4th Great End of the Truth: The Preservation of the Truth

Isaiah 45:18-18, John 14:1-7, March 10, 2013

There is a kind of stately power in the words of the Great Ends of the Church. Every time I sit down with people and talk about them, someone points out how high-sounding, how lofty, the language sounds. This week is no exception:  today's Great End is "the preservation of the truth." The church exists to preserve the truth. OK. I think we're all in favor of the truth, and yet there's something elusive about truth. And there's a certain power, even danger in declaring that one has "the truth."

Organized religion is under attack these days on a number of fronts. There are some popular and prominent writers and thinkers who attack belief in God as an illusion or wishful thinking. One even called his book, "The God Delusion." [Richard Dawkins] Some of them make the point that if believers could simply stop putting their faith in God and start taking responsibility for themselves, if we could stop trying to live our lives guided by stories from the Bible--a source they find riddled with errors and completely unreliable--all of society would be better off.  Some of these authors point out that wars have been fought over religious doctrine. Others that precious resources are wasted by people who affirm a faith that is unprovable and, in their opinion, demonstrably false.

While I am not an expert on the thinking of what some are calling "the New Atheists"I have read enough of their work to not be persuaded by them. In my experience the dogma, practice and faith they criticize simply do not exist.  They would be shocked to find, for example, that I, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, do not believe that the creation stories as recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis are literally true. In fact, I even affirm that they cannot be literally true, because there are two of them and they contradict each other. I find truth in their words, I find truth in the stories they tell that point beyond facts—which can be proven and disproven--to truth about God on which I base my faith. The New Atheists portray believers, unfairly and inaccurately, as refusing to accept hard facts and as having based their faith on make-believe.

I remember the glee we had in Sunday school years ago when we found contradictions in the Bible. "Oh look," we'd point out to Mr. Williams, "Here it says Jesus rode up to the temple on a donkey and cleansed the temple, [Matthew 22] but here it says, 'because it was already late in the evening he returned to Bethany with the twelve.' [Mark 11] Since they can't both be right, there's an error and therefore the whole Bible is invalid and disproved!" I was a debater in high school. I was also insufferable.

The fact is very few Christians believe that the Bible is literally, factually accurate. Nearly all of us, however, believe that God's will and purpose are revealed to humanity through the Bible. And very, very few of us believe understanding the words in the Bible is simple, easy and straightforward. We talked about this very idea Wednesday night.

If when we say one of the purposes of the church is to preserve the truth, and we understand that to mean that the Bible is literally true, that raises a lot of huge questions: which version of the Bible? We had five profoundly different versions around the table. One, The Message, is a paraphrase that tries to convey ideas and concepts more than trying to be accurate to the original texts.  Another version was published in the late 1940s in Scotland. The way English was written then is very different from how we use it today.  Another version of the Bible was the Revised Standard Version, parts of which are more than 50 years old now.  That was published in the United States.  There was The Good News Bible which came out in the 1970s and tried to reach people who had a grade school reading level. We even had the New Revised Standard Version, which is about 20 years old now and which reflects discoveries about the original texts of the Bible that have been made in our lifetimes.

This means that when we look at the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that in his Father's house there is "room to spare," or "many dwelling places" or "many rooms" or "many mansions." Each of those descriptions is different and distinct. Each paints a different picture of Jesus' Father's house. That is only one small example of how complicated it is to study the Bible. And how engaging it is to study it in groups.

Language changes over time. And we believe that God is eternal. And we believe that God's love for Creation is eternal. The only way we can continue to encounter the unchanging truth of God as we meet God in the Living Word of scripture, is by constantly changing the words of the Bible to reflect how we use words in this moment. And let me add, that we are not playing fast and loose with scripture. And if we approach the Bible with integrity and seek to translate it accurately and faithfully, we will learn that we need to continually find new ways to convey the ideas contained in scripture to modern believers. We will also find hard, difficult and painful truths.

