Amen, amen I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. (Jn 3:11)
I. Plural – Note that while Jesus speaks to Nicodemus he does not say, “I speak to you,” he says, “We speak to you.” This first-person plural is common in Johannine literature. For example, at the beginning of the First Letter of John it is said, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1).
Who is the “we” referred to here? As with most things Scripture, there are layers of meaning. Certainly it means, first of all, the apostolic college. And at another, wider level, it refers to those first eyewitnesses, the disciples who heard and saw Jesus and were able to report what he said and did. Yet more widely, the “we” referred to here is the Church down through the centuries.
It is ultimately the Church which says to our world, “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.”
II. Proclamation – This therefore is the proclamation of the Church down through the centuries to our present day and to the world, “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” If the Church can no longer say this, she is no longer the Church! If the church could no longer say, “Jesus is Lord…and we know this, we experience this, and we see it with our eyes…” then the Church would no longer be the Church.
Note that in the Biblical sense, the word “know” does not simply refer to intellectual knowing, as if the Church were simply reciting words written centuries ago and then handing them out. Biblical knowing emphasizes experience; something known means something actually seen and experienced, not just learned in the abstract. The Church does not simply know Jesus as Lord and speak of what she knows, as if reciting ancient formulas, precious though they are. Rather, she speaks of her experience with the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacred liturgy, and of His powerful ministry to all her Children and members down through the centuries to this very day.
The proclamation of the Church is that we speak to the world of what we know, that is, what we have experienced. And to emphasize, Jesus adds that the proclamation of the Church is not simply what we know, but what we have “seen.” And here too, a tangible experience is referred to. This is not simply the recitation of ancient formulas, but of ancient truths, presently experienced—seen. In other words, the Church can raise her right hand and swear to the truth of all that Jesus has said and done because she knows it; she experiences it; she has seen it—she has witnessed it occurring in her very sight.
For indeed, souls are healed and set free, and human beings are transformed gloriously by the celebration of her sacred liturgy with her blessed Groom and Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Church announces her experience with Jesus Christ, with the capacity of His Word and truth to transform her and her members. So the Church says to the world, “We testify to what we have known, and what we have seen.”
This is the proclamation of the Church, and if the Church could no longer say this to the world, she would no longer be the Church.
III. Persecution – Then Jesus says to Nicodemus, and by extension to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.”
That is to say, it is often the lot of the Church to be scorned, ridiculed, and mocked—even hated and persecuted—because of our proclamation. There are many who demand that the Church conform to the world and its ideas and values.
Yet as Pope Paul VI noted in “Humanae Vitae,” one of the Church’s most rejected encyclicals,
There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. (#18)
It is often the lot of the Church to be this sign of contradiction. Yes, we must often stand up before a worldly consensus and say, “No,” no matter how many there are around us who say, “Yes.” It is the lot of the Church to experience rejection and to have to say, “You do not accept our testimony.”
And yet this is judgment, for Jesus says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light.” (John 3:19-20) And St. Paul also adds, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim 4:3). And Simeon as he held the infant Jesus, and thereby the infant Church, said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” (Lk 2:34)
Yes, here is our place—among the persecuted, scorned, and derided. The Church must be willing to say to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.” We must not “cave.” Too many today, desiring the Church to be “relevant,” and “acceptable,” insist that we alter our doctrines so that the world will accept our testimony. But God forbid the Church ever do this. We would no longer be the Church!
Here then is Jesus’ Charter—His mandate—for the Church: that we should say to the world, “We speak to you of what we know, and of what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony.”