Fifth Amendment Christians
Several years ago, I heard an address by Dr. John Meister in which he used the phrase “Fifth Amendment Christians.” I was intrigued by that phrase and I have thought a lot about it since. Out of that thinking has come this sermon…
The Fifth Amendment to our Constitution is one of the treasures of our national heritage. For that statement in our Bill of Rights declares that an individual does not have to answer a question under oath if to answer honestly would incriminate him. That right was recognized by Jewish law at least as long ago as the trial of Jesus Christ. That right has now been guaranteed to us as Americans by the famous Fifth Amendment to our Constitution.
Sad to say, in recent times, we have seen some individuals try to hide behind the Fifth Amendment in order to avoid their reasonable responsibility as citizens. In courtroom trials and in congressional investigations, we have seen individuals “plead the Fifth,” in order to avoid answering all questions, however harmless some of them may be. I have to tell you that hearing a witness consistently use the Fifth Amendment as a dodge against testifying provokes me to disgust at such an abuse of one of our great rights and privileges.
But you did not come here today to hear a lecture on constitutional law or American History. You came to hear the Gospel. And that is what you shall hear. However, as I have thought about the Fifth Amendment and about what we are called to be and to do as Christians, I am led to offer three suggestions for your consideration.
I want to begin by suggesting to you that there are “Fifth Amendment Christians” in the Church.
That is to say, there are those in the Church who claim all the privileges of following Jesus Christ, but who continually refuse to bear witness to Him in any way which might identify them with Him or in any way that might inconvenience them. They consistently refuse to testify to the faith that is within them. They are “Fifth Amendment Christians.”
But there is a strange difference to note here. In civil life, when an individual “pleads the Fifth”, that individual is usually regarded with suspicion and contempt. However, in church life, when an individual refuses to bear witness to Jesus Christ, that individual is regarded as being more than respectable. They do nothing and they say nothing for the sake of the Lord and the reasons they give for not witnessing to His name sound so respectable. You’ve hear the reasons.
Some refuse to bear witness to Jesus because they claim to be tolerant and broadminded. They say: “What difference does it make? We’re all going to the same place. Why take the risk of offending someone?” Now these individuals may have strong feelings about their political party or their children’s schooling or their favorite sport, and they are only too willing to share those opinions and to seek to win others to the same opinions. But when it comes to their faith in Jesus Christ, they prefer to remain silent and avoid controversy. So respectable, don’t you think?
Then there are some who refuse to bear witness because they consider their faith to be too intimate and private to discuss publicly. They remember that Jesus said something about not letting your left hand know what the right hand is doing, and they take that to mean that faith is an individual exercise, closely-guarded, and not to be openly discussed with others. Sounds so respectable, doesn’t it?
We could go on listing the other reasons Christians give for their “do nothing, say-nothing” attitude. But the fact is that sooner or later we have to turn the question in upon ourselves. Sooner or later we have to admit that we are all “Fifth Amendment Christians” at some times with some people and in some areas of life. We may not like to admit that, but it is still true. As one wag has put it: “If bearing witness to our faith in Jesus Christ were a crime, no jury would ever convict us.” We are all “Fifth Amendment Christians”.
Now that leads me to suggest to you that the Bible clearly calls us to bear witness to Jesus Christ.
If you want to engage in a thought-provoking, soul-searching exercise, may I encourage this one: read through the Gospel of John with a pencil in your hand and underscore the word “witness,” or words which mean the same thing, every time you come to them. If you do that, you will quickly discover that the Gospel of John is one long witness to Jesus Christ—who He is and what He does. And you will realize that the Church of Jesus Christ is called to be nothing less than a group of people constantly and consistently engaged in making known by word and by deed the One who is our Lord and our Savior.
That passage from John which I read for you a moment ago sets before us an example worthy of following. There, in just a few words, we have a vivid description of what God wants us to do. It all began when that woman encountered Jesus at the well. As they exchanged words in conversation, that woman discovered in Him a life-transforming power. She proceeded then to tell others what had happened to her. John, bless him, records for us the results. “Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of this woman’s testimony.” There it is—so plainly written that we cannot miss it. That is what we as Christians are called to be and to do. We are to do precisely what the Samaritan woman did. We are called to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Let’s remember that Jesus never said “I wish you would become my witnesses.” Rather He said: “You shall be my witnesses.” Let there be no mistaking the clarity of that command.
A young man was telling of a camping trip he and a friend had taken. Late one afternoon after they had made camp in one of our national parks, they struck up a conversation with a married couple who were camping nearby. In the course of the conversation, the young man almost inadvertently happened to mention the name of Jesus. The conversation ended as dinner time approached. Later that evening, the husband walked out of the darkness and said to this young man that he wanted to know more about Jesus. The young man had simply mentioned the name. It had seemed so small and insignificant, yet I tell you that young man will never do anything more important in his life than he did in that moment. One young man was not afraid to mention the name of Jesus and as a result of that another man found the power of living in Jesus Christ. That’s what the Church is called to be and to do. That’s when the Church is really the Church—when persons who have had a deep experience of the reality of Jesus Christ are willing then to take the witness stand and by so doing to draw others into the great saving, redeeming, life-changing, world-changing orbit of Jesus Christ our Lord. “You,” Jesus said, “you shall be my witnesses.”
