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Knowing Truth

Sermon - 8/29/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 14:1-7

In the 7th and 8th chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus is embroiled in a rather heated exchange in the Jerusalem temple with religious leaders in which they become so enraged for his heretical claims that they attempt to stone him.  But, the text says, “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”  We typically read that conclusion to the story literally, but I wonder if the hiding of Jesus and his departure from the temple were not intended by John to be more metaphorical than historical?  Whichever the case, in the middle of the story Jesus says this to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Then you will recall at the trial of Jesus before Pilate, in John’s gospel and only in John’s gospel, there is this remarkable exchange between Roman governor and Jewish prisoner about the nature of truth.  Pilate asks,  “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  (John 18:37-38)

That rhetorical, unanswered question by Pilate is answered by Jesus between these two exchanges with the religious and political leaders in a private conversation in chapter 14 between Jesus and his disciples.  Peter has just sworn his allegiance to Jesus to which Jesus responds that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows.  Then Jesus says, in our text for this morning:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus 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.’

 

When my oldest sister was a junior in high school, my father was invited to give the baccalaureate address for the senior class.  Knowing that the school had a policy of not inviting the same preacher two years in a row to give that address, he declined saying that he would prefer to do it the following year.  But the following year some other senior also had a preacher father who was asked to give the baccalaureate address.  The next year my older brother was a junior and once again my father was invited to speak and once again he declined.  And once again when my brother was a senior they invited someone else.  When I was a junior, my father was invited a third time to speak to the graduating class.  He accepted.  By the time my children were seniors, baccalaureates for high school seniors had gone the way of the Dodo bird in our school district so I’ve not had the opportunity to accept or decline an invitation at their school, though I did give a baccalaureate address for a Springfield high school in 2003.  With a new school year upon us, my oldest child now a senior at Chapman University and our youngest starting his first year at Oregon, I have been contemplating the role between faith and education, truth and knowledge.  Had I been invited to give a baccalaureate address this year, this is the message I would have given—or something like it.

My son and his classmates entering college this year are the class of 2014.  I’d like to reflect with you on how much our world has changed since they were born.  Most were born after we invaded Iraq for the first time.  They have only known the first President Bush as the father of the second President Bush.  Their first computers are now museum pieces and they have never known a computer without at least a CD-ROM drive.  In their lifetime Czechoslovakia never existed and DNA testing always has.  They don’t like e-mail because it is too slow nor cable TV because it doesn’t have enough options.  A woman has always been on the Supreme Court and Americans have always lived with Russians on the space station.  Kodachrome is an old song by Paul Simon celebrating something they have never used and is no longer made.

All that is to say, the world is a vastly changing place.  Remember Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock?  I read that in high school (just a decade or two ago…).  Toffler maintained, as I recall, that the pace of change in the future would be so fast, it would be impossible to keep up with it, hence the “future shock.”  How many of you have electronic devices that still blink 12:00?  Let alone smart cell phones which have so many features they make rocket science look simple.

In this vastly changing world, education is absolutely essential.  You are part of a faith tradition, the Disciples of Christ, which has always placed a very high value on education.  Even our name, Disciples, suggests that we are life-long learners.  Disciples of Christ have the highest percentage among all denominations of college and graduate degrees among our members.  Which of course only makes one wonder why we aren’t a little smarter than we appear sometimes!  Our former General Minister and President, who we know as the consultant who led the development of our strategic plan, Dick Hamm, notes in his book 2020 Vision that “we have always believed that one should not have to ‘check one’s brain at the door’ when coming to worship.”[1]  Education, and using such God-given intellect that we may have, is a key element of our faith tradition.

Alexander Campbell, our most influential founder, said in 1846:

Education, in its proper import, not only enlightens the understanding, but it also forms the conscience and humanizes the heart.  Neither wars nor prison-ships, neither jails nor work-houses, neither laws nor civil magistrates can secure the person, the family, or the fortune of a good man from the assaults of the malignant and the wicked.  This is the province of education… [The] wealth, the safety, and the eternal happiness of a people depend upon education…is it not the paramount duty of every individual member of the community to advocate, and, as efficiently as possible, to plead the cause of universal education?”[2]

Education is the great equalizer of society.  It alone offers the greatest hope by which a person may improve their lot in life and the welfare of society as a whole.  If those at the bottom rungs of our society, be it because of race, class, ethnic origin, immigrant status or any other external cause, have any chance at a better life, it will come through education.  A fair and equal access to quality education, therefore, is fundamental not just to the welfare of a few, it is essential to the welfare of democracy.

But I want to make the case today that education, by and of itself, is not sufficient to accomplish our ends as people of faith, that the business of empowering lives for a better future is more about wisdom than education.  By wisdom I mean the ability to discern the ultimate truth in any given context.  Ronald E. Osborn, one of my chief mentors at STC while I was there and then for the last seven years of his life in Eugene, writes in his book, The Education of Ministers for the Coming Age, that “an attitude of eagerness to explore the meaning of … humanity or to seek for truth about life and the universe” is an essential character of those who seek a higher education for a vocation in the church.  I would suggest that it is an essential character of all thinking Christians who dare to use their brains in church.

