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The Spirit of Truth

Sermon - 5/27/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 14:6-17

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

An Associated Press article on the religion page of yesterday's Register Guard reported on four different atheist authors who have recently written best sellers.  In 2005 it was The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  Last year The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was the best selling attack on religion. This year it was Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  Newest on the block is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.  

According to the AP article, these "writers see themselves in a battle for reason in a world crippled by superstition." In their mind, clerics of the world's religions are "using fairy tales posing as divine scripture to justify their lust for power." [my emphasis]

We can discuss the reasons for the popularity of these books and the building resentment among nonbelievers over the influence of religion on public policy matters like stem-cell research, the teaching of evolution, abstinence-only sex education and our apparent support for continued expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, matters which many of us find equally distressing.  But what got my attention and even a little ire was the suggestion that scripture can be equated with fairy tales.  So let me do a reality check, how many here would say that their faith is based on a "fairy tale"?  How should we respond to such a claim?  Should we be angry?  Offended?  Defensive?  Or should we take that as a challenge to rethink the central stories of our faith and how we interpret them in this modern world?

Case in point.  Emily Keizer of Eugene wrote this two-sentence letter to the editor published on Tuesday in the Register Guard:

In a recent article about the pope's visit to Brazil (Register-Guard, May 14), a Peruvian bishop is quoted as saying that people of "pre-Columbus" religions "hold lots of different beliefs, such as worshiping the Earth or animals, things that are pretty primitive."   So worshiping animals is primitive, but believing that someone could walk on water, transform water into wine and bring dead people back to life is somehow modern and logical?

Ms. Keizer has a good point.  In today's world it will simply not do to call our beliefs "modern" and someone else's "primitive" or ours "faith" and theirs "fairy tales".  Read again the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 with its description of the Spirit as "tongues" of fire and people from 14 different nations who all hear a bunch of Galilean fisherman speaking their native language simultaneously. (I don't know about you, but the only time anything like that has happened to me was after my prostate surgery when I took 2 Oxycodone and for the first time I understood Rush Limbaugh!)  Were that story or the story of the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, the story of the Exodus and countless other miraculous stories found anywhere else other than the Bible, would we find them credible?

In the Gospel of John, Pilate asks Jesus the question that is on all of our lips and minds, "What is truth?"  Whether we are discussing the basic tenets of our faith or everything from abortion to the death penalty, how do we determine the truth?  Remember the old joke about the three religious leaders debating when life begins?  The protestant minister argued that life begins when you can first hear a heart beat.  No, said the Catholic priest, life begins at conception.  "You are both wrong," said the Jewish rabbi, "life begins with the youngest child goes to college and the dog dies."  With my first child headed off to college this fall, her brother not far behind and 2 of 3 pets no longer with us, I am beginning to appreciate the logic of that argument!  Life is about to begin!

Somewhere early in my childhood I learned that intelligence had something to do with one's ability to answer questions.  I wanted to be an intelligent person, so I reasoned that I just needed to answer all questions.  It didn't matter if I actually knew the answer, I just had to be convincing and people would say, "Isn't he smart?" It worked well until I tried to tell my east-coast wife (that is, my wife raised on the east coast-lest you to think I have one on the east coast and one on the west!) that Atlantic City was the capital of Georgia.  Atlanta, Atlantic City, they all look the same from the west coast.

So what is truth?  In modern, western world we generally define truth by the facts, something that is provable by observable evidence or sound logic. Hence these atheist authors try to debunk religion by showing that their arguments are more logical, that their method on interpreting the world is the correct way of thinking.  Whoever has the most facts, the best logic and the least contradiction, has the truth.

In such a perspective, how do we lead someone to the truth of Christian faith?  We teach them the right knowledge, the correct theology and the best way to interpret scripture.  We give our "proof" that God exists, that Jesus was raised or that he really performed all those miracles.  Once we convince someone of this set of facts, they will see the light and become Christian.

There is only one problem with such an understanding of truth.  It doesn't work any more.  From that perspective, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the other religion protagonists have us beat.  So why do I remain unconvinced by their arguments and insist on the truth of Christian faith?  Because it is a different truth that has more to do with meaning and purpose rather than facts and logic.  And nowhere is this more obvious than in the Gospel of John.

"Truth" is a key word in John.  In the other three gospels, "truth" occurs only six times and only once on the lips of Jesus, when Jesus discusses the widow and Elijah in Luke 4.  In John, however, "truth" appears 25 times, all but four of those on the lips of Jesus.  Two of those four come in the prologue of John where we read, "And the Word became flesh and we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth." (1:14) Again, three verses later, "The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (1:17)

Jesus tells his followers, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (4:24)  "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (8:32)  In the passage for this morning, we read "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."  Jesus then says that the Sprit of Truth will dwell forever in his followers. (14:6) To Pilate Jesus says, "for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." (18:37)

Thus when we get to Pilate's famous question, "What is truth?" the last time the word "truth" appears in John, we clearly see that Pilate and Jesus are not communicating.  Pilate is using courtroom language-he wants facts, evidence to prove whether Jesus is innocent or the charges against him are true.  Jesus, however, is talking about a greater truth, truth beyond facts, truth that transforms lives, truth that reveals all our hypocrisy and shallowness, truth that leads to the very essence and meaning of life.
Jesus does not answer Pilate's question because this truth cannot be explained with words or logic, it can only be answered on the cross and at the tomb.  For this truth is God's steadfast love and faithfulness as brought to life by Jesus, crucified by the world and raised by God.

How then do we apply this truth to our need to discern the truth in our every day lives?  Let me suggest seven basic principles or at least thought provokers for discerning truth in our world today.

