New Truth?

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on the Day of Pentecost, May 27, 2012.

There are some things I could wish Jesus had never said. Not a lot.  By and large, I’m OK with most of it. But there are a few things that just cause endless trouble and one of them is in the gospel this morning: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now..  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth . . .”  (John 16:13)

Now, I’m sure it was said with the best of intentions, but do you have any idea how much trouble those words cause?  This summer the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will meet in Indianapolis and – as usual – there are some who think the church will not survive .  If Jesus had just not said those words or John hadn’t written them down, we might be OK. But what these words do is introduce an uncertainty factor into the center of the church’s life.

If you are into physics, you might know about the Heisenberg uncertainty factor; this is worse. In physics, the principle is that you can never know two things about a subatomic particle at the same time, but so what?  In Jesus’ words the principle is that we can never be certain of anything; there is always the possibility of new truth.  It may be that we don’t yet have all the answers.

The fundamental conflict in the world today is between those who believe that and those who don’t. Islam and Christianity in particular are increasingly dominated by people who don’t believe it. For them, there is a fixed and final truth and we know it already. If you have questions, get out your Qur’an or your Bible and you can look it up. Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it. Maybe you’ve also seen that bumper sticker.

But if we stop long enough to read what Jesus said in this gospel, it doesn’t settle it; he didn’t say everything that needs to be said, and it’s always possible to come to a new and deeper understanding even of the things he did say.

Now, I know why that’s unsettling. I’m no different from most people: I want fixed and final answers.  I don’t want to have to change my mind. Last week Senator Frist changed his mind and you would have thought it was the end of the world.  After all, Senator Frist wants to run for president and who would vote for a president who has ever changed his mind? It’s a rare event when a politician does that and in a world where people want fixed and definitive answers, you take your life in your hands when you change your mind.

And actually Jesus doesn’t invite us to change our minds but to let our minds be changed, to let the Holy Spirit guide us to a better understanding, possibly to new insights, a fuller knowledge. But that’s frightening, isn’t it?  It would mean admitting that we might have been wrong and that what we believed about God might have been wrong, and that gets to the very center of how we live our lives.

It also opens up the possibility of growth. And it also, it seems to me, draws us into a relationship with God that lets us come closer to the center of the mystery.

Here’s the fundamental point.  (And let’s be fundamentalists for a minute.)  The fundamental point is – how obvious can it be? – the fundamental point is that God is God and we are not.  And what that means is that there’s a mystery. We are not going to understand completely, ever. And that means no final answers, no cut and dried solutions, no certainty about many of the things about which we would like to be certain. Only God has all the answers. But a God I can understand is not God.

Now, you might want to suggest that God has nevertheless told us all we need to know, and that’s perhaps a different issue.  Conceivably God could boil it all down to a permanent set of instructions that would give us not all the answers we might ask for but all we would ever need. Maybe you could imagine that even if we can’t completely understand the Trinity, still we can know right from wrong and have all the guidelines we need for dealing with life and death, sex and marriage, and so on. But that, I think, would be a world without growth or change, a world in which we never encountered a new situation and even if we did, we could just apply the same old answers.

But Jesus apparently didn’t think that was possible. In fact, from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was making it clear that he was bringing a new world into being and the old answers would no longer do.  He talked about the need to put new wine into new wine skins. He said, “You have heard it said by those of old times . . . but I say . . .”  He held up the laws that the Pharisees had worked out so carefully and said, “That’s no longer good enough.”  So he set in motion a process  of growing understanding and a relationship with God in which we are challenged not simply to live up to the old standards but to come to new and higher standards, not by laws handed down from the past but by a love that calls us toward a fuller future.

Of course it’s frightening, and of course a lot of people reject the option. It’s frightening to enter into a marriage or buy a house or raise children.  You will have to change; you will encounter situations you never expected to have to face.  You will learn things about yourself you never knew and not all of them charming. You know, even going to church can challenge you – quite apart from what you might hear from the pulpit. You will have to get along somehow with people with whom you have little in common. You will have to deal with prickly personalities and learn to sing new hymns and maybe even meet different clergy.  It’s called “living,” and the alternative is called “dying.”

So Jesus calls us into a future that may not always be comfortable but in which – this is the important thing – “the Spirit will guide you into all truth.” That’s the wonderful part: the promise of God’s own Holy Spirit at work within us to enable us to grow into that future. And I think this is an area that our church – the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion – has made rather a specialty.  We of all churches have accepted the fact that there’s a mystery at the very heart of our relationship with God, that there are things we can’t be certain about however much we might like to be, and that the new approach we don’t like and don’t want to hear about, that challenges something we thought we really understood, may actually draw us a little closer to the heart of the mystery. It also, and this is a fundamental we can hold onto, calls us to an openness and generosity of spirit that is willing to live without final answers and willing to listen patiently and to work alongside people we are quite convinced are wrongheaded remembering always that they may be right and we may be wrong and that only by taking the time to listen are we likely to be able to move forward together.

What’s important is taking the time to listen and to continue the conversation. Other churches are likely to offer simple and authoritative answers but that ends the conversation and all too often leaves some people out and leaves the ones who are in feeling smug and righteous. I was reading a book last week that illustrated the danger of too much certainty. It noted the fact that in 1829 the Pope condemned vaccination for small pox claiming that it as an inappropriate interference with the will of God. It’s the same argument used now to condemn birth control. It’s not very different from the arguments made to condemn a new understanding of sexuality. It’s summed up in what’s sometimes called “The Seven Last Words” of a dying church: “But we’ve always done it this way.”

On the other hand, of course, not everything new is good and there are always those who want to condemn the old simply because it is old and simply because they want to create chaos. And how can you tell what is guidance from the Holy Spirit and what is pure human cussedness? Patience and generosity of spirit are the only answer I know. A willingness to listen, to explore, not to close off and condemn. The great medieval philosopher Erasmus said,

True religion is peace, and we cannot have peace unless we leave the conscience unshackled on obscure points.. . . If we want the truth, every man ought to be free to say what he thinks without fear.  If the advocates of one side are to be rewarded with mitres and the advocates of the other with ropes and stakes, truth will not be heard.

Or as Peter Carnley, the former Archbishop of Melbourne, once said,

We can live comfortably with diversity because we acknowledge that all attempts to express the divine will in some way fall short of absolute truth.  We do not approach the practice of religion, therefore, as though it involved having all the answers, because we do not see life primarily as a problem to be solved.  Rather we see ourselves as being on an open-ended journey into a future into which we are called by God, a journey of faith and hope, in which there is always something new to learn, a mind-set to be expanded, a perception of things to be stretched, a deeper wisdom to be discerned.

That, I believe, is the only kind of Christianity that makes sense. It makes demands, but the reward is freedom to grow.  A good many other churches are there with simple and clear-cut answers and no challenge. Somehow a good many Episcopalians have also lost sight of the value of freedom and a generous spirit and want closure and condemnation instead. Pray that this Pentecost there may be a new gift of the spirit, a new outpouring of wisdom and patience and generosity and love that so in this congregation and throughout our church we can move forward together to the future to which we are called.

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