I was terrified … and desperately trying to figure out any excuse to say no.
I had only been attending this new church for a matter of months. Every week, the pattern of the liturgy was the same: alongside the scripture reading and the pastor’s sermon was testimony. Someone from the congregation would be invited to share their story, or testimony, about how God was working in their life. Some of the stories were funny, others moved me to tears, but always, every story left me awestruck and inspired.
Then it was my turn. I opened the email from my pastor. Would I like to give my testimony? Um, no. No, thank you. There’s no way … I don’t have anything worth saying … especially compared to others … their stories are so powerful…
I gave my testimony. Was I still terrified? Goodness, yes. But I knew there was power in sharing our stories. If I had gotten so much out of hearing others tell their stories, who’s to say there wouldn’t be someone who might get something from my story?
There is power in personal testimony, even though it’s so much easier to want to just listen to the stories of others, as if we have nothing to contribute. Jesus begins his conversation with the disciples innocently enough: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What are the neighbors saying about me? What have you heard?
I don’t think Jesus is actually interested in their answers though. It’s really more of a set-up to his real question: “But who do you say that I am?” Suddenly, it gets a lot more personal. And then Peter shares his testimony: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Not a quote from someone else, no citation of source needed. It’s his testimony, his experience, his confession of faith.
As an English major who wrote countless papers and now as a pastor who writes weekly sermons, I can tell you it’s incredibly tempting to just quote other people – scholars and theologians and other pastors – whose words are just so perfect. And I do it a lot. But, as I’ve come to learn, more often that not, there are no more perfect words than our own.
Our story is ours to tell and no one else’s. And you have no idea who might be listening and needs to hear exactly what we have to say.
Of course, that means we have to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up, flaws and all. No one’s story is perfect, and none of us has lived a life without mistakes or failures or dreadfully embarrassing moments.
The same Peter who is commended by Jesus for his testimony, who is called “blessed” for his confession of faith, and who is named as the “rock” on which Jesus will build his church is the Peter of “little faith” who only two chapters before nearly drowns when he gets frightened while trying to walk on water. This is the same Peter who needs Jesus to explain a simple parable to him, and this is the same Peter who will rebuke Jesus’s foretelling of his death, who Jesus subsequently calls “Satan” and a “stumbling block” in the verses to come next week. And this is the same Peter who will eventually deny even knowing Jesus three times after he has been arrested.
All of which is to say: Peter wasn’t perfect. Far from it. But it doesn’t make his testimony any less powerful or real. True stories include flaws, too. And I think that’s where we often resonate with others’ stories the most: “Wow, they screwed up like that, too?” It’s relatable and gives us permission to get out of the boat and try – or, in my case, to step up to the mic in front of a congregation I’ve only known for a few months and share my testimony anyway.
So what about this “rock”? I’m not convinced it’s actually Peter the person, but more so his story. Peter’s story and his confession of trust in a Messiah who saves and a God who is living is a foundation for others to stand on and tell their own story.
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” the prophet Isaiah declares. “Look to Abraham…and Sarah who bore you” … your ancestors in the faith on whose shoulders you stand, who placed their trust in a God who comforts the waste places and makes the desert wilderness blossom into a verdant garden.
There is power and salvation in community. Hearing the stories of others – our biblical ancestors as well as our contemporary faith community – enables us to tap into our own stories and gives voice to our own testimony of how God is working in our lives, flaws and all.
The community of faith supports one another as a chosen family – a word I’ve heard over and over again to describe St. Philip. Now, more than ever, we give thanks for the ways God draws us together around word and sacrament, through lunch gatherings outside and Zoom small groups online – learning from one another as one body with many members, hearing how God is still acting in and through us, even when things feel scary or uncertain.
Look to the rock who gives us birth, the strong foundation of our faith, to the Messiah, the Son of the living God … Christ who is with us always, to the end of the age.