Monday, May 22, 2017

Being the Mystery

Being the Mystery
John 17:1-11
June 1, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Yesterday was a very difficult day in the life of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. For those of you who are new to the world of Presbyterian-speak, a “presbytery” is the local collection of Presbyterian churches, who work together and live together in a covenant relationship. Our presbytery, Los Ranchos Presbytery, geographically covers about 2,000 square miles and has about 56 churches. I say “about 56 churches” because yesterday’s meeting involved 3 of those churches gaining permission to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joining another Presbyterian body, which is more conservative theologically and biblically than they perceive the PC(USA) to be. But, I also say “about 56 churches” because there is new life that is constantly forming around us, and some of those expressions of new life are not your typical “church” but also very much like a “church.” Some of them will never – by design – be a “church” and others are on their way to becoming a very good, strong, and dynamic “church.” So, we’re “about 56 churches” and we will swell and recede and do all the things that living bodies do. But, yesterday was hard, because we voted to give 3 of our churches permission to leave.

Many of you have been in this process far longer than I have and, in fact, some of you have been personally affected by the dynamics of this process along the way for many years. I’m deeply sorry for your pain. But, I must admit, if these differences are what brought you here to be part of our worshiping community, there is an upside to it all, from our perspective. St. Mark, by our leadership over the years and our current commissioners to the Presbytery, has a significant role in all of the controversies. In this presbytery, we might be called the “loyal opposition.” In other presbyteries where I have been a member, we would have been part of the majority. Some in this presbytery have said that we have a “prophetic voice.” Others view us as the kind of church that makes them want to leave the PC(USA) in the first place. At every step we are called to exercise both the force of our convictions and the humility of knowing that other churches, likewise, speak out of their conscience.

Yesterday, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, First Presbyterian Church in Westminster, and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, were all dismissed from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos and the PC(USA) to become part of a new denomination called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. There is a lot to the story – much of it procedural, political, theological, and economical – but yesterday’s actions were the result of a long, painful journey. There is more to come for our presbytery – seven other churches are in the process of being dismissed – and there is the possibility that yesterday’s actions will be reviewed and perhaps overturned by a higher branch of our church’s accountability. So, the story is not over and the folks at these churches will not just disappear. So, there is some way in which we will continue to live –together or at least side-by-side.
It is all very maddening and I am full of opinion about it. But, please understand, it is not my place nor my intention to go to a presbytery meeting that is fraught with very different perspectives, then to come back here and give you all my perspective as if that is the only one that matters. (That is such a temptation whenever one preaches, because I preach out of the same set of convictions from which I speak at a presbytery meeting.) At the same time, your commissioners and your leadership attend these meetings as your commissioners and your leadership. As such, while we act and speak according to our own conscience, we are there because you have invested us with the right of representation. So, we have some obligation to share with you what has transpired and to speak of what it means for us in our journey of faithfulness to God. And I have the call to interpret it biblically and theologically before God and before you, knowing that I can never speak beyond my perspective.

Our reading from the Gospel of John today is often called “Jesus’ prayer.” John does not have “The Lord’s Prayer,” like we see in Matthew and Luke. Instead, there is a whole chapter – chapter 17 – that is given as a prayer. You may notice that I am using qualified language to talk about this prayer, because, frankly, there’s a lot about this prayer that makes me think it is much more than a prayer. For example, the first three verses could have been spoken by anyone, since every reference to Jesus is in the third person. The first person voice doesn’t kick in until v.4. So, while our Bibles often subtitle this chapter “Jesus prays for his disciples,” the first three verses very easily could have been called “The Disciples pray for Jesus.” Verse three is curious also. It is an explanation of what eternal life means. (It means, in this prayer, to know “the one true God and Jesus Christ whom [God] sent.”) Why would Jesus need to tell God what ‘eternal life’ means? And, finally, Jesus’ language in this prayer indicates that he is not actually stopping in his conversation with his disciples and offering this prayer, the day before he is arrested and put to death. Jesus says, “I have completed what you sent me to do” and “I am no longer in this world” during this prayer. That wouldn’t make sense for a prayer that is given on Maundy Thursday.