In light of that command, I must go on to suggest to you that the Bible teaches us how to be witnesses.
It seems to me that the great need in our time is for Christian men and women and young people to reclaim our birthright, to remember who we are. For we are the ambassadors for Jesus Christ in the world. I want now to set before us three guiding principles to help us in fulfilling that high calling.
Principle Number One: You can’t share what you don’t know. The one thing witnessing requires is to have such a living experience of the living Christ that we can’t keep still—we can’t keep quiet—we have to tell someone what Jesus means to us. You see, we have to know the secret of abundant living in our own lives. We have to know the secret of the defeat of death. We have to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that our own death will be only a transition in the midst of living. We have to know that the great message of the Christian Gospel is not “all this and heaven, too”, but “all this and heaven now!” We must know Jesus Christ in our hearts. We must make our commitment to Him. That’s where it all has to start, because you cannot share what you do not know.
Principle Number Two: You can’t win people you don’t love. John writes: “We know that we have passed from death to life if we love the people.” So to be in Christ is to want to share our faith in Him and to be in Christ is to have deep love and concern for other people. Put that together and it comes out like this: we need to love the people we are seeking to win. Now I want to encourage you to make a list of the people you know who don’t seem to have a fresh, vibrant experience of Jesus Christ in their lives. Then pray for them. Care for them. Demonstrate that you care for them. Spend time with them. Come to know them well enough to know what needs they have and what questions they are asking. You know, there is nothing more foolish than the answer to an unasked question. So become involved in these people’s lives and show them that you love them. If you do that, God will give you the opportunity you seek. I am going to say something here which some of you may disagree with—but that’s all right. I’m going to say it anyway. I do not believe that we are called to share our faith with absolutely everybody we meet in life. Rather, I believe that we are called to share our faith with those whom God has prepared for us—and part of that preparation occurs through our love for those people. So make your list and start loving those people for all you are worth and then pray: “Lord, I’m ready for anyone whom you have made ready for me.” You can’t win people you don’t love.
Principle Number Three: You can’t give what you don’t have. I remember that funny story about the lady who went to a prominent portrait painter and said to him: “Look here, I have paid you a huge commission for you to paint my portrait so you had better do me justice.” The painter looked at her and said: “Lady, you don’t need justice. You need mercy.” Well, the greatest need in most people’s lives is mercy. They need to know that they are loved by God. They need to know that in Jesus Christ He has died for them. They need to know that by the power of His Holy Spirit He is offering them nothing less than His life-transforming power. We don’t have to behave aggressively. We don’t have to be overly pious. We don’t have to cajole or browbeat. We don’t have to grab people by the lapel and try to shake them into the Kingdom. We need only to be kind and merciful. Do you remember in the Book of Genesis when Jacob was loading provisions for his sons to take to Egypt, Jacob suggested to his sons that they put in a little honey? I like that. When you are bearing witness to your faith in Jesus Christ, put in a little honey. People are won by gracious love and personal warmth. So if we give ourselves to others with that kind of love and warmth, then they will come knocking at the doors of our hearts demanding to know the reason for the faith that is in us and demanding to know the Saviour who has so transformed us. But you see, you can’t give what you don’t have.
There is a wonderful little book of sketches of Scottish peasant life called Beside The Bonnie Briar Bush. In that book is a story called “His Mother’s Sermon.” It tells of John McClaren, a young preacher fresh out of seminary, somewhat smug and self-satisfied, preparing to preach his first sermon in his first church. He felt that he should give his people a learned discourse on the latest theological ideas. However, when his aunt learned what he was preparing to do, she went to visit him. She sat John down and proceeded to remind him of the day a few years earlier when John had stood at the bedside of his dying mother. With her last breaths she had told John how from the moment of his birth she had hoped he would grow up to be a minister. John’s aunt then said: “I want you to remember your mother’s last words to you. She said: ‘Oh Laddie, whenever you stand to preach, always speak a good word for Jesus.'” When John McClaren was reminded of his mother’s words, he tore up his learned discourse and prepared to “speak a good word for Jesus.” On that Sunday, he was so nervous that he was visibly shaking, and stumbled over some of the words in the Creed, and even omitted a prayer from the service. But when he climbed up into the pulpit to preach, the people lost sight of the man standing before them and saw only the Man of Nazareth. After the service someone asked old Donald Menzies what he thought of the new preacher. The old man smiled and said: “There was a man sent from God, and his name is John.”
My friends, you and I are forever on the witness stand for Jesus Christ. May everything we say and everything we do “speak a good word” for Him!