The sum of the Bible is not its words alone.  Here's what the Confession of 1967 says about the Bible. This is kind of a long quote, but I think it's important, on a day when we're talking about truth, to hear and understand this

The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God's work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless words of human beings, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken the divine word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that God will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.  God's word is spoken to the church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction. [9.29, 30]

And here's another complication. Not only does language change, we change. On Wednesday night someone shared how she read the Bible from cover to cover in her younger days and when she did it again two decades later she had a completely different experience. The words had not changed, but she had. That is an important thing to keep in mind when you approach the Bible. We claim that God is alive; we claim that Christ is alive; we claim that the Holy Spirit is alive and we know that we, ourselves are alive. And to be alive is to change.

So here we are this morning, hearing that one of the reasons the church of Jesus Christ exists is to preserve the truth.  Truth cannot be simply the words we find in the Bible. We're left to struggle with Pilate's famous question to Jesus, "what is truth?" In fact, that very question is one of the texts that were suggested that we study when we consider "the preservation of the truth." It strikes me as a question of despair or boredom or futility. In "The Last Temptation of Christ," David Bowie plays Pilate and asks "what is truth?" with a weary, detached indifference. It's much better if we look at the gospel lesson in its fullness as we consider "what is truth?"

Jesus is speaking to his disciples; it's really just a sound bite of his farewell instructions to them. He is telling them not to be afraid. He tells them that he's going ahead to prepare a place for them, and that he will return and retrieve them. He says this place is in his Father's house. We imagine he's speaking of heaven. He tells those closest to him that they know the way to this place.

Well. Nuh-uh. Thomas pipes up and says, "We don't even know where you're going, so how can we know the way?" You've probably heard me say this before, but I really think it's not fair to think of this disciple as "Doubting Thomas." Thomas, in this story, is bold enough to raise his hand and ask a hard question of the Teacher. Thomas is the student who is hungry, passionate even, to understand. And all teachers know, when one student asks a question there are at least a handful of other students who are too timid to ask it, or so lost they cannot even put a question into words. Thomas, the attentive student asks, "How can we know the way?" And Jesus responds, with words we have all heard before, "I am the way, and the truth and the life."

Now this gives us some jarring, new ways to imagine truth, and the church's task to preserve the truth. Jesus gives us three strong and distinct ways to imagine him. Jesus is the way, we might think of him as the road, the pathway to God the Father. In fact, the passage continues, "No one comes to the Father except through me." This verse has been used to justify horrible wrongs in the name of Jesus Christ, because some Christians have understood that only they have access to God and others are completely cut off from God's love, regard or protection. This is a selfish, irresponsible way to understand what Jesus said. Following Jesus, trying to live his example of obedience and humility are, as I see it, what he means when he calls himself "the way."  The truth that he claims to be is a truth that we all need to hear, trust and believe. Simply put, it is the truth that God loves each one of us.  God loves every single one of us, and God loves the whole earth and everything God created. Years ago a very wise colleague told me that in every worship service he finds a way to say, "God loves you." Every single time he leads worship we makes sure that that idea is communicated to the people. He knew that someone, and probably a whole lot of the people gathered for worship needed desperately to hear that simple message. That is the truth. The truth that Christ came to lead us to. That is the truth that gives us life. That is the truth that we find in the Bible. Whether the words say that there are mansions or rooms or dwelling places, the truth is that God's love is large enough to embrace every single one of us.

And that God, our Creator, made the world and everything in it. Without trying to explain the earth and sky scientifically, we can understand more than the words of the Bible, but also the deep love, the empassioned love for us and everything we see. And what we do not see. What we understand and what is
beyond our understanding.

At the start of our gospel passage this morning, Jesus says, "believe" or "trust" or "have faith" in me. However we understand what Jesus is telling us, there is always certain amount of risk in putting trust in anything. Even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves! And yet, living on the other side of taking that chance leads us to a life that is true.  And it is this truth that binds us to the Living God. And it is living this truth that makes usfree. And that is the truth the church of Jesus Christ is called to preserve. Amen.