My suspicion is that while this prayer has the literary setting of being a prayer from Jesus to God, it is intended for the community for whom this gospel was written. John’s first century community and we, not God, to have ‘eternal life’ defined for us as ‘knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.’ The church, not Jesus, needs this prayer. We need this prayer, because something marvelous happens in this prayer.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus over and over proclaims that he and God are one. Those claims sounded haughty then and sound haughty now. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” “The father and I are one.” “What is mine is God’s and what is God’s is mine.” Jesus claims a close identity – “oneness” or “sameness” – with God repeatedly throughout this gospel. And, of course, it is in John’s gospel that Jesus uses, over and over, the language that God used when speaking to Moses from the burning bush, “I AM.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It was an audacious claim then, and it is an audacious claim now. If you struggle with it, that only means that you are taking it seriously, because it messes with our neat boxes of the difference between God and humanity. It is an audacious claim, but there is another claim in this prayer that may be even more audacious.

Jesus’ prayer has a petition. It is not, “God, may I be one with you.” That is the assumption behind the prayer. Jesus’ request is that we – the church that prays this prayer with Jesus – may be one, just as Jesus and God are one. If there is anything more audacious than the claim that Jesus and God are one, it is the claim that the church is one. It means that despite all of our differences, despite all of our brokenness, despite all of our struggles, the prayer for the church is that we might be one, as Jesus and God are one. That is why we each are invited to take a piece of the bread and a share of the cup: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us, sharing the same loaf and same cup as the one Body of Christ. That is why we sing together: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, each of us lifting our voices in one song. And that is why we pray a confession of sin: Our prayer as a church is to participate in this mystery of being one, yet we fail miserably at it.

I’m sure it is everyone else’s fault. But, of course, therein lies the problem. And that is why Jesus’ prayer, that we may be one, is always a prayer and has never been a full reality. It is a desire, a partial truth, a noble aspiration, and an impossibility. Which is to say, it is a prayer. And, in a world of conflicting religions, multiple Christian churches, deep cultural segregation in worship, deep theological conviction – even among Presbyterians – we can only make this a prayer, filled with hope and confession. “That we may participate in the mystery of being one.” Amen.

From Gazing to Gathering

From Gazing to Gathering
June 5, 2011
John 17:1-11; Acts 1:1-11
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Regardless of what the calendar says, it must be summertime because I’ve been out of town for the last two weeks at weddings. Last weekend, I had the privilege of marrying Michelle Soper and her delightful husband T.J. Witucky in Phoenix. The weekend before that we were gathered with Chris’ family in the Twin Cities as Chris’ youngest sibling and only brother Matt married a wonderful woman named Danielle. Now, that was an interesting weekend, for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with making a covenant, grooms, brides, or anything even remotely romantic. In case you missed it, the two weeks ago marked the end of the world.

By now, we’ve all gone back to ignoring him, but two weeks ago Harold Camping received an inordinate amount of attention by being the latest false prophet who has taken a smattering of poetic Scriptures literally, mixed in some numbers from the Scriptures with a kind of magical amplified meaning, and baked a bold prediction of the world’s end. I had a lot of fun ridiculing Mr. Camping’s biblical interpretations, his post-modern mathematics, and his predictions. It’s not that I enjoy ridiculing people. In the main, I think ridiculing is a fairly low form of entertainment. But I don’t know how else to encounter the ridiculous other than to ridicule it. You can’t ignore a message that is broadcast over thousands of “family radio” stations and then reported in virtually every news medium around. You can’t reason with a position that ascribes certain meanings to simple numbers as their starting point. And when this admixture is proclaimed as “the Word of God” with such bold arrogance, there are very few options left. The biblical prescription for a prophet whose prophecy proves not to be correct is to stoning (Deuteronomy 18:20). I don’t really have the stomach to stone anyone, so I opted for ridiculing him instead. In fact, here’s an interesting thing about living in the age of mass media. We don’t even need to look at Harold Camping and proclaim, “You’re dead to me,” because – now that May 21 has passed without the “rapture” or the end of the world – most of us are no longer even paying attention to Harold Camping.

