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“Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”

 

 John 18:34 

 

I: — Gossip and hearsay are not the same.  Gossip is unfounded whispering, unfounded whispering that tarnishes someone else’s name, weakens her reputation, even destroys her. Gossip is both untrue and harmful.

Hearsay, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily untrue or harmful. In fact, hearsay is often true and helpful.         Hearsay, after all, is how we acquire most of our knowledge about the world. I have been told on good account that the sun is 90-plus million miles from the earth.  But I have never measured or calculated the distance of the sun from the earth. I have taken someone else’s word for it. I heard it said, and I believed it.

As with our knowledge of science, so with our knowledge of history. Napoleon besieged Moscow in 1812, sacrificing thousands of French soldiers in a dreadful military blunder. Did it actually happen? I have to take someone else’s word for it. Plainly what I affirm is hearsay. And there’s nothing wrong with accepting such hearsay.

Yet there is a setting where hearsay isn’t accepted at all: a courtroom. No courtroom judge puts any stock in the testimony of someone who says, “I never actually saw Mrs. Brown shoot her husband, but when I was at the grocery store, or maybe it was the barber shop, I heard it said that she shot him.” Hearsay isn’t enough when testimony has to be rendered in a court of law.

 

II: — Already you can see where hearsay is acceptable and where not. It is acceptable with respect to acquiring information; but it isn’t acceptable with respect to testimony concerning persons.  As we move from information about things to acquaintance with persons hearsay has no place. If you were to ask me what it is to love a woman and be loved by a woman, my answer might sound somewhat self-conscious and rather awkward.  Still, I profoundly know, unshakeably know, in my heart what it is to love and be loved by a woman.  However awkwardly I might convey this to you, neither of us would be helped by consulting a textbook on gynaecology.  Information of any kind, however sophisticated, is never a substitute for intimate acquaintance with a person.

Words always become less adequate, less helpful, as we move deeper and deeper into what is profoundly human.         In fact words can never finally do justice to human intimacy.  There is a level of experience that others can apprehend only if they come to share the experience themselves.  They will never apprehend the experience by having it described in words.

Think of Hannah’s anguish over her childlessness. Hannah is heartsick and can’t eat. Her husband, Elkanah, helpless here himself, asks her, “Why do you weep? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Elkanah simply hasn’t apprehended the horror that has seized Hannah’s heart. How could any man understand what it is for a woman to be barren?

After my mother had been a widow for several years I came upon C.S. Lewis’ fine book, A Grief Observed, which book he wrote following the death of his wife.  The book begins very powerfully: “No one ever told me that grief was so much like being mildly concussed or being mildly drunk….” I decided to give it to my mother. A few weeks later she thanked me for the book, told me it was very good, and added, “But what would you know about it?”         Her point was valid. I have never lost the one human being who is the earthly comfort and consolation of my life; I have never lost the one human being to whom I’ve been grafted, the loss of whom, therefore, is nothing less than dismemberment.

It is firsthand acquaintance with the Word of the Lord that makes the prophet a prophet. The prophet is the immediate recipient of that unmistakable address from the mouth of the living God. The prophet speaks only because someone has first spoken to him.  Once God has spoken to him, however, the prophet must speak himself. “The Word of the Lord is a fire in my mouth,” cries Jeremiah, “If I don’t open my mouth and let it out I’ll be scorched.”  The false prophet, on the other hand, is under no such compulsion just because the false prophet has no firsthand acquaintance.  The false prophet merely babbles and blabbers.

I am convinced that the spiritually sensitive among us can distinguish between the preacher who speaks because he’s first been spoken to and the preacher who simply blathers Sunday by Sunday. Discerning people simply aren’t fooled.

 

III: — The matter of discernment surfaced with Pilate. Some religious leaders hauled Jesus before Pilate and said, “This man’s an evildoer. Fix him!”   These leaders were hostile to Jesus while Pilate was not.  On the other hand, Pilate could enact the death the sentence while they could not; hence their request that Pilate “fix” Jesus. Now Pilate has on his hands someone whom he doesn’t dislike, yet also someone around whom an uprising might develop, thus ruining Pilate’s career in the civil service.   Wearily Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king of the Jews?”   And as Jesus does so often when he’s asked a question, he doesn’t answer. Instead he asks his own question: “Am I king of the Jews?  Do you say this on your own, of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” In other words, “Do you have firsthand acquaintance with me, with the truth that I am, or are you merely parroting hearsay?”   “Am I a Jew?”, Pilate retorts, “How on earth do you expect me to know?”

“My kingdom isn’t of this world,” Jesus comes back. “Ah, so you are a king,” says Pilate.  “Do you say this of your own accord or did others say it to you about me?   You say that I am king,” continues Jesus, “…I have come to bear witness to the truth.” Then, in a voice steeped in weariness and frustration and vexation and cynicism Pilate mutters, “What is truth, anyway?”

“Truth,” in John’s gospel, always the force of “reality.” “What is real, anyway?” This is what Pilate is asking, and is asking just because he doesn’t know.

Pilate doesn’t know who Jesus Christ is.  He has heard lots said about our Lord, but he has had no firsthand acquaintance with our Lord, born of journeying with him. Oddly, such firsthand acquaintance with Jesus is the common possession of apostles whose names the world will never forget as well as of countless ordinary Christians whose names the world has never remembered; and such firsthand acquaintance with Jesus is utterly foreign to Pilate.  Because it is foreign to Pilate, cruel compromise comes easy to him. So what if Jesus has to be sacrificed to keep religious leaders happy, an unruly crowd at bay, and Pilate’s own career intact. What is one more ragged Jewish victim of Imperial Rome’s political expedience?

