This sermon is actually pretty close to the subject of my book (Calvin’s Salvation in Writing). We continued this topic in the Adult (Re-)confirmation class following church. I think what we discovered is that there is a both-and thinking required that is at bottom very trinitarian. So it is true that the truth of the Gospel is not finalized and absolute, and must be personally lived. But that doesn’t make it merely subjective (only in me) or only one truth among many. In a paradoxical (trinitarian) way, the truth of Jesus Christ is final truth just because it includes its own non-finality. Deep discussion!
John 17:6-19; Acts 1:1-11
1 John for Call to Worship
For almost five months now, we’ve been focused on the story of Jesus, from his birth, through his calling and teaching the disciples, to his conflict with authorities, and concluding in his execution and the surprise of his resurrection—the experienced truth that death could not contain this child of God. By now we should realize that the story of Jesus is not just another historical story. We can read about Abraham Lincoln and admire some things, at least, and perhaps draw some lessons from Lincoln for our own day. But the story of Jesus is about God reclaiming our own humanity—now, then, and ever more. This Gospel story about Jesus is the truth of our lives, the most essential reality about the meaning of life with God.
Permit a brief digression. I hear people say that the job of the preacher is to make the Bible relevant to our lives, and that is indeed one way I try to preach. But it is also true that when we properly hear the Gospel about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are hearing what is always true for all humanity, a truth that is nowhere else made so visible and clear. And in that respect, the question to ask is not, how is the Bible relevant to my life? It’s: how is my life relevant to the Gospel? If you really believe in the Gospel, then you will believe that its truth is more real and more “relevant” than whatever you and I happen to be going through in 2018 Western Massachusetts. Maybe the key is not reinterpreting the Gospel to make it relevant to us; maybe we need to reinterpret ourselves. End of digression.
The Gospel story is the truth of our lives. But what is this truth of the Gospel? Beware of easy formulas. If the message of the Bible could be boiled down to a simple formula or slogan, we could dispense with this very long, often confusing book. I think we have to stick with it; and without worshipping the Bible or thinking it inerrant and perfect, I am a proudly biblical preacher. And I believe that when the time is right and we are ready and I’m doing my job well and above all, the Holy Spirit takes over, God’s message becomes clear. I’ve been breaking down what was a surprising and unfathomable event, the great big splash of the resurrection, into a series of hopefully clear ripples that reach us, even from 2000 years away.
Here it is, one last time: The resurrection is first the forgiveness of sin that restores our right enjoyment of creation. God created the world, as a reality distinct from God’s own being, to be a place of becoming and fulfillment in its own proper sphere. Whatever else we become through our special calling to faith in Christ, we remain God’s good creation, and God wants us to justly enjoy the fruits of creation. But maybe we feel unworthy of this, because people have put us down, or we are burdened with shame and regret, or trapped in an unjust path of trying to steal creation rather than sharing it, or oppressed by a sense of duty and obligation that we can never fulfill. Or all of these at once. The resurrection declares to us that we are forgiven, that God does not demand repayment for wrongs nor demand perfection of us. God loves one and all, and there is plenty of room within that love for us to justly and fairly share in the goodness of creation.
The second ripple is the mutual love that we enjoy as a church. This love we share is the same love Jesus shared with God, and with his disciples. John’s Gospel describes this divine and human love most beautifully and wonderfully, as for instance two verses after our lectionary reading for today: “As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” When we share love with one another, we are in God, and God is in us. The love among us is one dimension of the continuing, risen life of Christ. We are reminded by celebrating Christ’s Ascension this week that the singularity of who Christ was, is eternally risen and preserved in God; but his earthly presence is now in us, in the church primarily, and that means above all in our love. Jesus anticipates this meaning of ascension already in our reading from today: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, and I am coming to you.”
And we come today to a final ripple. (Though there are more; ripples always keep coming.) Jesus departs from us in his bodily presence but he leaves us with his truth. Jesus lives on in us because his truth remains in us. In this respect, what makes us Christians is the truth that we know. This theme is interwoven in our reading today: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. .. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you, for the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” And finally, Jesus prays to God: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Faith is knowledge of truth.
What does this mean, “Sanctify them in the truth?” Things sanctified are set apart for God (hence my title). They are dedicated to divine use, to God’s purposes. They are holy. We may be in the habit of thinking of holy things as pure and clean and perfect. Not so: something is holy because it is used for God’s purpose. The bread and wine are holy during use of communion, but they are not permanently changed into Christ’s body and blood, I think. (I’ve several times seen a priest finish off a large quantity of wine rather than pouring out what they understood to be the blood of Jesus in a sink. Great. Now you’ve got a drunk priest, slurring his way through the benediction.)
According to Jesus, we are being set apart, made holy, sanctified for the purpose of bringing God’s truth to the world. That presumes that the world, the kosmos in Greek, does not know God’s truth. This is a big theme from the beginning of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness.” John emphasizes more than the rest of the Bible that the world is in darkness, and only we have the light. Some Christians really love that. I don’t, and it’s not the only view we find in the Bible. But today we must seriously consider that Jesus set us apart to be bearers of God’s truth to the world.