This morning, I’d like to reverse the strategy for just a moment and to try to take Harold Camping seriously. Please understand, I’m not saying that I agree with his biblical interpretations, his quirky mathematical symbolism, or his predictions in any way. But, here are some things about Harold Camping’s failed prophecy that may sound more familiar to us. He is convinced that our world is on a path of destruction. He is convinced that, though the world be destroyed all around us, “salvation” means that we (the “saved”) will escape that fate. And he is convinced that the Bible holds the key to the future. And, I would argue, that many people in the Christian church hold these convictions in common with Harold Camping. So, while his asinine date-setting proved him to be false and foolish, Harold Camping’s convictions are probably why this tiny slice of foolishness became so inescapably popular as a focal point of discussion, whether one was for or against it.

It is not just latter day fools who pay an inordinate amount of attention to the “end of the age.” It is written in the human spirit to speculate about such things. We can do so on a personal level, when we come to grips with having to die. Or, we can do so on a larger level, when we see the forthcoming end of a church institution that has meant a lot to us over the years, or we see the utter fragility of an economic system that is so pervasive that its failure seems to be the end of life as we know it. We can speculate realistically about the loss of an indigenous language or a local custom that is no longer viable in an age of globalization. We can speculate about the relationship between the buildup of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere and its potential destructive effects on our atmosphere. And, with a purely scientific and not a religious perspective, it is even possible to speculate about “the end of the world”, the implosion of the universe, the destructive mass density of black holes, and so forth – because with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve actually witnessed the effects of such cosmic events all around us. The point is, it is because we are rational creatures, not because we are foolish ones, that we can think transcendent thoughts and speculate about what might be, rather than simply living with what is. It is human, not simply religious or philosophical, to speculate about the fragility and finitude of human existence.

Setting aside the arrogance and the voodoo mathematics and the awful biblical interpretation, in one respect, Harold Camping is not just the latest in a string of bad biblical interpreters. He is simply one of us – a person who cannot avoid trying to understand what it means to be able to think about eternity while living with finitude.

Of course, speculating about the “end of the world” goes far back in the biblical tradition. It does not go as far back as speculating about the “beginning of the world.” The creation stories in the Scriptures are far earlier poetry than any speculation about the “end of the world.” But, there were some provocations, some signal events, during the history of Israel that caused them to think beyond the moment and to speculate about the “end of the world.” Approximately 160 years before the birth of Christ, the people living in Jerusalem experienced an atrocity that was so hideous that it not only evoked images of the “end of the world,” but it also became one of those fixed moments in Israel’s memory that was a way of naming the world afterwards. It was their “Pearl Harbor” their “9/11,” their moment when all of them agreed that, from that point on, nothing could ever remain the same. In fact, I would argue that it was even more significant in their thinking than Pearl Harbor or 9/11, because it seemed at this moment in their history, everything in which they believed had fallen apart. God promised them the land and the Greek empire had overrun it. God led them through the king and the Greek empire had killed him and installed a puppet on the throne. Those two things had happened before in their history, but the third thing was the most shocking. God’s presence was in their temple, particularly in the holiest interior part of the temple, and a Greek general named Antiochus IV Epiphanes had entered that holy place and offered an unclean pig as a sacrifice to Zeus there. In their view of the world, such a thing simply could not happen. Antiochus Epiphanes should have been struck dead right then and right there. But it did happen and he did not die and the world as they knew it, right then, was shattered.

