The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Contradicting truths

http://bringingtruth.com/Portals/13/contradiction.jpgLent 4B
John 3:14-21


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the things that can be equally marvelous and maddening about religion is the way that we can have internal conflict within ourselves.  We can know contradictory things to be simultaneously true.

This is something that can be challenging for the people outside of our communities to wrap their minds around.  And it can be something that can be challenging for us to teach ourselves.  There’s a difference between fact and truth.  And right and wrong, and true and false, and most other binaries, for that matter, aren’t usually as “binary” as we might wish that they were.

But we, in the church, aren’t the only ones who suffer this affliction.  The same can be said of any philosophical, or emotional, or artistic endeavor.  In all of these fields - in all of these pursuits - truth is often in the eye of its beholder.  And just as often, one can behold the truth in any number of ways.  Often in multiple ways at the same time.

We were talking about this phenomenon in one of my classes a few weeks ago: we were discussing the role in policy-making in identifying, evaluating, and correcting various social problems.  The problem that we encounter in this analysis, however, is that we approach social problems and their intended solutions from the perspective and the assumption that social problems are addressed through rational means.  The problem with that, however, is that people aren’t always rational - or at least, people’s rationales may be different than we’d anticipated, and sometimes our rationales are even different from what we’re willing to admit.

So, while people who speak about religion might accuse us of hypocrisy or spouting contradictory messages, the truth of the matter is, we’re hardly the only ones who can be guilty of this.

I say all of this simply so I can admit to you - honestly and upfront - that I’m about to contradict myself.  In the course of this sermon today, I’m going to tell you two things that are at odds with one another.  But even though they’re completely contradictory, they’re both also completely true.  That can be uncomfortable, and it can be difficult for us to wrap our minds around it, but it’s just the way it is.

One of the truths is, there is no verse in the Bible that stands alone as the sole arbiter of truth.

That’s important for us to hear today, because we’re hearing one of those verses of the Bible that the popular culture of Christianity would often have us believe is, indeed, the sole arbiter of truth.  It’s one we’ve all heard, and could probably all even quote without needing to look at our Bibles or printed lessons.  We could probably all even cite it, chapter and verse.  No matter how biblically illiterate we may believe ourselves to be; no matter how infrequent our church attendance; even if this happens to be your first time inside the walls of a church anywhere - I’m sure you’ve all heard this verse.  It’s John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

You know it, right?  The Christian Evangelical movement has adopted this verse as a kind of motto.  Perhaps even as a mantra, or a creed.  And they’ve adopted it so uniformly across their movement, and they’ve been so successful at marketing it, that it has penetrated popular culture.  It’s not uncommon to see people at football games holding up signs that simply say, “John 3:16”.  You’ll see it on bumper stickers, and graffitied onto dollar bills.  It’s so pervasive that they no longer even need to recite the words to which that citation points.  We all know it.

But the funny thing about it is, this verse is cited as if it stood alone - as though it were all that there were, and that nothing more need be said.  As if it were some sort of hard and fast, and uniform and unambiguous truth.

But really, nothing could be further from the truth.  So much of how we understand these words rests on the context in which we place them:

Some people only remember and quote the first half of the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”  For these people, the point of the verse is the sacrifice of Christ.  The whole of the Christian message comes down to death.  God and Christ sacrificed for me, so I should sacrifice for them.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that message.  It’s one that has stood the test of time.  But is it fair to say that that’s all there is?

Then there are those who remember the rest of the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  For these people, the sacrifice is certainly important, but only insofar as it leads to belief, because, as they believe, belief is the only path to life.  Again, it’s a legitimate reading, and it’s certainly stood the test of time, as well.  But again, I’m not sure that it represents all that there is.

If we read a little further, we’ll see that there’s more to say.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son of Man into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  With this reading, we begin to see that belief isn’t about guilt, or about threats, or even about condemnation.  We don’t believe so that we can avoid death, we believe because it’s how we really live.

You could read a little longer and hear something else.  You could read a bit more of the context about Nicodemus that precedes what we read this morning and hear something else, still.

There are many readings of all of these passages, and it would be unfair and shortsighted to say that only one given reading can be true.  And no one reading is the whole truth.  The whole truth - whatever that is - is always more expansive than the snippets of any one sound bite could ever faithfully convey.  No one verse, no one sound bite, no one motto or marketing campaign could ever fully convey the truth of Christ, and the life and wisdom that can grow from a life of belief and faithfulness.

It’s never enough to read just one.  It’s never enough to rest your faith on any one mantle, no matter how secure that mantle may seem.

But even so, here’s where the contradiction comes in:

Earlier this week, a friend of mine and I made a quick pilgrimage up to Hyde Park to visit the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.  I’ve done this several times because I love Presidential Libraries in general, and this one in particular, because President Roosevelt is one of my favorite American Presidents.  And each time I go I see something new, and hear something new that makes me think, and that helps me to understand the world and my civic duties within it in a new way.

This time, that came in the form of a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.  She said, in a way that’s almost so comical in its simplicity as to obscure its profundity.  She said, “The best way to begin is to begin.”

It’s true, isn’t it?  And while it’s true that the Bible is far too complex and rich to be consumed in snippets, and that doing so will rob us of our ability to really understand it, it’s also true that we shouldn’t let that stand in our way.  The best way to begin, is to begin.

One verse could never be enough to give us a full understanding of God, or Christ, or Spirit.  But you can’t read the second verse until you’ve read the first.  You can’t read the ninth, or the thirtieth, or the two-hundredth until you’ve read the one before.  We can’t expose ourselves to the truths - both contradictory and complimentary - that the word of God has to offer until we open ourselves to experiencing it.

In the “invitation to a holy Lent” that we hear each year on Ash Wednesday (and that you can read any time you need to in the Book of Common Prayer on page 264), we are invited to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

When we begin to understand the complexity of God’s holy Word it can be intimidating to consider approaching it.  But the best way to begin is to begin.  You’ll never know or grasp or probably even encounter everything that there is to be had in these words.  But the best way to begin, is to begin.

May this Lent be a season of beginning for us all.  Amen.

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