The Church Forward: Truth-Tellers
John 17: 6-19
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
February 19, 2017
“What is truth?” That is what Pilate famously asked Jesus. “What is truth?” It is what we ask ourselves even today. Because “truth” seems to have become slippery and it can elude us. Now I don’t mean the current kerfuffle in our political dramas. We hear about the truth a lot there, but I mean something deeper than that. There was a time when we, as a people, were more than happy to believe in a single truth. We believed it. Everyone we knew believed it. For all we knew, the whole world believed it.
Of course, it never was true that everyone believed the same truths but we could convince ourselves that they did. As that era has ended, truth has taken a hit. Now there is not A Truth. Instead there is truth enough to go around. It is common to hear someone say, “You can have your truth. And I will have my truth.” This, of course, is a conversation-ender and makes very clear that I need have nothing to do with you nor you with me.
What is the Church to do? Many of us have sought to defend ourselves, telling any who would listen that we do indeed have the truth. In so doing, I believe we have made a mistake. We should not have done that. For that is not who we are. We are not simply another group vying for position in our claim to have the truth. We do not have the truth. The truth has us.
That is what makes us distinct. For us, the truth is not an abstract. It is not even a set of ideas. It is not facts or feelings or even right or wrong. For us, the truth is a person. The truth is Jesus. Remember, he said so himself when he talked to Thomas. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” So I don’t “have my truth.” The truth has me. The truth has you. Which means that everything we do is rooted in him, in who he was, who he is, and who he is to come.
I have told this story before but it bears repeating. I was serving at a church in Springfield, Illinois, and happened to visit with a neighboring pastor one day. It was getting into the last days of Lent so that pastor and a couple of congregation members had been out in the church’s front yard putting up three crosses. On Easter they would drape the center cross in white but, on that day, they were just three crosses. Some neighborhood kids stopped to watch their progress. “Then,” the pastor said to me, “the most surprising thing happened. The kids walked up to us and asked, ‘What are those sticks?’”
In John 17, Jesus describes the Church as sanctified, as holy. To be sanctified or holy doesn’t mean you are better than anyone else. It means you are set apart. Think about that: Israel was not holy because they were better than any other people. They were holy because God chose them to be set apart. We are holy because God has set us apart for one task and one task only: to tell the world what those sticks are. That is what makes us distinct. That and that only. The way Jesus puts it is that we are “sanctified in the truth.” What does that mean, “sanctified in the truth?” It means we are set apart in Jesus.
Our lives can be so confusing. Even overwhelming. What is the right thing to do or the faithful way to believe? What does God call me to be? Sometimes we just need to know, what is the next right step? Relying on ourselves in these moments is not a good idea.
It is like when my family relies on me to get them anywhere. My internal sense of direction is so off that Phil has come up with the mantra: “When we are lost, ask Tasha which direction we should go, then go the opposite way.” Of course, the most infuriating part about it is that it works…every time! That is what our own judgment can be like too. We are just certain we are doing the right thing or headed the right way but we are all wrong.
And we do not have to rely just on ourselves. For the truth has us and the truth is a person. Think of a compass and of Jesus as true North. We can gauge our direction based on how closely it aligns with him. Can I act like this? Read his words; check the compass. Can I believe that? Read his words; check the compass. In whatever you do, be as near to true North as you can. That is what is trustworthy and true. Because you do not have the truth. You do not have it. The truth has you.
When you seek the truth and it feels overwhelming, there is a second gauge you can go by and it is this:
Jesus has a shape. And that shape is a cross. If we are not living out the answer to the question, “What are those sticks?” then we have lost our way and we have ceased to be distinct. For the shape of Jesus is the cross, which means that the decisions we make are shaped by the cross as well. The Truth has us for as long as we hold to this shape. So we always ask ourselves, is my life telling of Jesus? Are my choices cross-shaped?
In a world of complications, our decisions are not simple. But they are clear: Jesus is the Truth. So everything we are goes through him. This does not make us boastful. It makes us humble. For we do not have anything apart from him.
By the way, this is how we can disagree on issues but remain in the Truth. This is how we do that in the Church. We are able to do it because we are all seeking what is most faithful and one may be an eye and the other may be the elbow. An eye and an elbow, they may never agree. But they both find their life in the same body.
This is what we can offer the world: we offer lives that look difference because they have been taken over by the Truth. Being set apart is not easy. Jesus describes that it can even bring the world’s hatred. But we do not do it alone. Remember that this part of John does not show Jesus teaching. It does not show Jesus preaching. It shows Jesus praying. And he is praying for us.
That is what he does on the eve of his death. He prays for us, for the Church. He prays that God will watch over us and keep us from the Evil One. He prays that we will be one. He prays that we will not forsake the world but also that we will not find our home here either. He prays that we will have joy. Imagine that: Jesus, the Savior of the world and God’s Son, praying for us.
We have made a mistake when we have added our voices to the din of shouts, all claiming to have the truth. For that is not what makes us distinct. If we want the Church to be what it has been set apart to be, then we will not add to the shouting. We will, instead, live in gratitude and humility and joy. We will go into this world as one sent with a task. We will be one and we will serve in the world but not beholden ourselves to it. In short, we will live in such a manner that all may know we do not hold the truth. But the truth absolutely holds us. Amen.