It was here, in the bewilderment of this moment, that the second half of the book of Daniel was written. For any of you who were raised in a tradition like I was, you’ll know that the second half of Daniel is the most significant Old Testament text for talking about the “end of the world.” And it is significant, not because Daniel predicting things that are bound to happen sooner or later, but because it set a pattern for thinking faithfully about the “end of the world.” For Daniel’s community, the current situation with the devastation of Antiochus Epiphanes was not compatible with their view of God and God’s way with the world. In order for God’s way to be re-established, it required the destruction of the Greek Empire and its hold over them. That is what the second half of Daniel envisions, with mythological vision. Two hundred years later, for the writer of the Gospel of Mark, the situation that was incompatible with their understanding of faith was the destruction of the Roman Empire which, once again, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and all that it meant to them. For Mark, God’s way would only be re-established with the destruction of the destroyer. That is the compelling vision behind the book of Revelation as well.

What these communities imagined was not the “end of the world” as a functioning habitation for life. It was more like the way REM describes it: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Only, for Israel and for the early church, they did not follow by saying, “And I feel fine.” They followed by imagining how in the world God could be faithful to them in their time of crisis. And what they imagined was the destruction of the destroyer.

That is what we hear in our reading today of that moment when Jesus is taken away from the disciples. They ask him whether now is the time that the kingdom will be taken from Rome and restored to Israel. But, Jesus doesn’t answer that inquiry. Instead, he sends them back to Jerusalem to await the empowering of the Holy Spirit. And after Jesus is taken up from them, the story describes the disciples gazing into the heavens. Again, they are being human, wondering about the future, the end of the world, the great overarching meaning of it all, and so forth. As Luke describes it, two men in white apparel ridicule them, asking why in the world they are staring at the heavens when they ought to be in Jerusalem awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. It is an amazing and sobering moment. Instead of gazing into the heavens, the disciples are called to gather so that God can empower them to be witnesses to the world. Instead of watching a cosmic fireball or a white rider in the sky come down and defeat the wretched oppressors, God calls them to gather together, to be empowered, so that by living as witnesses they can fulfill the Reign of God.

It falls to us as human being to speculate about the “end of it all.” We are wont to stare into the heavens and to imagine a scenario when justice finally overcomes injustice, when good finally overcomes evil, and when the world finally becomes a place hospitable to the peaceable kingdom. But the way of faithfulness is not in speculating and guessing, even if we call it “prophecy.” The way of faithfulness is to gather together, to await God’s empowering Spirit, so that we might be scattered throughout the world as faithful witnesses to God’s love and forgiveness. May God draw our vision from the heavens to the earth, fill us with God’s own empowering Spirit, and send us into the world as faithful witnesses. Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Paul’s Encounter with Other Religions

Acts 17:16-31 (John 14:6)
May 25, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Our Scripture reading today is a fascinating story of Paul’s encounter with the people in the city of Athens. This is all taking place about 300 years after Alexander the Great brought the Greek Empire into being, but that Empire was supplanted by time our story takes place by the Roman Empire. Still, Athens continues to glow – even if it is an afterglow – as a religious and intellectual center. Some historic descriptions say that the roads in Athens were so populated by idols, monuments, cairns, and the like that someone traveling from point A to point B was constantly negotiating around one religious thing or another. Athens was a place where religions intersected – the narrator of Acts mentions Jews, Epicureans, and Stoics specifically – and where new ideas were welcomed. As such, a story set in Athens is more representative of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that we might associate with modern diversity than some of the stories set in Galilean villages or Jerusalem. So, enter Paul, known as “the Apostle to the Gentiles,” who had received a calling to cross over as a missionary into this area where Paul’s Jewish heritage was just one faith among others, and his Christian message was new.

Many people would assume that Paul’s encounter with this religiously and philosophically diverse people of Athens would be controversial. After all, we associate terms like “evangelism” and “missionary” with this kind of self-righteous one-directional approach that says “I’m right and you’re wrong, so let me help you out.” And, frankly, one of the challenges that I have with this story is that many of the folks who translated this story from its original Greek text to English – and almost all of the commentaries that go on and on about this story – see it exactly that way: A confrontation. And that disposition toward this story has shaped the way that it has been translated for year. For example, when Paul begins his message in v.22, the King James Version has been presenting him for 500 years now as saying, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” Now, if that is the opening salvo, then of course what follows is going to be a confrontation against superstitious belief. But, the word that the KJV translates as “superstitious” is interesting. It appears just this once in the Scriptures and it is a conjunction of two words meaning, “fear or reverence” and “deity.” With this word in the superlative form, it can mean “too superstitious” if you assume that Paul is speaking critically. But, a less presumptuous translation would be that Paul says to them “I can see that in every way you are very religious” – which is how most modern translations interpret it. My point is that we can – with enormous biblical integrity – see this encounter between Paul and the Athenians as an instructive, meaningful encounter between the Christian message and other belief systems. But, to do so, we have to unravel years of wrong impressions that have shaped the way this story has been told. So, let’s do it.

