Tag Archives: Truth

What is truth? Christ the King Sunday


Rags to riches
We love a rags-to-riches story.  And in South Africa there are many people who have overcome huge challenges to reach heights, which they and their communities never dreamed possible.

There are two ways to approach a rags-to-riches story.  There are those of us who have known only the “riches” part of this person’s story, and we are amazed when we discover the humble beginnings from which he or she emerged.  There is hope here, because perhaps even we can aspire to greatness.

Then there are those of us who knew the “rags” part, when this person was in the neighbourhood.  We can’t believe that this is the youngster we knew.  For some, this role model from our hometown gives hope.  But for others there is cynicism, disbelief in the reality of the dream: “He isn’t all that great.”  “She isn’t that important.”  Jesus himself experienced that response in Nazareth, his home town.  We read in Mark 6:3, “In the next breath they were cutting him down: ‘He’s just a carpenter–Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers…and his sisters. Who does he think he is?’”

In spite of that, we love these stories, because someone who makes it from the bottom of the pile suggests to us that maybe we can also move up the ladder a rung or two.  The so-called great American dream.

Christ the King Sunday
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar.  Next week the new Christian year starts with Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. On this Sunday before Advent starts we celebrate the reign of Christ.

It might seem strange that we celebrate the glory and majesty of King Jesus, and recognise his reign, just at the time that we prepare to remember his humble beginnings, the outrageous circumstances of his birth.

Is this another rags-to-riches story?  We begin the liturgical year with a poor family, and a helpless baby in a manager.  We end the year celebrating the reign of that baby as King.

But this story doesn’t have the usual happy ending.  The rags are there alright.  But there are no riches to be seen, and the end is no better than the beginning: rejection, suffering and a shameful death.

The Reign of Christ
Yet, still, we celebrate Jesus today, not as the babe from Bethlehem, or the boy from Nazareth, or even the man on the cross. Because that’s not where the story ends.  We celebrate him as the risen Christ, Christ the King.

Of course, Jesus is not a traditional ruler whose massive and private compound is not open to public scrutiny.  Christ is King, but we won’t know what his rule is like by trying to compare it with anything we have experienced or that history can show us, not even the reign of the great King David.  In fact, just as the fatherhood of God is unlike anything we see in human fathers, the reign of Jesus is unlike any rule we have ever seen.

We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that is radically different; we are called to a way of life that contradicts everything we experience in the world, literally contradicts, and turns our world upside down—or, some would say, the right way up.

Rags-to-riches may be something to aspire to, something we might achieve one day, with a bit of work and a bit of help.  But the reign of Christ the King, is a way of life for us now, whether we are in rags or surrounded by riches. 

Christ’s Kingdom, is not a Disney World that we visit when we feel like it, or when we can afford it.  It’s the real world we live in.  He is not my King, or your King or this group’s King.  Christ is King of all, whether people acknowledge him or not.  There are no foreigners; there are no “us” and “them”.  It’s all “us”.  He is our King, and his reign contains only two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:30)

Legislation
Part of my job involves making sense of the labour legislation we have in this country.  And while it’s difficult to run a business within the restrictions of labour law, tax and company law, municipal bylaws and the like, it is at least reasonably clear.  We know we are not allowed to fire someone, just because we feel like it, or stop paying taxes.  We know which side of the road we have to drive on, and that we can’t park on the pavement (where would the taxis park?).

While it’s difficult to remember everything, we can always find a friendly lawyer to help us understand the relevant pieces of legislation.

Under the reign of Jesus, the law is much simpler, but obeying it, living it out, is much more difficult.  Labour legislation only applies to those who employ people; building regulations to those who are building.  “Love God” and “love your neighbour” apply to all of us, all the time, in every circumstance.

An intruder
I received a rather alarming email last week.  An intruder found his way onto this blog.  I always welcome comments here from those who visit and read my ramblings.  But this intruder managed to find my email address.  He sent me a ten page, 7000 word email, ranting about how bad the world is, and how bad all the Christian churches and ministers he had been in touch with are (apostate is what he called them).  He asked me what I believe about some issues of faith.  He didn’t want to check his own understanding or his own faith, of course; he wanted to check if I was a true Christian or whether he should add me to the list of all the other “apostates”.

