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World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
To What End? Being Church in These Days:
“The Preservation of the Truth”
Part of a sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Today marks the fourth Sunday in our series “To What End? Being Church in These Days,” a series based on the six Great Ends of the Church, denominational statements of purpose that illustrate our larger mission. And this week—a week that began with a train wreck of a presidential debate in which the ability to fact-check for truth was nil (though everything got lost in the screaming anyway) and a week that has ended with the President receiving a diagnosis of COVID-19, a diagnosis that immediately set off all kinds of public disagreements and theories as to whether or not we the people could trust that is true—this same week we focus on the fourth Great End, which is the preservation of the truth. We believe that one of our collective reasons for being is to preserve the Truth, with a capital T.
Truth. Sometimes it feels like the word truth has become a rather paltry noun that has lost just about all its power and meaning in our time of alternative facts and competing realities. Whose truth, we ask, and, more importantly, for whose benefit? My truth, your truth, truth according to whom? While each one of the Great Ends needs to be translated and reimagined for our day and time, this fourth one might just be the hardest one to deal with in our post-modern, post-Christendom, conspiracy-theory-laden culture.
The preservation of the truth with a capital T—is there really even such a thing anymore? I would argue that yes, there is such a thing as capital T truth, but I also know that it matters whom you ask and whether or not they think you are on “their side,” meaning that you trust the same media outlets and subscribe to the same worldview. If you fit all of their criteria, then perhaps they will consider that you can speak some truth. Perhaps.
The other perspective to keep in mind, however, as we ponder what it means to preserve the truth is the sociological research that demonstrates that the Christian church’s claim that we have the truth to preserve in the first place is one major factor that leads some young adults, and Boomers too, to leave their church behind, for they usually experience our claim of having the Truth as an explicit exclusion of others whom we judge do not have or do not even know the truth (Douglas John Hall, Why Christian). And those young adults and Boomers cannot reconcile the church’s exclusive claim on the truth with their own experience of making a home in an increasingly diverse world. Yet here we are today, talking about the church’s role in preserving the truth, keeping the truth fresh, as the battles of whether or not truth even exists—and what exactly it means that we have it—continue to be waged amongst us.
Jesus himself does not speak much about truth expect in the Gospel of John. In the eighth chapter of John, Jesus tells a group of followers, “If you make your home in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And, of course, we hear about truth in the very familiar words of John 14, as Jesus told his disciples good-bye. In that moment, John writes that Jesus promised the day would come when he would receive them unto himself and sums up his promise with “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
We hear the word truth again in today’s passage: a passage about the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as Jesus is taken to trial before the crucifixion. Pilate: “So, then, you are a king?” Jesus: “You are the one saying I am a king. The whole reason I was born and the whole reason I came into the world is to bear witness to the truth. Every single individual who is rooted in the truth is listening to my voice.” Pilate: “What is truth?”
Honestly, as soon as we hear that question expressed, time collapses in between that ancient year and our own, for Pilate’s voice sounds eerily similar to our post-modern, conspiracy-theory-laden culture’s voice, perhaps similar even to our voice. What is Truth, with a capital T? Is there really even such a thing anymore? The late Reverend K. C. Ptomey once preached that in response to Pilate, Jesus just stood there, silently. He did not answer. K. C. claimed that, in a sense, we in our day and age are still standing in that silence with Jesus, waiting for Jesus’ answer. We want Jesus to tell us what the truth is. We want a definitive answer, a formula of some kind, something we can do or explain, something that goes far beyond a soundbite or a political attack ad.
And yet we don’t get one, at least not the way we might expect. Rather, in Jesus’ silence, we are sent back to reflect on John 14 when Jesus claims “I am . . . truth.” Reformed theologian Douglas John Hall writes that when we come back to this passage, we might need to become even more literalist than biblical literalists in order to listen to what John’s Jesus actually says: “I am way, I am truth, and I am life.”
As I have preached with you before, Hall writes that we must notice that Jesus does not say that this or that doctrine about him, or image of him, or creed concerning him, or hymn to him is the way [and the truth and the life]; he only says that he himself (“I am”) is the way. At the very least, Hall claims, faith must admit that the “I” of Jesus cannot be captured by doctrines and dogmas and formulas and images and creeds. Furthermore, Jesus does not say that evangelical or conservative Christianity is the truth. Did you catch that? He also does not say that liberal or progressive Christianity is the truth either. Frankly, Jesus does not say that Christianity in general, of any flavor, is the truth. Jesus simply says “I am truth.” Truth, I believe, that has a capital T.
So with Jesus’ self-affirmation ringing in our ears, a ringing that brings us back to the woman at the well from last week—when Jesus also responded to her question about the Messiah with an “I am” statement, as well—we turn once again to this fourth Great End. One thing we are to be about as church, we proclaim, is the preservation of the truth. And Jesus’ I AM statements in this Gospel show us that the truth we are called to preserve is not some abstract proposition or even some orthodox creedal formulation. Rather, the truth we are called to preserve is a person—Jesus of Nazareth.