Our reading began with the narration that Paul is spending time in Athens, waiting for two of his friends to come and join him in his missionary journey. The narration – in our Bible – reads that Paul was “deeply distressed” to see that the city was full of idols. That’s quite a statement. It’s also quite a judgment, because the word translated as ‘distressed’ could also mean ‘intrigued.’ Its most neutral meaning would be ‘stirred,’ but there is noting in this text to decide whether it is a distressing stir or an intriguing stir – that judgment is left up to the translator. Let’s say – for the moment – that Paul is not distressed, but intrigued. Then what?

Then, v.17 in our Bible reads: “So [Paul] argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Well, it stands to reason that if Paul is distressed by what he sees that he will argue with those who live there. But, that word that is translated “argued” is used often in Acts and is sometimes translated “reasoned” and elsewhere as “preached.” It is the Greek word διαλέγομαι, which literally means to ‘talk through’ and is the word from which we get our English word “dialogue.” So, instead of seeing Paul as “distressed” and, therefore “arguing” in the synagogue and marketplace, this text could be saying that Paul was “intrigued” and “conversed” with people daily in the synagogue and marketplace. They are not necessarily confrontational terms and, in fact, could be quite the opposite. In fact, I want to suggest that it should be translated as something other than a confrontation.

First, Paul maintains the integrity of his faith. He is heard conversing in the synagogue and marketplace proclaiming the good news of the resurrection of Christ. So, some of them take him to a place called “Mars Hill” or “the Areopogite.” (It is translated two different ways because “Ares” was the Greek god of war, who became “Mars” when the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon as their own.) This is the place where, in Greek mythology, Ares was taken to defend himself for killing one of the gods who was trying to violate his daughter. It took on the aura of the place where people offer defense of their thoughts and actions. So, Paul comes to Mars Hill to explain, defend, and proclaim his faith. And he does so frankly. He tells them that as he was studying and contemplating their many religious items, he saw an altar with the inscription, “To the unknown God.” And that is the itch that Paul wanted to scratch. This ‘unknown’ God he proclaims as the creator of heaven and earth, who formed the world and everything in it, in order that we would grope, seek, and find God. So, the way that Paul maintains the integrity of his faith is to affirm the search, the longing that he perceived in them, and to proclaim the gospel as the fulfillment that they seek.

Second, however, is a less-appreciated thing that Paul does. He quotes two of the poets from those other religions – approvingly. In fact, one of those quotes has become many Christians’ favorite quote from the book of Acts: “In God we live and breathe and have our being.” His point is to say that the constructs that we make, reflecting our longing for God, can never be confused with Godself, because God is the source, not the product of that longing. It is a marvelous affirmation and assertion.

I don’t want to gloss over this whole encounter and pretend that they all held hands and sang “Kumbayah” together. There were some who thought Paul was babbling. There were some that listened and wanted some time to think it over and meet again. Surely there were some dilettantes, who were just happy to be doing such a cool, philosophical thing. But, there were others who began a companionship with Paul and followed the gospel, finding the message of Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of what they sought in their philosophy and religion. And they were able to hear that, because initially Paul was willing to hear them. In fact, Paul was willing to learn from them, to allow their religion and philosophy to broaden his own grasp of God and God’s way with us.