“I’m interested in your specific beliefs about Biblical truth”, he wrote. “Your response will help me discern your relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

That’s quite an arrogant statement from a complete stranger.  And it raises Pilate’s question all over again, “What is truth?”  But instead of asking the question humbly (or perhaps fearfully, in Pilate’s case), the question becomes, “What do you think truth is.  I’ve got the answer neatly package over here and I want to check your answers against the right ones.”

But the Biblical truth he is asking about isn’t whether I love God with all my heart, or am I striving to love my neighbour in all circumstances?  Nothing like that.  It’s:

  • Was Mary a perpetual virgin?
  • Does the millennium come before the rapture or after?
  • Does the rapture happen before the seven years of tribulation (Pre-trib rapture, if you want the buzzword); or does it happen in the middle of the tribulation (Mid-trib rapture)?

Legalism
This is just the sort of legalistic nonsense Jesus warned us about.  Yet on this basis, my intruder is able to state quite categorically:

“I discerned that all the “religious establishment” churches (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox/Baptist/Pentecostal/ etc.) are apostate, deeply ignorant, and involved in all kinds of false teachings and activities.”

Unfortunately this intruder is by no means unique. It’s all over the internet, as if these things were what Christian faith is all about; as if what you and I think about these things are key to understanding our relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Admittedly we Methodists don’t go in for these particular issues much; that’s why most of us are quite ignorant about pre-tribs and mid-tribs and so on.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own set of avoidance tactics—questions we focus on to avoid the call to love. 

We’re more familiar with the really important stuff like:

  • Was Jonah real or is it a parable?  Was there a real whale?
  • Was the world made in seven days or was Genesis 1 a poem?
  • Should we have women bishops?  Oh, no, that’s the Church of England.
  • Do Christians use make up, drink alcohol, dance, go to movies?

The list is endless, and the arguments intense, depending on the circle you belong to.

Truth or distraction?
When we ask these questions, when this guy who wrote to me asked his questions, are we really searching for truth?  Or are we simply looking for a distraction from our real duties, the critical things that Jesus called his disciples to focus on.

We are not going to understand each other’s relationship with God by means of rules, regulations and exam-type questions.  Tick these answers and we’ll see whether you belong.  All we are doing is avoiding having to face up to our neighbours and carry their burdens.

Jesus has told us very clearly how we will recognise a disciple.  And it has nothing to do with belief, but everything to do with practice.  Even the world around us, Jesus said, would be able to recognise our relationship with him, by our love for one another.

Love
“Love one another,” Jesus said in John 13:34-35.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  Not by our belief in this, or our understanding of that, but by our love for one another.

Of course, the law is much easier. If I can tick all the boxes and pass this arbitrary belief exam, I’m A for away; and if you can’t I can ignore you, because you’re into false teaching.

Love is a much more severe test.  For example, let’s try these questions on for size.

  • What does love look like in my relationship with my spouse?
  • What would grace offer my rebellious child?
  • How does love respond to angry suffering?
  • How do we engage with the communities around our churches, that are struggling with debt and violence and teenage pregnancy?
  • How does grace engage with the young woman for whom abortion seems the only way?
  • Does love only engage with a gay person if he or she leaves his or her gayness outside the door?

I’m sorry.  I don’t have answers to these questions. I only know that I don’t grapple with them enough.  I also know that they are far, far more important than believing in a pre-Trib Rapture, or in Jonah’s whale.

Jonah
The story of Jonah is important for us because, as I see it, we are fleeing from the call of Jesus in the same way that Jonah fled from God’s call to go to Nineveh.  We want to avoid this business of love, this call to carry each other’s burdens, and the burdens of the weak, the poor and the downtrodden. Perhaps, when we pray for the church, we should be praying, “Lord, please send us a whale.”