Above the main entrance to the Knight Library on the campus of the University of Oregon are inscribed these words;  “the truth shall make you free.”  It is somewhat ironic in this day and age with all of the debate around the separation of church and state we should find so prominently displayed these words, which are, of course, a quotation from Jesus in the Gospel of John with which I began.

Whereas education is the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom is the pursuit of truth. Sadly, truth has not always been one of the great strengths of the church.  From the heresy of Copernicus for proclaiming the earth was not the center of the cosmos to the Scopes trial over the heresy of evolution, the church has often been on the wrong side of truth as proclaimed by science.  On the issues of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights and homosexuality, the church has most often been the brake light on the end of the caravan of progress rather than the headlight illuminating the way ahead. 

Biblical scholars who have proposed new theories that challenge cherished paradigms have fared no better.  The face of Martin Luther can be seen in many European cathedrals--on the body of the devil.  John Wycliffe was exhumed and burned for publishing an English translation of the Bible.  A Cambridge professor was imprisoned for denying the miracles of Jesus and a Scottish student was hanged for claiming that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, a fact our seminary professors often cited whenever students became a little unruly.

  When Thomas Paine published Age of Reason, questioning the truthfulness of the Bible, his publishers were fined and imprisoned.  When it comes to seeking truth in the arena of faith, Christianity has not been known for its tolerance.  But if we really believe those words of Jesus, that truth will make us free, then we have nothing to fear from the search for truth regardless of where it might lead us. 

The question asked by Pilate is, of course, rhetorical. It is intended to remind the reader of Jesus’ earlier statement in chapter 14, “I am the way and the truth.”  Pilate, the symbol of worldly authority is so preoccupied with the “truth” of the facts in the case before him, he cannot see the greater “Truth” of God standing before him. 

Nearly a century and-a-half ago, a German scholar by the name of David Strauss demonstrated that the Gospel of John was first and foremost a theological exposition on the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The story line and the dialogue contained therein, Strauss demonstrated, is largely the creation of the gospel author.  Other scholars and church leaders of the time sharply criticized him for his attack on the authority of the Bible.  His teaching career and life as a public servant were effectively destroyed for this heresy.  Yet by the beginning of the 20th century, he was totally vindicated by scholarship and today his view on the Gospel of John is considered one of the pillars of modern Biblical scholarship.

What is truth?  John’s account of the trial before Pilate is radically different from the other three accounts.  Is it “true”?  Few scholars today consider it factual.  The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus reads like a modern drama, a finely crafted literary work.  The question on Pilate’s lips is not the kind of question Roman procurators asked local troublemakers; it is the kind of question posed by Greek philosophers and answered by early Christian preachers.  We can be reasonably certain that historical basis of the question resides in the house of John, not the court of Pilate, but does that make it any less “true”?  It is perhaps the greatest question not asked by Pilate, but by everyone else.

The answer given in John’s gospel by Jesus himself, “I am the way, the truth, the life,” has always perplexed me.  It seems contradictory to the Jesus who appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke as very humble and who continually tells his followers, those he heals and even evil spirits to keep his identity a secret. Whereas in John, Jesus continually does the opposite, telling everyone “I am the way,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine,” “I am the good shepherd,”  “I am the light of the world.”  These statements on the lips of Jesus are very reminiscent of the self-identification of God to Moses in the burning bush story, “I am who I am”. 

One of the things I learned through my church-financed education is that these “I am” statements in John’s gospel are not empirical statements of the historical Jesus, rather they are the confessional affirmations of the early church.  In other words, they reflect the experience of the first Christians of the reality of the risen Christ, not what the audiences of Jesus heard before the crucifixion.  As such they reflect a truth which has no means of scientific verification; they are a matter of experience in each believer.  Most importantly, they reflect a rather radical break from the tradition out of which they emerge.  For the followers of Jesus, truth was no longer found in a codified tradition of beliefs, rituals and mores, but in a relationship to God made manifest through Christ.  How is it that John or any other disciple of Christ from that first century came to such a remarkable conclusion, particularly given that, by all traditional understandings and measurements, Jesus died a failure? 

First of all, there is the resurrection experience itself, whatever it was, and evidently it was many different things to different people.  All accounts of encounters with the risen Christ are unique to each experience and thus scholars today have great difficulty describing what the resurrection was, whether it was physical or psychological, experienced by individuals or only within the community, the result of visions or the creation of wishful thinkers.  It is, perhaps, fitting that there would be such ambiguity for how can one provide any rational explanation for something that defies reason and goes beyond what we know about the world?  The resurrection is, as Albert Schweitzer said of Jesus nearly a century ago, “an ineffable mystery.” 

