This sermon was preached on May 26, 2013 at the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland. My primary text was John 16:12-15.
We are going to talk for just a bit today about truth.
Congregational Discussion Question: First, what are some things that you know to be true…that you can say, without a shadow of doubt, are statements of “truth”? And how do you know those things to be true?
Truth. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “truth” as “That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.” In accordance with fact or reality. So, how did our statements of truth match up to that? Were they all in accordance with fact or reality? In evaluating all of that, I suppose we could ask the question “whose reality?”
A better definition of truth comes from Diana Butler Bass, in her book “Christianity for the Rest of Us”:
“Truth is not some absolute and unchanging philosophical, moral, or political position. Rather, truth is a ‘living reality’ that everything exists in communion with God.”
I think truth is not necessarily an easy topic to talk about in congregational settings. We would all like to claim that we’re “truthful” people…that we are speaking the truth. And this conversation has the potential to get even more dicey when we start talking about “absolute truths.” Are there absolute truths in our world today? If so, what are they? And how do we know they are absolute…
Well, our Gospel passage for today says a bit to us about truth. And I think it offers a good word for us to think about.
The setting for this passage in John is the night that Jesus would be betrayed. He has just finished the Last Supper with his disciples, has just tied the linen towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet.
A few verses earlier Jesus mentioned a little about the one who will be sent to be with the disciples and his followers after he has gone. He calls this presence the Companion. The Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit is the one whom God has sent to accompany us on our journeys.
And then he begins to share with them a few things that are important to know before be leaves them and begins his own journey toward the cross.
You probably had never made the parallel between Jack Nicholson and Jesus, but Jesus essentially says the same thing that Jack Nicholson’s character did in the movie “A Few Good Men” – YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH, though he probably wasn’t as mean about it. But that’s what he says – there is SO MUCH MORE than he could tell them, so much more truth he could teach them and share with them…but they can’t handle it right now.
Jesus continues, and in the next verse, we hear about one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit – the Companion: “he will guide you into all truth.”
The Spirit will guide us into all truth.
Congregational Discussion Question: How many of you have been on a quest for truth before? What were some of those quests? What were you looking for?
I think as a seminary student, there were many truths I was looking for. And I certainly know that many of my peers were on quests for truth of their own. This past week, I was reminded of a good friend in seminary that I’ll call Lisa.
Lisa came from the south, her father was the pastor of a very prominent tall-steeple Presbyterian church and she started seminary the same year I did.
We quickly became friends and had many classes together, as is common for first year students. However, it didn’t take long for many of us to realize that Lisa wasn’t quite in seminary for the same reasons we were. Many of us imagined ourselves as pastors, youth pastors or going on for our PhDs.
Lisa, however, was on a quest for truth.
That first year of seminary was very much an exploration year for Lisa, as she wasn’t really sure that she bought the whole “Christian thing.” And many people became uncomfortable in classes because of her really great, insightful, and sometimes unsettling questions.
Sometimes when we are on quests for truth, other people don’t fully understand what we’re up to. Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this – you’re really desiring to deepen your understanding of the truth of a certain issue, you find your worldview beginning to shift and change, and friends and family around you can’t understand why you’d change your view on that issue. “How could you question ‘the truth’?” they might ask you.
Sometimes we might not feel like we have the support from our friends and family and people close to us on our truth quests, but we can be comforted that as we are on our faith journeys, our quests for truth, the good news is that we don’t do them alone. For it is the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit that goes with us, guiding us into fuller & deeper truth.
Jesus goes on, in our passage, and says that the Spirit will not speak on his own…now, some could interpret this as meaning that the Spirit won’t actually share “original” or new content with us (although that is disputed by many), but that the Spirit will be the way that Jesus will continue to share truth and teachings and guidance with the disciples, and with us, once he has gone and left the Spirit as our Companion. So I think part of this means that the Spirit is our guide as we continue to read scripture, and engage in the process of ongoing interpretation of scripture and of Jesus’ life, ministry death and resurrection.
But I think a key phrase in that verse is the last part: “he will declare to you the things that are yet to come.”
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are yet to come.”