And I think this scares some of us to death. We love coming to church, we love fellowship, we love doing good deeds and acts of charity, but we do not want to think of ourselves as possessing the truth. We are quite content with the right to my own opinion, and with your right to yours. The idea that there are not just opinions out there, but a truth that either you have, or you are dwelling in darkness and falsehood, makes some of us very uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Before anyone starting talking about fake news and a post-truth world, we were already quite content with personal opinion, rather than truth with a capital T. Why is that? What forces at work in our culture seduced us into flattening out truth into mere opinon? And it is easy to dismiss scholarly experts and good journalists by saying they are just as biased as everyone else; one opinion is worth the same as another. It even sounds democratic. Until you sit down and have a conversation with someone who really knows her stuff. That’s happened to me many times. And then I realize, I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that’s ok—that’s what learning is for. Then you are ready to learn. Opinions are not for holding on to; they are for being improved upon. But if you insist there’s no truth, only opinion, you are never going to be ready to learn. Jesus is our expert on God, our teacher, our master, our Lord. He speaks for God; he spoke as one who had authority, as the Bible puts it. Because we believe in him, we need to believe in truth. To believe in God is to believe in truth. / So a guy dies and goes up to the pearly gates, and St. Peter lets him into the holy court of the Lord Almighty, surrounded by the heavenly host, the angels praising God’s name without ceasing, and God says to him, “My son, you’ve lived a life of falsehood.” And the guy says, “Well, that’s your opinion.” It doesn’t work, right? We have to believe in truth. But some of us are very uncomfortable with that.
Some of us aren’t nearly uncomfortable enough with it. But when those of us who are uncomfortable look at how the church has so arrogantly used its supposed possession of the truth, and continues to do so: belittling other very rich and complicated religions without even taking time to try to understand them; dismissing the claims of science; assuming that the Bible is the only source we need for questions of ethics and public policy—when we see this, we are utterly ashamed of the Christian faith and its pretensions to alone bear the truth, to carry the light, even while Christians go about doing heinous and inhumane things, serenely confident in their God-given truth: ‘Only by the name of Jesus can anyone be saved.’ Some Christians seem to think possessing the truth is as simple as possessing a name, as easy as saying J-E-S-U-S. The Bible knows better: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” We are right to be wary of Christian arrogance about possessing the truth.
So what does it mean to be sanctified in the truth? How do we maintain fidelity to Christ’s gift of truth to us, so that faith is not just my own personal opinion and private spiritual journey, but is indeed the faith, a body of truth that I share with all faithful Christians, and by which we enlighten the whole world (for Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world)? And yet how do we avoid the arrogance that we’ve seen Christians fall into, as if we alone possess the truth, as if all others must be wrong, because we have the name Jesus, and the Bible, and true doctrine, and we alone have right judgment?
This is no easy task. Each of us must work together to become God’s community of truth, and each of us has a distinctive task ahead of us. It would be easy if the truth of which Jesus spoke were just some formula that we could memorize, like Pythagorean’s theorem, and then we’d have all truth. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. Nor is there a law for us to memorize that would answer all our moral dilemmas; Paul tells us we are free from the law, but under the much more encompassing, if less precise, demand of living by the Spirit—whatever that means.
But there is a shape of truth, a way that truth properly works, within the Christian church that comes from the way Jesus revealed truth. And even this shape of truth you can’t pick up in an easy lesson, but you have to learn it patiently through guided study of Scriptures, imbibe it from others who are living it, and practice it diligently; and you have to unlearn all the misuses of truth in our world. Doing all that is necessary to be sanctified in the truth. I can only outline this shape of truth. First of all, the truth for a Christian is never his possession. It is God’s truth, and so it is always above and beyond me, and is mine only by God’s grace. We participate in God’s truth only when we confess our own foolishness, our own ignorance, our own sinful blindness. And we know that we never stop being sinful, ignorant fools. Second, God has indeed given us truth, and even a truth that comes to us through words, especially the words of Jesus and the Bible. But these words of truth are again not a formula that I can recite and wield, brandishing them like a weapon against others. These are the words of a human life, of Jesus. Truth is not a formula but a person, not a doctrine but a story, and so truth is something you must live out with the whole of your personal existence and your story. And you don’t witness that truth to another person by arguing him into submission, so that he, admitting defeat, confesses that your formula is correct. You have to understand someone else from deep within, and tend to that person with selfless compassion; but it’s not so simple as just loving and serving and being supporting that other. You may well have to penetrate his or her complex self-deceptions, and unlock many gates put up against God and perhaps against religious folk who have done harm. Paul tells us we are witnessing truly when someone from outside the faith has the secrets of her heart disclosed; and then she can worship God with you.
But how many of us are ready to do that and are capable of so witnessing our faith? How many have been thus sanctified in the truth? We acknowledge this deeply personal approach to truth because we have learned it from Jesus, but we must confess that we are hardly up to it. And even as our whole approach to truth is shaped by Jesus the Christ, we acknowledge that even in him truth is not finalized. The Bible testifies that he is to come again, and complete his truth. Notice in our Acts reading, when the disciples want to know the final truth, when Christ shall restore the kingdom in the last day, Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Just because we know Jesus, doesn’t mean we know everything that God in God’s mysterious authority has in store for the world. And we can only hope that Jesus will come again, for the truth we have is not really complete or sufficient. That’s essential to the shape of Christian truth—it lacks finality. And it’s not even clear, 2000 years later, what Jesus coming again means. Could it simply mean, coming again as the Holy Spirit, the one who sanctifies us for truth? Maybe we’ll find out next week.