The coming of Jesus as a baby may give us a warm, fuzzy feeling.  A baby we can understand, look after and mould into shape.  But our celebration of Christ the King on this day, reminds us that the gift of this baby comes with a warning on the wrapper.  As Peter Storey said at the Carol Service held at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary on Friday night, “The babe of Bethlehem is dangerous.  He has come to turn our world upside down.”

If we let the Christ-child into our lives, we will not mould him or shape him.  He will mould us and, indeed, turn our lives upside down as he invites us into his kingdom, to live under his reign, with rules that are radically different from ours.

Truth
“What is Truth?” Pilate asked.  If he’d stuck around with Jesus instead of rushing out to the crowd, he might have discovered where truth is to be found.  Truth is not the answer to a list of questions, not even to important questions. Truth is a person. We will only know truth as we draw close to and engage with that person, Jesus, who is Christ the King.

I came across the following re-posted comment on John van der Laar’s Sacredise webpage this last week:

“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.” (Wilbur Rees)

Is that what we would prefer, our God in a bag, ready to bring out when we need him, and when it’s safe?  

Are we ready for the Babe of Bethlehem to become Christ the King?  A King who is not concerned with answers, so much as lifestyle; who doesn’t want us to understand our neighbours, but to love them; who doesn’t call us to analyse their burdens but to carry them.  He calls us out of the womb, into new birth: a transformed life for a transformed world.

A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 25 November 2012.  Scripture readings:    Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38

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Truth and Lies


Truth

Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

“…the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.  We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations.  We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
J F Kennedy, Yale Commencement 1962

I came across this popular Kennedy quote recently in Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr’s A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House.  Kennedy wasn’t talking about the myths of religion, but of business and politics.  However, one of the great challenges to Christian faith is the multitude of myths and half-truths to which we hold on so firmly. We are not always sure what is myth and what is truth, but we defend all with passion.  Often it is the myth, call it our interpretation of a truth, to which we hold on most firmly, and we too easily let the solid truths slip by.  (Myth, of course, means far more than simply something that is untrue, but, like Kennedy I am using “myth” in its simplistic and negative sense.)

“Love one another.” Unequivocally the clearest most certain command of Jesus to his followers, you and me included, yet one that is most often ignored in favour of less important, or less certain truths.

It was not their evangelism that Jesus told his disciples would convince the world, or their theological understanding, or even their worship.  Jesus said, “By your love for one another, the world will know….”  Yet we defend our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, our forms of worship, our methods of evangelism, even when such defence destroys friendship, and denies the love demanded of us all.

We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to counter those who are different from us, whether within the Christian faith, or outside of it, and spend precious little energy or effort on exploring ways to show love.  I’m not much good at love, I admit.  Love carries great risk.  Love doesn’t ask whether I will be loved in return.  Love is not concerned about being rejected, only with the opportunity to give, and to give extravagantly.  I find myself too quickly asking about the consequences: What if?  And love is stifled.  But, knowing that, recognising my weakness in the most important of commands, I would rather be less noisy about the faults of others.

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2 John: Truth and Love


John the Evangelist, Russian icon from first q...
Image via Wikipedia

In our Bible reading this morning we were directed to the second letter of John.  It’s one of those books we know about and have probably read once or twice, but to which we don’t pay much attention.  Much of what it says can be found in John’s first letter and in the upper-room teaching in John’s gospel.

There are those who say we must be harsh on sin and intolerant of those who fail to obey God.  “You can’t just preach good news,” they tell me.  “You have to tell people how they must live, point out their sin, and warn them against hell.”

I see things differently, and will comment again in my next post.  But for now, Second John.  John writes to the church (“Dear Lady”), “Let us all love one another.  This is no new command I am writing to you; it is the command we have had from the beginning.  This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands.” (vv 5-6)

“Ah, you see,” say those who think the gospel is too soft.  “John says that loving God means obeying him.  So we must teach people to obey God, and condemn those who fail to obey God.”

The problem is that what obeying God means is not clearly defined.  It usually means doing what I and my group, or my Christian culture has decided God wants us to do.  The reality is that on almost every major (and minor) issue of the day, including gay rights, abortion, and the financial crisis (even the riots in London) Christians, even evangelical Christians, will be found on opposing sides.  Each will claim to be obeying God while believing, preaching, and practicing, very different things. 