I think John is encouraging this community, and all who would come after them, to foster a sense of openness to fresh encounters of the revelation of Jesus and to the Spirit. To remain open to the new ways that the Spirit might move the church and her people to engage with scripture, to speak about God, and to understand her place in the world.
Now I realize that this piece of the conversation today can take us to places that we don’t all agree on, and I want to be the first to say, “That’s okay.” I don’t think any of us, myself included, want to attend a church where everyone thinks exactly the same on every single issue. So it’s okay if we don’t agree about these things – I think that’s just a natural piece of the body of Christ when people get together.
But I think we could all agree that just in the past 50-60 years, the church and people of faith have been listening for the Spirit declaring to us the things that are yet to come.
While I attended seminary, as part of an internship one year, I attended Nassau Presbyterian Church, which sits on the campus Princeton University. The church traces its roots back to the founding of First Presbyterian Church of Princeton in 1766. Many years later, while the church was undergoing construction in 1836, the church met for worship in the Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel…well, all of the white members at least. 90 African-American members, for reasons that would be different depending on who you asked, worshipped separately and eventually started their own congregation.
The Presbyterian church and Christianity’s history with racism is not pretty…and while there are still certainly serious issues with racism in our country today, all of us would at least be able to say that we believe people of all racial backgrounds and ethnicities should be able to worship together because we are all created in God’s image.
The way the church has treated women is another example, and unfortunately, we don’t have a good track record. But, good people of faith, in continuing to reflect on scripture and being open to the Spirit declaring to them the things that were yet to come…finally agreed in 1956 that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should officially support the ordination of women as ministers. Prior to that however, prior to that “new revelation” or openness to the Spirit, many good people of faith continued to hold a traditionalist view that women should have no place teaching men, and that they certainly shouldn’t be ordained to the ministry of the church.
To bring up a more current issue, and one that I’m sure there are multiple perspectives about in our congregation, the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians to the ministry of Teaching Elder in our denomination has been one of the most contentious issues in our recent history. Our church is a member of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization that has been working to allow the full inclusion of LGBT people into the life and ministry of our national church for the past 14 years.
Close to two years ago, on July 10 2011, our denomination officially began ordaining LGBT to serve as Teaching Elders.
I have close friends who are on all sides of this issue, and many who were a part of the denominational discussions that led to this decision. If you talk with any of them, including those who changed their minds on this issue, they would share with you how much time was spent in studying the scriptures, in prayer, in hearing and listening to one another…but more than anything else, they would share how their group was open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, they were listening for the guidance of the Spirit; they were listening for the Companion, who declared to them the things that were yet to come.
These are just a few examples of how in our recent past, members of our denomination, and the church as a whole, have let the Holy Spirit guide them into truth…and have listened for the Holy Spirit to declare to them the things that are yet to come.
We are all on our own faith journeys…we are all on our own quests for the truth. 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us that “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely.”
None of us have a full grasp on the truth. I certainly don’t. And I know that I never will in my lifetime. We all know partially now…
And so we have to be constantly relying on the Spirit of Truth, the one who Jesus left to be our companion, to be the one who guides us, who informs our understandings of truth, and who will declare to us the things that are yet to come.
This happens for each of us, individually, on our journeys of faith. But we can also hear this message for our community of faith, to this congregation of the Body of Christ.
The First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, from its inception in August of 1875, has been on a journey, has been on a quest for truth. Over the years, the faithful members of this congregation have listened to the Spirit of Truth, have prayed to and sought the guidance of the Spirit.
And so today – as those who are committed to the future of this congregation – we are now the ones who need to be listening to the Spirit. Listening for the Spirit to declare to us the things that are yet to come for this congregation. The ways in which this congregation will become open to the new movements of the Spirit, to the new ways we might be able to reach out to this community and help bring God’s peace to our community.
In a little while we will be singing a new hymn entitled More Fire, More Breath, More Light (a new piece, commissioned for More Light Sunday 2013). As we seek to follow the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit into all truth, let the second verse of that hymn be our prayer as we continue along that journey:
More breath! Blow, Holy Spirit, enliven our dreams,
that the future may vibrate with hope.
Heal the wounds we hide. With your strength inside,
you will be our guide. More breath!
[Copyright 2013, David Marks, firstname.lastname@example.org]