we certainly do NOT want is to bear false witness of Christ by disparaging His character with our actions; we who bear the name Christian, “little Christs.”

This requires that we take seriously the process of theosis so that our life in Christ becomes WHO we are ontologically, and that we focus our lives on the Truth; the One Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

If we are truly to be witnesses, it means that we most deliberately and honestly bring our lives into this hospital for sinners and submit our self-will in humility to our Lord.

Does this mean that we cannot be witnesses for Christ until we are perfected in this process? Certainly not; else we could not be witnesses except after death. This synergy of theosis is a lifelong process and our own weakness is the opportunity for His grace to shine in us.

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

St. Paul then describes this Christian life of witness thus: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus might also be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” 2 Cor 4:6-12

When we consider this vocation to bear witness, given to us by the incarnate God, let us also consider that in language the word ‘Martyr’ is interchangeable with the word ‘Witness.’

Martyrdom is an all-inclusive category, and for each of us who would strive to be truly Christian, it is an integral part of this universal vocation of witness.

If the term ‘martyr’ means to ‘bear witness,’ as Jesus affirmed to the Apostles, then we are each called to bear this witness.

If martyrdom means to take up our cross and follow Christ, then taking up our own personal cross by an act of voluntary acceptance and free choice is an entrance into martyrdom. In the process of theosis the humility of the cross has the mystical potential of uniting our suffering with Christ and the suffering of the fallen world which He has come to redeem.

This then is something that we are all to undertake.

We are all called to be cross bearers. And all then, in some sense, are to be martyrs.

Whether we are called to die outwardly for Christ in the arena, by gas or prison, sword or bomb, terrorist or mob, or government, largely depends on factors out of our control.

Some are called to die the martyr’s death and others to live the martyr’s death.

What does depend directly upon us is whether we choose to accept it and willfully, deliberately, take up the cross inwardly.

We are each given the opportunity at some time in our lives to repeat the agony of the Garden of Choice, either as our first parent did in Eden, or as Christ the Second Adam did in Gethsemane.

The idea of the inner martyr was picked up right from the beginning of the Church. St. Paul said, “I die daily.” The martyr’s death is not merely a possibility, but an immediate fact of daily life experience if we submit ourselves to the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian Faith.

St. Clement of Alexandria states that the Christian will be a constant martyr; “He will be a martyr by night, a martyr by day, a martyr in his speech, his daily life, his character.”

Origen makes the distinction between “outward martyrdom and secret martyrdom,” or martyrdom of the conscience. He states, “The first is for some, but the second is for all.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage spoke of the ‘Red’ and ‘White’ martyrs: the Red of blood in times of persecution, and the White of self-sacrificing compassion and acts of love in times of peace.

Monasticism was considered an ascetic martyrdom through the daily death of ascesis.

St. Barsanuphius of Gaza states, “To abandon your self-will is to shed your blood.”

This is the calling upon each of us and the commandment of Christ. If we are to be His disciples we must take up our personal cross, laying down our self-will and self-interest in humble obedience to our God. Whether in death or life, we may become martyr witnesses.

Incomplete as we are, imperfect as we earthen vessels and cracked pots are, if we offer our hearts in sacrifice to the love of Christ, our lives will bear witness to Jesus. And our own witness in the life of the Church is meant by God to save the world.

Lest we feel overwhelmed, let’s look at another aspect to this vocation of bearing witness.

In the midst of the working out of our salvation in this role, we must remember that it is for true love that we are in this position in the first place. For God so loved His creation, and each of us, that He gave His only Son.

St. John Chrysostom reminds us, “God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.”

Remember this regarding your own struggle, and as you pray for children and loved ones: He loves them more than you are able.

So as we consider our struggles, we remember the pure love of our true Father and know that in the midst of all that is going on in our lives and in our parish, His tender loving care is here for us. In His loving arms we come to find solace, comfort, hope and courage.

Though there are changes in some of the ways we do things in our liturgy, we can adjust, trusting that whatever we do will be in accordance with the ancient Faith we have embraced in the Orthodox Church. This is our home. This is the center of life. The essence of what we treasure will remain.

The term ‘sanctuary’ in the sense that it is used today, ‘to give refuge,’ is taken from the Church and the role that Holy Church has always played in history.

In a very personal sense, the Church, and this temple in particular, IS our sanctuary. It is our refuge from the chaos of life outside these walls. The arenas of our spiritual battles are out there where we must fight the secular and anti-Christian culture, the clash of family, friends, fellow workers and more, and our own personal temptations. Out there is the confusion, the chaos and the struggle of living the Christian witness in this world.

But when we enter this temple, this is our place of sanctuary. The temple itself is sacred space. We can drop our world weariness at the door and enter the quiet, enter the holy, enter into the presence of God our beloved Savior. The liturgy is our work of worship. It is part of true sanctuary away from the arena of battle. We enter into the liturgy to meet with God as He has promised us. We hear Him speak in His Holy Word, we lay aside our burdens, our sins, and our cares in the prayers and hymns. We are invited and meet the Lord at His Holy Table and receive the nourishment of His own Holy Body and Blood. We receive God Himself into us. This has been the very heart of Christianity and the convergence of the Kingdom of God on earth since Jesus Christ was resurrected over 2000 years ago.

The Church is in truth a hospital for us sinners and broken people. All the actions of the liturgy and the functions of the Church are intended to heal and rejuvenate us. In the solace of the liturgy we are prepared and equipped for ministry, we are recharged with the light and life of Holy Trinity to go out into the world and bear witness; to be Christ in this broken world.

If we, as the Christian family, work together to preserve the treasure of the ethos, sanctuary and holiness of this Church, we then can say of our lives, and of this temple; “Come and see!”

St. Kyrillos VI made this statement, which we should strive to make our own;

“Nothing in this world can distress or perturb me, for I take refuge in the impregnable fortress of the Church. I am reassured in the bosom of God's mercies. Comfort and blessing continuously flows from Him.”

By the mercy of God and the prayers of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, with the chorus of prayers of the Saints whose relics we keep, may the holy witness of Christ and the flame of Orthodoxy always shine from this our beloved parish and temple of God.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309