John 18:37 Pilate asked [Jesus], “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
“What is Truth?” Pilate’s question. Our’s today. The question, in the text, is rhetorical. Pilate is either being evasive or dismissive. It is the end of the conversation for Pilate. The reader and the church know otherwise, or at least we should. The truth is standing right in front of him. In the 4th Gospel — as the church has held ever since — truth is a person, the Word made flesh. In fact, Jesus does not claim here to be truth itself, but rather, Jesus is the one who makes God known. The words of the gospel point to the Word, the Word makes God known in order that we may “belong to the truth.”
Using a bit of modern Evangelical language, the goal of the biblical testimony is that we may have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Truth, then, cannot be reduced to objective “facts,” but is known and made known in our relationship with God and one another. This is an abstract idea, but attested repeatedly in Scripture. The evidence and measure of our relationship with God in Christ is how we treat one another. This is why — I suspect — in Matthew 25 for example, Jesus suggests that we meet him in the face of poor we feed, or deny him by ignoring the needs of the rejected and outcast. This is why — as I illustrated in my last post — hundreds of verses in the biblical text address how we treat one another, especially the least.
The beauty of this simple, ironic scene from John, is its unveiling of our most fundamental confusion about the Bible. Truth is not about certain knowledge; truth is the One to whom we belong. For Christians -- I would argue -- the Bible is the word of God only in a derivative sense, only in the sense that it brings us into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Truth, then, cannot be reduced to “facts,” no more than a relationship can be reduced to sentences. In my previous post, I listed the seven passages that are argued to condemn same sex acts as antithetical to the Christian lifestyle. In these “facts” we claim to possess the truth. Friends, we do not possess the truth, we belong to it. The truth possess us.
This misunderstanding exists among modern liberals and conservatives, alike. Modern Liberals have attempted to burrow beneath the testimony and discover truth by the measure of our scientific, analytic reason. The question for liberals is “Did it happen? What did the original author really think and say?” Modern conservatives, in a parallel quest for objective certainty, freeze the text as if each verse were a “fact” given to us by God. Both ways of reading are dead ends. We do not possess the truth, we belong to God, and that belonging is evidenced in how we treat one another. Until we recognize that mistake, I fear we will never move forward as a church. I pray that as our General Conference ponders: “What is Truth?” that we observe Jesus standing before us, always standing before us guiding our way.
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess
Henri Nouwen has written that ministry is receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister; in the midst of serving we are blessed with passing glimpses of the face of God. The most humbling gift I have experienced in the practice of ministry is being called into moments in people’s lives that can only be described as holy. These experiences have affirmed my faith in the fundamental witness of Scripture that God is Holy and God is With Us.
Early on a Saturday evening, two days after we celebrated his fiftieth birthday, I received a call that John had died. He was a free-spirited Texan, a grade-school teacher, with a devoted wife and three middle-school aged children. Throughout the four years I knew John, he was in and out of chemotherapy for cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. I heard a pastor once say that the mystery of life includes our death. Ministry at the time of death is one of those mysteries into which I am invited, undeserved, that is as sacred as it is difficult.
When I received the call that night, I drove to his home immediately. The cries of John's grieving children echoed throughout the house and are seared into my memory. When the time seemed appropriate, I gathered his children, wife, and immediate family; we held hands in prayer and surrendered his spirit to God. I waited with them for the morticians to arrive, escorted the body to the van, and said good night.
For me, the word “holy” means that God is utterly unique, set apart from the world of our common sense. God is beyond our imagining and beyond our words. Yet Scripture teaches that our Holy God is also with us. If God is with us, sacred moments in our lives should be plentiful. They are, extravagantly so: an astonishing live performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Disney Hall; dolphins dancing in the surf on Easter morning; a choir member offering a heroic solo the Sunday after she had been diagnosed with cancer. With Anne Lamott, I believe that we can look for encounters with the holy by searching our lives for moments of wonderment, when the only possible response is silence or a breathless “wow.” These moments are the fingerprints of God upon our lives. That is not so difficult to grasp; but sitting alongside a father's lifeless body with his grieving children … where is God here?
The insight has not come easily. Only now after 11 years in the practice of ministry am I coming to trust in it, and then only after spending year after year bearing witness to the passion of the One we call divine. John's was a fractured life in ways dIfferent from mine. Yet in the days ahead, as I spoke to the family and presided over the largest memorial service I had ever seen, I recognized that he was dearly loved. His life, my life, your life, each and every life is a gift of God. Beloved.
Human beings in all their complexity, imperfection, and beauty are simply a miracle. The breath of our Holy God graces each one of us with infinite value; but more than this, I believe that if we listen closely, we can hear in the moans of the sick, in the lament of the outcast, and even in the cries of a grieving child, the very voice of God who chooses not to be a distant other, but chooses to save us by suffering with us even unto death.
Seared into my memory are the cries of John's children that night, but in them I hear the voice of God: I hear Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over Lazarus; I hear Christ’s dereliction in Gethsemane and his excruciating suffering on a cross; I hear God’s joy at our birth and God’s grief in the midst of our loss. Holy & with, almighty & vulnerable: I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true. In the end the only help we can offer one another is our solidarity, our vulnerability, our presence. Some call it love. This is what God offers us; and if we have the courage to turn toward the awe-inspiring love through whom we were created, the suffering love through whom we are made innocent again, we might just be able to accept the gift, know that we are beloved, and call it grace.
When Christians speak of God, we often do so with far too much confidence in ourselves and far too little reverence for whatever it is we gesture at with the word God. This brief quote by Karl Barth is an important reminder for us all.
"As [servants of God] we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory."
Karl Barth, "The Word of God and the Word of Man," 186.
"Let the Scriptures, then, first of all be themselves. Let us admit that here are words from another era that are now alien to us. Once we have done so, we will be able to see that, in their own terms and their own context, the biblical authors were dealing with the same issues that confront us -- issues of faith and understanding that do not fade in a thousand years or in ten thousand. Who is God? What kind of world has God made? Who are we, human spirits and souls and bodies, who find ourselves in this world? What are the limits of our existence and our power, and what lies beyond them? Why is suffering a part of our lives? Why does this world not measure up to the best that we might hope of it? And why does it give us so much more than we could have asked? The mysteries of our existence remain with us; to grow in comprehension of Scripture will mean that we grow in the mysteries, too." - William Countryman
L. William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Tyranny?: Scripture and the Christian Pilgrimage, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 103. Italics mine.