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.