First, the ultimate truth is not contained in the Bible, but in a person.  As I and others have said many times before, the Bible is not THE Word of God, Christ is THE Word of God, the living Word which became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Bible is a word or words about God which points to THE Word of God who is for us the definitive revelation of God.  This idea is so basic and yet so crucial to our understanding of faith.

Muslims, for whom the Koran is THE definitive revelation of God often refer to our commonality as, like them, being "people of the book."  But that is not quite true.  Christians make the same error in thinking that Mohammed is for Muslims what Jesus is for us.  Also wrong.

Instead, Jesus is our Koran and Mohammed is their Bible, that is, we see Jesus as the primary revelation of God to us just as they see the Koran as the primary revelation of God to them.  The same is also true of Judaism. Torah, the first five books of Moses, is the primary revelation of God to the Jews.  Thus Torah is to Jews what Jesus is to Christians.  This does not mean that the revelation of God we see in Christ is superior to any other revelation, but it does make it different.  Understanding that difference is important for our own faith as well as for interfaith dialogue.

Second, this means that truth from a Christian perspective is dynamic, not static.  If we see truth as something that is static, that is, unchanging, then our approach to contemporary issues will be marked by legalism, moral literalism, dogma and doctrine.  "The Bible says it and that is good enough for me, end of argument."  If we see it as dynamic, then the truth of Christ will be living truth made relevant to every situation, reborn in every moment.
In other words, it is not the letter of the law that guides us, but the spirit of Christ that guides us.  Too often we act as if that spirit is embalmed in the Bible like an Egyptian mummy, impervious to time and history, but when unwrapped reveals nothing but a cold, dead body.

Two examples to illustrate dynamic truth:  In the New Testament, slavery and the subordination of women is accepted as a given part of the social order.  Paul certainly challenged that order but by the time the New Testament era came to a close, the church had accepted it.  Today no church accepts slavery as acceptable in God's eyes and many churches recognize and affirm women as equal partners with men in the ministry of the church.  If truth never changes, how could something like slavery be accepted in the church in the first century but not today?  How could women as equal leaders in the church be OK now and not then?  Perhaps this is the meaning behind the words of Jesus when he says, in v. 12, that those who believe in him will do greater works than those done by him.  Do we believe that, that we will do greater works than Jesus?  Perhaps ending slavery and women in the ministry are such works.

Third, the opposite of truth is not falsehood, but faithlessness.  God commanded the prophet Hosea, "Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord."

Though men and women treat each other falsely through the practice of prostitution, God treats it as but a symptom of a much greater malaise, the lack of faithfulness.  Likewise when Jesus is confronted with the woman caught in adultery, he treats her with respect and mercy, but when he sees religious leaders who have not been faithful in their tasks, his rebuke is sharp and swift.  If we fail to live what Christ taught us, we deny the truth for which Christ died.

Fourth, thus evidence of truth is not correct belief, but obedient action.  To put it differently, it is not creeds but deeds which make us faithful followers of Jesus.  To tell the truth is not sufficient, we must live it.

Fifth, therefore, truth is often costly and unwelcome.  Have you ever heard someone say, "so and so just doesn't want to know the truth?"  Jack Nicholson plays the rough and tough commander of the base in Guatanamo Bay who delivers that famous line from the witness stand when grilled by Tom Cruise in the movie "A Few Good Men."  Fed up with the righteousness of the cocky lawyer played by Cruise in his search to find the cause of a young Marine's death by hazing, Nicholson at last blurts out, "You want the truth?  You can't handle the truth!"  And then of course proceeds to implicate himself in the death.

At times we may not want to hear the truth of the Gospel because it may call for us to change our lifestyles or to do something like Jonah, called to preach to a foreign city, that we do not want to do.  At other times, we may not want to speak the truth for fear of its ramifications.  Right after Jesus says, "the truth will make you free," he says to the religious leaders of Jerusalem, "you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth." (8:40) So there are certain risks that go with truth.

But sixth, this truth is always liberating.  If it confines and restricts, it is not the truth.  If it is oppressive, and weighs you down, it is not the truth. "Come," says Jesus, "my yoke is easy, my burden is light."  Because the truth makes us free, we need not fear other points of view.  Christian people should be the most tolerant people there are.  Let me repeat that.  Christian people should be the most tolerant people there are!  Why is it that so often it appears to be just the opposite?

That does not mean we should tolerate evil or sin or accept all points of view as equally valid, but if we truly believe in the truth, then we have no need to censor other points of view because we can be confident that the truth will always win.  Perhaps not immediately, or even soon, but eventually the truth comes out and ultimately will be victorious.  That, in essence, is the message of the book of Revelation.  God's truth wins in the end.

Lastly, this truth is found in community.  When Jesus says "the spirit of truth will guide you," the "you" is plural.  It is in the community of faith where two or three are gathered together, where we worship together, fellowship together and dialogue with one another that we discover the truth.  It is precisely here in the church that we should be discussing the pros and cons of abortion, the death penalty, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, gun control, whatever issue you want to name.
Here is where we should engage in open and honest exchange on the critical issues of our time, respecting all points of view, learning from each other, challenging one another to go deeper and to seriously apply our faith to such issues.  This is what it means to be faithful Christians.

If we believe that the spirit of truth will guide us, if we allow it to guide us, then we will be able to discuss such difficult issues in love and respect for one another and then we may find a greater Truth in our midst than we knew we possessed.  Jesus knew.  That spirit, he said, would abide with us and in us.  

Such truth, the Spirit of truth, is the truth we need today more than ever. Let us not be timid in sharing that truth with the world. 


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