“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)
This text citing Jesus from the Gospel of John is the chosen text for Reformation Sunday. I wonder why? Is it because in every age the church needs to re-discover the truth for itself?
When you think about it, isn’t this the question that seems to surface time and time again for Christians living in the world today? It does for me: When tragedy strikes. When controversy splinters groups. When conflict erupts. What is true? Who is right? Who speaks the truth?
After watching the presidential debates on TV last week, one of the US networks had a segment where a reporter examined a few of the statements made by the candidates. By appealing to the facts and the official record we could judge whether or not the statements were true. Kind of like a truth-meter. The result wasn’t always clear-cut, either-or – for both candidates.
Pilate’s question to Jesus (“What is truth?” John 18:38) right before Jesus’ death is actually answered by Jesus here: “The truth will make you free.” Okay, so we have a connection between truth and freedom. It’s a good start.
This is the texture and character of what God’s truth is all about; that is, it leads to freedom, to expansion, to a kind of un-shackling, un-binding, un-raveling, un-caging of our lives. This is how we will recognize it – that’s the litmus test: whether it frees us, or not.
In the last couple of weeks you may have noticed the new paint on the walls in the narthex and adjacent rooms upstairs. Repainting the walls is a cleansing act of sorts – a confession, you might say. Because we now look rather critically at what was on the floors – the furniture, and what hung the walls – the plaques and pictures. We revisit the very assumptions of why those things were put there in the first place. In this evaluative process we ask: Why?
Painting the walls was sacramental in that it was an outward act that points to an inward reality. What about taking a look at our inner lives, asking ‘why?’, and begin renovating that space? What about confessing the truth of who we are? What is hanging on the walls of our hearts? And why is it there? Does it need to be? Is it counter-productive? Does it say something about our lives that is not really true?
At the spiritual retreat I attended last weekend the participants were asked the question: “Describe how you know something to be true.” The question was intentionally left to be wide open, and in our small groups we were encouraged not to be judgmental in what others said and with what came to our own lips in the moment. So, how do you know something to be true?
It wasn’t an easy question to answer, truth be told, especially among strangers. My small group comprised of three people. And you might have guessed it: three different kinds of answers.
The first person said she knows something to be true because she trusts her gut instinct; for example, she just knows in her gut that someone her teenage daughter hangs out with is not a good friend for her. Her gut tells her this is true – and often it turns out to be true!
The other person said she relies on what other people around her say and do. She trusts her friends and family, what they teach her, tell her and by the example of their lives – this is how she knows and discovers the truth. Not so much her gut, but in her relationships.
I was the third person. The first thing that came to my mind was: I trust ideas and from where they come – the scriptures, the doctrines, the books I read, the traditions, the work of the mind. This is how I know the truth.
I realized after our discussion that it boiled down to what you trust – your instinct, your heart, your mind.
Was someone wrong? Was someone right? The experience of the exercise to listen and then to share honestly taught me that in various ways we were all right. Each of us shared an important perspective on discovering the truth.
If it wasn’t for Martin Luther responding in the moment to his conscience and gut: “Here I stand!” before those who accused him of heresy – I wonder if he and we would have ever received the truth of God’s grace in the way Luther eventually articulated it.
If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s loving, caring and trusting relationship with Johann von Staupitz, his superior and mentor in the Augustinian monastery, he would not have made a critical step in his journey to discover the truth of justification by grace alone. In Luther’s own words: “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”
If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s dedication to the written word in translating the New Testament from the Latin to the language of the people, German, during his exile in the Wartburg castle, if not for his scholarship and knowledge of the scriptures, he most certainly would not have been in a position to stand with credibility and conviction.
On the other hand,
If it were only his instinct that he trusted, he could have barked up the wrong theological tree altogether, without recourse to the people in his life and the traditions of his church, good and bad.
If it were only his relationships that he trusted, he could have easily lost himself, his integrity, his own conscience by trying to please everyone and respond to their demands and expectations, becoming in essence a chameleon.
If it were only his appeal to right ideas manifested in the laws, the scriptures, the words on a page and other such abstract authorities, he would have missed the gift of Jesus to the world, a gift – like peace – which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). In other words, what is true is more than merely the understandings of our minds and intellectual intelligence.
Martin Luther’s conscience, his trusted relationships and his mind – all three – were part of the journey of discovering truth. I think we can say that in many ways his influence in the church expanded and freed many to embrace the truth about God.
By trusting only one facet over the other leads us to live life as if we were pushing a plane down the runway. We want to be free. We want the truth of flight. But we’re not getting into the plane and trust all of what the journey means.
It’s hard work. It isn’t easy – both to be honest about yourself, and to accept the other whose answer might be a little different.
It was for Martin Luther. For someone who was so convinced that the truth was found only in serving penance for his sins and slaving away to earn favor with God; for someone who felt deeply remorseful for his sins but who believed the only way to get it right with God was to work even harder at doing good works ….
The truth indeed set him free. For what was his eureka moment in that monastery in Germany? That it is grace that puts him right with God. Not anything that his ego could produce – his energy, his work, his endurance, his good intentions. But a free gift of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness – the doing of God in Jesus un-did the requirement for Luther to earn God’s grace.
So this grace as gift is the truth that sets us free. But it is a freedom FOR something, not FROM something. This is key. Freedom that is grounded in God’s grace is not a freedom from restraints and limits so that we could do anything we want to do. (see Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation”, p.123). Here we go pushing that plane again. It is not Jesus’ understanding of freedom.
Instead, what Jesus embodies is a freedom FOR the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is a highly moral approach to freedom. This movement gets us flying. Gets us free. When we have nothing to lose except our egos. We seek justice, we are gracious and understanding, we are compassionate and work on behalf, not of ourselves and our own myopic realities, but of others in need. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. Because we are free to do this! Someone once said: There is no truth without compassion, and no compassion without truth.
I suspect when the world sees us engaged in this kind of approach, they will see Jesus and therefore see God. They will see the truth, they will bear witness to it in our behavior, our decisions and our actions.
What is truth? Each of us needs to personally struggle with that question – as Luther mightily did, as anyone who has grown in their personhood.
The truth is – the Son still shines above the clouds. Discovering this truth is like taking off on a stormy day: We may know theoretically that the sun is still shining. But to experience the Son personally we need to fly through the turbulence of the clouds before we break through and reach the heights where the sky is blue and the sun’s rays warm our bodies, our hearts and our minds.
A seminary prof once told my class that the song should really read: “Jesus loves me this I know for my mother tells me so” – pointing to the truth that for many of us, before we could read any words on a page we were in relationships with loved ones who showed us God’s love and talked to us about it.
The prof got it partially right. For over the span of a lifetime, I believe that Jesus loves me this I know, for my gut, my Mom/Dad/loved ones, and the Bible tells me so.
That is how I know.