I remember a seminary professor of mine, who told me that he was never quite able to embrace the Christian faith, until he spent a year abroad studying Buddhism. It was not that everything he heard he found ridiculous, so he came running back to the Christian faith. In fact, it was the opposite. He learned ways of thinking about life and faith that had never grasped him before, and it gave him a greater appreciation for the Christian message. In some ways, I think Paul’s encounter with the pagan religions on Mars Hill invite us to see faith – not as the adamant refusal to allow any other religious voice to have meaning – but as a trust in God’s faithfulness, even when our opinions are challenged and changed.

You and I are charged every week to leave this place with the intention of sharing the joy and justice of the gospel. May we, to whom God is faithful, have the courage to fulfill that charge by listening first, even to those whose way of knowing God is different. Amen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Truth Embodied

Truth Embodied
John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

In the old medieval town of Verona, the Christians and Jews got along marvelously, living as mutually respectful neighbors. But, one day the Bishop went to see the Rabbi and gave him this news: “My old friend, I am heart-broken to tell you, but you must have your people pack their things and move elsewhere. While we have been friends for many years here in Verona, conflicts between Jews and Christians are arising everywhere and I am afraid that I must insist that you leave before it destroys our town. Please work with me to make this as easy as possible.” The Rabbi was shocked and they argued for a bit about how Verona was different, how they should have an open debate to talk about what was happening elsewhere and how they could prevent it from happening here. In the end, the Bishop agreed to a debate, but only a ‘silent debate,’ because he feared that in a verbal debate too many things might be said that incite trouble. The Rabbi agreed.

Finally, the day of the debate came and all of Verona gathered around the stage. The Bishop arose and went to the podium and thrust his finger up and out in a dramatic pointing gesture, then sat down. The Rabbi stood and very emphatically pointed the finger of one hand to the palm of the other, and sat down. The Bishop’s eyebrows arose, then he composed himself and stood and raised up three fingers as high as he could. The Rabbi shook his head and stood to raise the number one finger before sitting down. Then, the Bishop reached into his satchel and got out some bread and some wine and raised them for all to see. Then, the Rabbi stood and reached into his satchel and took out an apple, out of which he took a big bite. Suddenly, the Bishop said, “Enough! You’re right, of course you’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking! Please forgive me. We will live together as friends and neighbors in Verona!”

All the people of Verona cheered then the Christians gathered around the Bishop asking, “Holy Father, what happened?” The Bishop said, “Oh, he is a master at arguing. I began by saying that I am authorized to speak on behalf of the God of heaven. And he answered that we all speak on behalf of the God who is right here at hand. I argued that I speak on behalf of the true God, the triune God, whom Christians alone worship rightly. He answered that we all speak on behalf of the one God who made all things. Then I said that true faith is faith that is grounded in the bread and wine, in the Christ of the holy sacraments. And he pulled out an apple and answered that all of our faith begins with our sinfulness before God. And he is right. We are all God’s children and sinners in need of grace. I was wrong to elevate one of us over the other.”

The Jews gathered around the Rabbi and said, “Master, what happened?” The Rabbi replied, “I’m not sure. First he said we had to go far, far away and I said no, we want to stay right here. Then he said that we have three days to pack up our things and leave and I argued that we need at least one week. Then he ate his lunch so I ate mine and suddenly we won.”

I suspect that more theological debates are like this silent debate in Verona than not. What happens is that two voices are contending over an issue that seems clear and seems to have just one correct means of resolution. But, each of them communicates out of their own experience and fears, so that even when one side seems to ‘win’ the debate it is questionable whether any real communication has taken place. I have a cousin who insists that religion and science are utterly irreconcilable and that the only way humankind can even hope to save itself is by sloughing off religious sentiments altogether. His arguments are quite painful to his former wife, parents and other relatives who hear them as a complete dismissal of them and everything they’ve ever lived for. But, every time some “Christian” voice argues that global warming is a myth or that evolution is an evil plan of secular humanism and so forth, my cousin feels that it is another attempt at the brainwashing from which he was painfully liberated. At the same time, one reason those “Christian” voices keep insisting on being anti-scientific is their fear that if we accept the world as an accident of evolution or we see the future as ultimately subject to human actions, then we assign ourselves to a meaningless, purposeless existence, where we might as well live as “Lord of the Flies,” with each of us struggling for ourselves. So, the science folks and the religious folk seem to be having a debate over the same topic, but they are miscommunicating as badly as the Bishop and the Rabbi.