Beyond the resurrection, however, there is another factor which makes even discussion of the resurrection possible, and that was a new way of reading scripture and reality.  I call your attention to three stories in the Gospel of John which reveal this new way of reading.  And by “new” I mean not that this is the new “Christian” way vs. the old “Jewish” way, but rather that this is a new way in every time and tradition that transcends any one particular tradition. 

Those three stories appear in the opening chapters of John quite intentionally, I believe.  They are John’s way of telling us that this story must be read in a wholly different way than we are accustomed to reading. 

First is the cleansing of the temple in John 2.  You may recall that in the other three gospels this story occurs immediately after the event we celebrate this coming Sunday, which is the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.  But John places it at the beginning as a big public announcement, much as John Wayne might enter a saloon or Sylvester Stallone a boxing ring to announce that he is the new force in town with whom one must reckon.  Not surprisingly, the temple leaders don’t take too kindly to this new kid on the block and challenge his authority.  Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  They think he’s gone mad.  It has taken 46 years to build the temple and in fact would take another 38 before it was finished.  No one could possibly raise it back up in three days.

In John 3 Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders, comes to Jesus by night.  In contrast to his colleagues in the Jerusalem Ministerial Association, Nicodemus is impressed with Jesus and wants to engage him in an honest dialogue.  Jesus says to him, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” Some translations read here “born again” which itself has given birth to a whole doctrine developed almost exclusively in the last 40 years.  The Greek term, however, suggests not rebirth but spiritual birth.  Nicodemus shows that he does not get the concept himself, asking, “How can someone be born a second time?” 

Then in the very next chapter we have the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus says that if she drinks of the water he gives, she will never thirst again.  The woman responds, “How can you give me anything to drink, you do not even have a bucket!

In each of these three stories, the dialogue partners of Jesus grossly misunderstand him.  In each case the failure to understand Jesus comes from being too literal. Time and time again, literalism distorts the truth. Literalism, be it in religion, politics, education or science, is the greatest source of ignorance today. 

A woman came into my office some years back to quiz me on Genesis.  “If Adam and Eve were the first human beings,” she asked, “who did their children marry?”  It is a good question if it opens your eyes to non-literal ways of reading that story, otherwise, you will be hopelessly lost in arcane, meaningless problems that have no answers and serve no purpose.  Unfortunately, the latter was the case for this woman and nothing I said satisfied here so finally I just told her that the children of Adam and Eve married the children of Sam and Ethyl.  “Who?” she asked.  “Sam and Ethyl”, I said as I showed her the door, “It’s an obscure footnote found in a few ancient manuscripts.”  “Oh, oh, OK,” she said with a quizzical look as she walked away.  (Some day I’m going to get my own radio show, “The Bible Answer Man”, so I can satisfy other enquiring minds.  What do you think?)

Back to Nicodemus.  Here is this well-educated man, sympathetic to the message of Jesus, but who can’t get past his own literal viewpoint.  Don’t be fooled by how many degrees someone has on their wall, how many titles they have after their name, how many stripes they have on their sleeve. Ignorance does not come from a lack of education, it comes from a lack of an open mind, from the inability to see things from a new perspective, to see reality in different way, to see truth through the eyes of another. 

Nicodemus cannot see this new truth, the leaders of the temple cannot see it, the Samaritan woman at the well cannot see it.  All are blinded by their limited vision which feeds their ignorance.  Taught that faith is a function of religious purity and adherence to a system of religious practice and beliefs, they do not understand this new thing, faith based in a relationship and truth that is defined not by facts, but by an openness to different understandings of the world and God’s place in it.

I’ll share just one possibility of such understanding with a recent story.  Many you may remember Alan Sipporin, the former radio commentator for KLCC.  Several years ago Sipporin came to the City Club of Eugene to speak about a new book he had written, Fire’s Edge.  The story centers around a small group of Neo-Nazis in Oregon and those who oppose their racist, sexist, homophobic ideology.  Sipporin told us that you hear from authors about how their characters take a life of their own and you, as the author, have no control over them.  He thought that was absurd.  As an author, of course, he had control over his characters.  He was, in effect, the God of their world.

And then he came to a point in his story where a main character suffers a tragedy, but he had become so attached to this character that he didn’t want to allow the tragedy to happen but he couldn’t prevent it.  There was no way around it.  When he realized that he could not avoid the tragedy, he went out into his garden and cried.  That is my image of God.  The author, who does every thing possible to help us and who weeps for us and with us when that is not enough.

This has been my experience of the Divine.  It is the truth to which I have been called to witness.  It has enabled me to celebrate and to experience the goodness of God and the world even in the midst of tragedy. Education, which taught me how to read things like the Gospel of John at a deeper level beyond historical fact, combined with an open mind frees us to seek the truth beyond words and empowers us with the wisdom of the Word that comes to us as an ‘ineffable mystery’.  Embrace that truth; it will make you free.


 

[1] Richard Hamm, 2020 Vision, p. 56.

[2] Lester G. McAllister, An Alexander Campbell Reader, p. 94

 


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