The truth we are called as church to preserve, to keep fresh, is nothing less than the truth of Jesus Christ—our truth that claims that the God of the cosmos, the Word, came down to us, creatures, as a fellow creature, born in a cold and smelly manger, during a cruel time, into an insignificant town, located in a mighty empire that would set out to destroy him (Norris, quoted Bob Dunham). The truth that we, as church, are called to keep fresh is this affirmation that the great I AM—proclaimed first to Moses and also revealed to the woman at the well—this I AM would choose to empty God’s self of power and grandeur in order to pitch a tent among us in Jesus of Nazareth, a person born into time and history just like we all are and a person who ends up being executed by the state for subversive activity.
While that is not exactly a winning strategy by our standards (Douglas John Hall, Why Christian, p. 23), no conspiracy theorist would ever promote that we believe this Jesus, crucified and risen, is the truth of how God has chosen to work out God’s salvation, God’s making whole, of this world.
Furthermore, the Living Word, the God of the cosmos, the God of all powers and principalities, of all creatures great and small, of east and west and north and south, of all the galaxies known and unknown—this God chose to reveal God’s self to us in this way because, as Dorothy Sayers once wrote, God was not content to call creation good from a distance (quoted in Hall, Why Christian, p. 62). Or, to use another passage from John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son.” God became flesh and blood in Jesus, in order to put us in touch with the truth of who God is in a unique and decisive way (Hall, Why Christian, p. 23).
And the truth that motivated God’s Truth in flesh is that it was all done for the sake of love. It was all done out of a desire for relationship with us. It was all done out of a holy longing to show us how God feels about the world, how God’s heart yearns for this world—for you, for me, for all the people who will gather around this Communion Table today by gathering around their own tables at home as well as for all the people who know nothing about the Communion Table just yet. That Who and Why, not What, is the truth we are called to preserve, to keep fresh. We, as church, get to be stewards of this mystery of God’s chosen way to be God with us and for us. Jesus our brother and Savior is Truth.
Every once in a while, when I am in a conversation with another preacher, especially one who knows of this congregation, the person will ask me a version of this question: Imagine it is twenty or so years down the road and you’ve wrapped up your ministry at Fourth Church. What issues, the person will ask me, do you hope Fourth Church will be known for? What issues will be the defining issues for your joint ministry together?
Now, depending on the day, I might answer that question in a variety of ways. For example, I might say today that one of the issues I hope will be defining for our ministry together is the hard work we have begun to do around racial equity and becoming antiracist. Or I could say how we are doing everything in our power to still reach out to our most vulnerable neighbors even in the middle of a global pandemic, because we believe what Jesus said in Matthew 25—that when we care for those whose voices are usually unheard, we are caring for Jesus himself.
And yet if I step back even further, to be completely candid with you, my primary gut-level response to that question actually never changes. I hope that the issue that defines our years of ministry together is nothing less than the issue of amazing grace. Another way to put it would be that I pray that the issue running continuously throughout our ministry together is the truth of God’s love not just for us but for all of creation, a truth we see fully revealed for us in Jesus Christ, and the myriad of ways that truth impacts how we live our lives, what choices we make, how we use our energy and on behalf of whom, what we do with our money and our time, how we act with one another and speak to and about each other.
If we are to be known for anything, then I hope it might be that we are among those who proclaim and live the truth of God’s expansive grace, God’s open-armed embrace of all people, God’s yes and welcome. A grace, a truth, that saves us and redeems us and sets us free each and every day. That issue is what I pray will always be our primary “issue” in our ministry together, for I believe that is the truth of God that the church is called to preserve, to keep fresh, to pass on. And I also believe it is the primary issue our world is desperate to hear amongst days of alternative facts and different realities and polarization and divisiveness. The truth of God’s expansive grace, God’s Yes and Welcome we see most clearly in Jesus, is our Truth.
Whenever the late William Sloane Coffin would baptize a baby at Riverside Church in New York, he would take that baby in his arms and say, “Little child, for you Jesus Christ came, he struggled, he suffered; for you he endured the darkness of Gethsemane, the anguish of Calvary; for you he triumphed over death, and you, little child, know nothing of all this. But thus is confirmed the word of the Apostle: ‘We love God because God first loved us.’”
That is the Truth, with a capital T, that we, as part of Christ’s body called Presbyterian Christians, are invited, called, given, to preserve, to keep fresh, so that that child, so that all children, will have the chance to encounter it, to encounter him, the Living Word, in all times and in all places, from generation to generation until God decides it is done. The Truth for us is not a what, but a Who, and that Who will never let us go or give up on us. Thanks be to God. Amen.