I think the same kind of miscommunicated debate is what is tearing at the fabric of the Presbyterian Church so badly. The hottest flashpoint for some time now has been same-sex relationships. But, flashpoints are typically the place where deeper volatility erupts on the surface. As many persons on every side of the same-sex relation conversation have pointed out, the flashpoints are rooted in disagreements on how we understand ‘the authority of Scripture,’ what we mean by ‘the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” the relationship between God’s love and God’s holiness, as well as between the “peace, unity, and purity of the church.” At this level, we are in the arena where the historic creeds and confessions of the church speak. But, even our best confessional statements are rooted in an historical moment, no matter how enduring they might be. That is one reason why the Westminster Confession states that “all human councils may err,” imploring us not to exercise blind trust in human voices.

I think, however, that there is a discernable space beneath these theological debates, which provides the elements that can either be a solid foundation on which to build or can be a volatile mixture that ultimately erupts. And I believe that is what our Scripture reading today is addressing, even though it is often wrongly interpreted as saying the very opposite. John 14:6 reads, “Jesus says to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life; No one comes to the father except through me.’” That sounds like the most adamant statement in the whole world and the second half of that statement – no one comes to the father except through me – seems to justify making the Christian faith as exclusive as possible. We typically read the second statement as the point, and the first statement as the premise, to say, “There is only one way to God and Jesus is it.”

I want to turn our reading around a little bit and reconsider this statement, particularly by reading the second half of this verse as the premise and the first half as the point. Here’s what I mean: The conversation in John 14 is about Jesus’ identity with God. It is summed up in the statement in v.11, “I in the father and the father in me” (a statement with no verbs, although interpreters supply them), as well as the statement in v.9, “The one who has seen me has seen the father.” Jesus is pointing to himself – his real life, fully fleshed and absolutely human self – as identical with God. And, he is pointing to the disciples’ relationship with him – their real life, fully fleshed and absolutely human relationship – as identical with being related to God. Let me put it badly, then I’ll put it better. The truth – God’s truth – that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not “propositional truth,” but “incarnational truth.” Jesus is not saying, “This statement about me is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father unless they believe it.” He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Truth is not what we say about Jesus; it is what Jesus is.

Maybe a better way of putting it is to get away from long-haired theological language and say this: The truth in this verse is not “propositional truth,” but “relational truth.” Think of a relationship that you have with someone whom you love unreservedly – a spouse, a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. Think of the fully-rounded nature of that love, what it means to you at the very depths of your being. And now think the difference between that relationship and a Hallmark card that you might purchase for that person. After reading card after card you pick one that is not wrong, per se, but it also isn’t really right. I mean, you are choosing among cards that are written by someone who is speculating about love in general, not someone who is living in that fully-rounded loving relationship that means so much to you. So, you get the card because it might have a phrase or even one word that you think works well, but you are under no illusion that it captures your feelings. That is the difference between “relational truth” and “propositional truth.” We make propositions because that is how we are – we are communicative creature. But, we make them inadequately because that is what we are – we are communicative creatures whose words can never fully capture the depth of our experience. So, we make statements; we value them; we judge some to be entirely ill-fitted to what we experience; and we know that no statement will ever fully express the truth that we ‘know.’

When Jesus says, “I am … the truth,” fully-human truth that we know in fully-human relationships is far different than propositional truths that try to express human experience with mere words. Far beneath our flashpoints of arguments or the volatile mix that is ready to erupt is this: The deepest truth cannot be captured in words, but words are all that we have. That is why we can never be quick to judge someone else’s experience, testimony or arguments. Our propositional truth, at best, is like the Bishop and the Rabbi engaging passionately in miscommunicating. Relational truth, however, is right in our wheelhouse. May God bless us with knowing truth itself. Amen.