Truth: Casualty or Hope?

051720 Easter 3Service of Morning Prayer

Posted by St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Echo Park on Sunday, May 17, 2020

051720 Easter 6 

Acts 17; I Peter 3; John 14:15-21


I wanted us to hear the first part of the Gospel reading through music, because it is a message for the heart, and music is heart language. Jesus connects love and truth in this passage. This has been a difficult week for truth. People have come to distrust truth, as different truths get pitted against each other, sometimes coming out of the same mouth: 

  • How many have actually died from COVID-19? 
  • How many tests are really available? 
  • What is the true impact of COVID-19 on schools, housing, immigration and health care? 
  • Do science and politics subscribe to different standards of truth? 

So many different opinions are expressed about all of those questions, each of them spoken as truth. Once that happens, it’s easy to play fast and loose with the truth, and thereby lead people astray in the direction one wills. 

This morning’s Gospel has Jesus promising to give his followers the “Spirit of Truth.” That sounds relevant to our topic, doesn’t it? But we mustn’t be confused about how this applies to our situation: truth is not a religious issue; it’s a human one. When Jesus said that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth, he did not mean that only Christians welcome the truth. There were no Christians when he said that. “The World” in John’s Gospel refers to human systems that oppose the truth about creation – the true world. Many people outside of religious orthodoxies care about and for the truth. And many inside religious orthodoxies play fast and loose with the truth. So, the Spirit of Truth is available to all, but not chosen by all.

So, how do we access this truth? And what does truth lead us to do? The opening words of today’s Gospel are, if you love me, keep my commandments. Jesus’ commandments were to love God and love our neighbor. So we could translate those words If you love me, love. For Jesus the commandments are about love. This passage is part of what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse during the last supper, when he tried to prepare the disciples for his departure. Jesus words have been described as “spiral thought”. A spiral is full of twists and turns. Jesus’ teaching is like that: it makes many twists and turns rather than going in a straight line. Another way to say it is that to understand Jesus’ teaching requires engaging in both/and thinking. The church has not been very good at that in its history. This is confusing for those who insist on linear thinking. The opening words speak of obedience: If you love me, keep my commandments. But as Jesus proceeds, we hear his promise to send the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who will bring a different kind of knowing. This Spirit was to dwell inside the people of God as individuals and as communities. This is not a new idea with Jesus. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had already promised the people, I will put my law within them, and will write it on their hearts.

In John’s Gospel, Pentecost is the second coming of Christ. In that sense, Christ has already “come again.” For John, the coming of the Spirit to dwell inside all of us fulfills the promise of Jesus that I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. We don’t have to wait for more. The church’s teachings that heaven is up above, that salvation comes after death and that the second coming of Christ is the future judgment of the world. All these have distracted Christians from another set of truths: that heaven is available here, that salvation comes now, and that Christ has already returned as promised. The good thing is that these truths don’t eliminate each other. Maybe the truth is that heaven is both above and here, that salvation comes after death and now, and that Christ’s return is already and not yet. 

The benefit of heaven here, salvation now, and Christ’s promise fulfilled has been best known in the mystic tradition, which is a thin thread in the history of the church. Mystics know heaven here and salvation now through a direct encounter with Christ, who dwells within us; or in the words of John’s Jesus, knowing that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. That spiritual union with Christ, nurtured through spiritual practice, is the fulfillment of Christ’s promised return. It is experienced through the Spirit made available to all at Pentecost.

This brings us back to the opening line: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. The Christian life is neither an external observance of Christ’s commandments nor a personal relationship that dissolves into mere emotion. Rather it is the intense relationship of a human community to the divine community of the Trinity in a mutual love that includes obedience to Christ’s commandments. As Richard Rohr reminds us, the realization that Someone is living in us and through us is how we plug into a larger mind and heart beyond our own. Afterward, we know in a different way, although we have to keep relearning this truth over and over again.

Discerning the truth in this time of opposing views of truth requires turning inward rather than outward. Most of us don’t have as much practice learning things on the inside as we do on the outside. The law written on our hearts is not as easy for us to decipher as external laws. But that’s the one that sets us and our neighbors free because it comes from one who will love us and reveal himself to us; and from one who advocates for us. Satan, the accuser, is the voice that opposes the advocate. That should give us a clue about what truth looks like.

So, we need practice learning from the Spirit of Truth. We must raise the volume on the inner voice and lower the volume on the external ones. For most of us that probably means spending less time listening to the external voices. Like most of you, I love watching the latest battle play out between different versions of truth – right and left, Republican and Democrat, politics and science. But I have to quiet those external voices to hear the Spirit of Truth. It’s not that the external voices are louder; it’s just that I’ve listened to them more. When I lower their volume, I can attune my ears to the voice that isn’t necessarily quieter, but that I’m less accustomed to hearing. 

Knowing the truth isn’t an intellectual exercise. It is a matter of loving the one who loves us. The world needs more people who know truth like that. Will you be one?