But let’s get back to John.  Having said, “This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands”, he defines that command: “The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.”  That is it.  This is the greatest command; this is what we should be focused on.  What distinguishes us as Christians and the body of Christ from other religions, and from political, non-profit, and self-help organisations, is that we love each other.  If we don’t stand out on this one, we have failed our mission.

The rest of John’s letter speaks harshly against those who teach something different.  He tells us to close our doors to those who do not bring this teaching (who do not teach love) and not even greet them with a “peace be with you”.

I honestly don’t know the answer to the gay debate; I don’t know what Christians should do about abortion or the financial crisis; but I do know that we have to start with love.  I have to learn to love you, whatever I might think of your practices or lifestyle; however abhorrent they may be to my understanding of God’s way.  I have to learn to love you and to put that love into practice.  I have to do that before I engage in debate; before I assume that I can tell you how to live.

Having brought 2 John to our attention, and having told us that “Love is the most important thing,” the writer of the study notes Jen and I read, falls into the usual trap.  He writes, “Love is the most important thing….  But here John stresses that love must not come at the expense of truth.  Travelling teachers were coming and going…preaching a message that departed from the apostle’s sound teaching”, and against such teachers “John warns them to keep the door bolted.”

But the “truth” John wants protected and preached is not something separate from love; it is love.  John’s message is that this is the command that must be preached, and if anyone fails to preach that love is the most important thing, he or she should be locked out. 

The writer goes on to ask, “Are there times when we seek to excuse or overlook people’s sin because we don’t want to appear harsh or indifferent?”  Again, that is not what John is telling us.  There may be other passages to quote in support of such an approach, but not 2 John.  John doesn’t tell us to keep the door bolted against sinners, or even against their sin.  (Particularly not when it is merely what we have come to define as sin.)  It is false teaching that John is concerned about here, not other sin.  John says love is the first and most important command, and until we have learnt what that means, we really have nothing else to teach.

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The Search for Truth Ends Here?


The Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media tribunal are blights on South Africa’s democratic horizon. The power to declare anything, from the slightly embarrassing to the most censorship buttonheinous acts of fraud, to be worthy of protection from prying eyes should never be given to a politician, or to anyone  for that matter. The temptation to use such power, not to protect the state but to protect oneself, will be too great for any ordinary mortal. All of us, perhaps especially our politicians who are faced with greater temptations than the rest of us, need the prying eyes of journalists with their awkward questions, to keep us honest.

Politicians fail to appreciate that such measures do not work and they are counterproductive. Even the draconian Nationalist Party juggernaut at the height of its powers, banning articles, books, writers and newspapers, could not stop the truth getting out. The truth will indeed overcome.

As for being counterproductive, the populace does not roll over and play dead in the absence of news. They make assumptions as they hear stories and rumours and gossip. And the rumours begin to take on more form and substance than the official truth. The official line is rejected and people look elsewhere for truth and, ultimately, for their future.

From nataliedee.com Truth is not a one-eyed Cyclops. However much I prefer my own version of events, others see and experience things (including my actions) differently.

Christians too fail to understand this. We claim Jesus’ statements, “I am the truth” and, “The truth shall set you free.” And we think that gives us the edge. But it is Jesus himself who sets us free, not my inadequate portrayal of Jesus, or my imperfect interpretation of the Bible.

None of us has a handle on Jesus. He is beyond our understanding and way beyond our grasp. As Paul put it, “We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete.” We have so much to learn from one another—sinners and saints alike, as well as those who follow a different way from ours.

If we could learn to share with others the Jesus we are beginning to discover, rather than our limited certainties and legislative do’s and don’ts, we would begin to discern the truth that will set us all free. It is through that process, I believe, that we discover Jesus in all his glory. If, instead, we close our minds to the views and experiences of others, we are no different from those politicians who wish to force their perception of reality on to the world, bringing neither truth, nor love.

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