Let’s be fair to Pilate.  Who Jesus Christ is also escapes the religious leaders.  They insist he’s an “enemy of the people.”   It isn’t true. Jesus isn’t an enemy of Israel ; he’s the fulfilment of Israel . The religious leaders are blind. Pilate is spineless.  Meanwhile one question continues to reverberate: “Do you say this (who or what I am) on your own, or did others say it to you about me?” In other words, “Do you have firsthand acquaintance with me, or are you merely repeating hearsay?”

The question that reverberated then reverberates still. It has to be dealt with today. “Do you sing hymns and repeat confessions of faith and say ‘Amen’ to the prayers of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”  “Do your hymns and prayers and creeds and eucharists and session meetings; does all of this come from your intimate acquaintance with me or are you merely repeating hearsay that you picked up from who knows where?” The question is still asked, and still it must be answered.

 

IV: — As you and I move away from picking up mere hearsay about Jesus to our own intimate acquaintance with him, what difference is it going to make to us?

 i]         First of all it will give us assurance of our faith in Jesus Christ, assurance of his hold on us, assurance that we are his younger brothers and sisters and citizens of his Father’s kingdom, assurance that we are being used of God now and are destined to see our Lord face-to-face.  Our foreparents, both Presbyterian and Methodist, spoke much of assurance. Calvin said quite starkly, “Where there is no assurance of faith there is no faith at all.” I think his assertion was too strong. Wesley said (at least at one point), “Assurance is the privilege of every believer.” I think his assertion was too weak. In scripture it is simply taken for granted that those who genuinely know Jesus and love him also know that they know, know that they are loved of their Lord and are bound to him. The first epistle of John, for instance, is one of the shortest books in scripture (five very brief chapters), yet the confident, firm, emphatic expression, “We know”, is used in it fifteen times.  “We know that we have passed from death to life; we know that God abides in us.”

I admit that there is the “we know” of the know-it-all: insufferable pomposity.  There’s also the “we know” of prejudice: “we just know that immigrants are corrupt and they take away ‘our’ jobs.” There’s even the “we know” of outright ignorance where nothing is known. Nevertheless, when all this is taken into account and dealt with we are left with the conviction, spirit and word of the apostle John and countless Christians after him: “He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.”

Decades ago when I was studying for the ministry we had to preach to our classmates in our homiletics courses.         One of my classmates, entirely unawares, preached a sermon in which he said many times over, no doubt out of habit, “I suppose….” When he had finished, the homiletics instructor, an older Church of Scotland minister who was as deep as a well, stared at the student and said, “You suppose? You suppose?   Young man, when you mount the pulpit steps either you know or you don’t say anything. No one is going to have her faith strengthened by a preacher who merely supposes.”

“He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself,” says the apostle John.  Faith born of intimate acquaintance with our Lord brings with it that assurance which confirms us every day in the truth of faith.

ii]         In the second place, as we move from acquaintance to hearsay we shall magnify the credibility of the gospel itself.  We shall render more believable for others the fact that Jesus Christ is truth and life and way; that there is forgiveness and freedom for any repentant person at all; there is comfort and strength and healing and a forever new beginning for anyone who may know little or much about Jesus but above all clings to him and wants only to cling more closely. As we ourselves move from hearsay to acquaintance we shall be the magnifying glass that causes the truth and substance of the gospel to loom so large as to be both unmistakable and unavoidable.  You and I, possessed by the gospel, will always be the most effective advertisement for the gospel.  As we radiate not an arrogant cocksureness but rather the simple assurance of those who know that living in the company of Jesus Christ is better than any alternative; as we radiate this, discipleship will become ever more attractive to people whose life-needs, like ours, cry out for the gospel yet who have not found the Christian way attractive to date.

iii]         Lastly, as we move from hearsay about our Lord to acquaintance with him we shall see him whole.  There’s always a tendency to see Jesus Christ fragmented, bits and pieces of him here and there. People latch onto a piece of him, a partial truth, one aspect of him, and then assume that this one piece or aspect or partial truth is all there is.

For instance, people hear what he said about the danger of riches (no doubt he said it and meant it) and then they assume that he supports any ill-conceived program of social disruption resulting in social dismantling. Or they hear what he said about rising early to pray and seeking his Father’s face in private, only to think he supports a pietistic escapism that turns its back on the human distress around us, distress that we can address and should. Or they see him elevate women (unquestionably he did) and then tell us that the gospel supports every last plank in the shrillest feminist platform, even where that shrillness denies the gospel.

The only way we avoid reducing our Lord to one aspect of him; which is to say, the only way we avoid shredding him grotesquely is to encounter and cherish all of him.  This isn’t difficult. Genuinely to meet someone anywhere in life is always to meet that person in her totality. The whole Master is what God has given us. Then why should we settle for less? What’s more, since the whole Master has been given to us, we must have him whole or we shan’t have him at all.  It is as we move from hearsay about him to acquaintance with him that we embrace the whole of him who has been given to us, only to learn that he has always longed to possess us wholly.

 

“Do you say this on your own, of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Jesus put this question to Pilate. Pilate fumbled and stumbled and faltered, for he knew what he was meant to say he couldn’t say truthfully, and what he could say truthfully he wasn’t meant to say.

The same question is put to us.  “Do you say this on your own, or did others say it to you about me?” Our Lord means, “Do you have firsthand, intimate acquaintance with me, or are you merely mouthing whatever you’ve absorbed unknowingly from your environment?” He expects you and me to reply, “Of our own, on our own accord;” and having rendered this reply once to render it again and again as we seize him afresh and follow him forever.

 

                                                                                                      Dr Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                           

February 2003