When I mount the pulpit at Holy Trinity, it often feels like I’m ensconcing myself in an armored tank, preparing to fire down a round of doctrine upon the people in pews below. These days, I’m much more comfortable preaching from the center aisle, in the midst of the community gathered. I know it may sound like a small thing, but it reflects my ever-evolving understanding of what it means to be a person of faith who is called to lead a community of faith.
The sermon is a time-honored tradition in Christian churches, and a unique form of communication. That communication tends to be one-way, with the “expert” imparting truth to a captive audience that can only sit and passively take it all in. When I first began preaching, I bought into that model and felt a responsibility to work really hard at studying a Biblical text until I arrived at the absolute truth it revealed so I could share that with my listeners. I wonder now how I ever could have been so presumptuous.
Back when I began preaching and I wrote all my sermons out by hand, I used to save them in a file cabinet with one drawer for each year of the three-year lectionary and a separate file folder for each Sunday. I thought I would be saving myself some work, in the long run, because when I moved onto the next parish I could just pull out an old sermon, dust it off a bit, and preach it again. But that’s not how it worked. Instead, each time I pulled out a sermon I once had preached and I read it, I would think, “How could I have said that? I would never say that now.” When I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, I trashed the filing cabinet and everything in it. That experience helped me to see how the truth is always changing for us. It’s not etched in bronze for all time. It’s fluid, ever expanding, never neat and tidy, often taking us in a direction we hadn’t expected.
That same fluidity of truth is evident in the Scriptures themselves. If you really take the Bible seriously, you know that it was never intended to be read as the absolute-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth-so-help-me-God-forever-and-ever-amen. It was written by a variety of people in a variety of contexts who understood truth in a variety of ways. Its authors had one thing in common: they were all living in relationship with God and all were trying their best to make sense of it. When we study the Scriptures, we’re allowing the way its authors experienced God to inform our own experience of God. It’s like one person of faith sharing with another person of faith. That’s the value of the Scriptures for me. They become a part of my faith community as we walk together on the journey God has for us. We’re all figuring it out as we go, trusting the Spirit to guide us. And we’re helped along the way by the witnesses who have left us their legacy of faith in the Scriptures, as well as the other witnesses we meet, including the people who worship with us weekly. Yes, even the preacher. (And, lest you failed to notice the obvious -- an occasional blogger.)
Last week I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that said, “When all else fails, read the instructions” and it showed a picture of an open Bible. I recall that I once could have worn such a t-shirt. I don’t think they make t-shirts for the spiritual place I’m in now. Faith development theory says that we all pass through different stages of faith in our lives. We begin with a need to have clearly defined instructions, right and wrong answers, and we move toward a faith that is less rigid, more open to mystery, ambiguity, and universal truth. I don’t know if it happens like this for everybody, but, in my life, this has certainly been the case.
I often hear young adults who have left the church tell me that “religion is just a crutch people use to get through life.” I guess for some people it never becomes more than that. The most primitive religion is fear-based, motivated by a desire to appease the wrath of an angry God. Young people who are bright and perceptive naturally come to a time when they can see the folly of this, and they reject it. What grieves me is when they also reject the spiritual path. I believe what they need most is to be a part of faith community that will pull them toward a broader understanding of truth. It can be disillusioning to discover that the faith you held onto as the truth isn’t so true for you anymore. But if that’s where you find yourself, let me assure you, your discomfort is only God’s way of leading you to a new place. Don't abandon the path!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the lectionary text we have before us this week. It’s from the 14th chapter of John. In Jesus’ last night with his disciples, he tells them that he’s going to prepare a place for them. When Thomas wants to know how to get there, Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This was the text for the sermon I preached at my home congregation in Hamilton, Ohio while I was a still a seminary student. (A sermon which was no doubt a part of the filing cabinet that never made it to North Carolina.) Thirty five years ago, when I preached on this text from John 14, I said that Jesus is the only way to salvation. And, by that, I meant that Jesus paid the price for our admission to heaven and if we want to go there, we have to believe in him. I probably didn’t use those exact words, but I’m sure my message was along those lines because that’s where my brain was back when I was in my early twenties. That’s not where it is now.
According to John’s witness, Jesus is the way. And that’s my witness, too. Jesus is the way. But it’s not the way to heaven that I’m all that concerned about these days. I’m holding out for something larger than that. My life is a journey toward becoming the person God created me to be. God is pulling me toward authenticity and wholeness in my life so that I can have a relationship with him that is both honest and complete, without anything standing between us. I’m growing toward that. And as I am, the same truth keeps confronting me again and again. It is the truth of death and resurrection. In order to find the person God created me to be, I must first lose the person I have created myself to be. The persona I have created for myself, to protect myself, is not at all the person I truly am before God. If I want an authentic relationship with God, that persona has got to go. And, as much as I might like to believe otherwise, this kind of transformation in my life can only happen through struggle and loss. That’s the way of the cross, the Jesus way. I know that I’ll only experience a relationship with God in all its fullness after I die, when the self-destructive junk I cling to in this life is completely taken from me, but in the meanwhile, I’m on a journey that’s headed in that direction. The way to get there is the Jesus way.
In this passage from John's gospel, Jesus’ disciples want to know the way, and he tells them clearly that he is the way. “If you want to find God, if you want to know what God is all about, all you have to do is look to me,” he says. This takes us back to the very beginning of John’s gospel where he writes, "No one has seen God. But the only begotten Son, who rests in the very bosom of the Father, he has made him known."
Now John is bringing his gospel account to a close. Jesus is about to be betrayed, abandoned, handed over, tried, insulted, beaten and then nailed to a cross. Why? When we look to Jesus as the one who showed us the very essence of God in his life, there can be no doubt that God is all about love. So, why did Jesus die on a cross? Was it to appease an angry God? Or to take the punishment we deserve? Absolutely not! Consistent with his life’s purpose, it was to show us God -- to show us the depth of God's love.
This isn’t just something to benefit those of us who call ourselves Christians. It’s a truth that applies to all people, no matter what name they might use for God. That truth is: when we lose our lives, we gain them. It’s only when our false selves are stripped away that our authentic selves are revealed and we can enjoy the relationship we were created to have with God in all its fullness. It’s a universal truth. And it’s the Jesus way. In fact, it’s also the way Jesus revealed to us who God truly is in all his fullness. By emptying himself on the cross he showed us that God is love.
Is that THE truth? No, I wouldn’t dare suggest that. I can only tell you that it’s MY truth. Today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not my truth next year, not if the Spirit is still moving in my life. I hope you know, that’s always the case whether I’m standing before you preaching or you’re reading the words of my blog on a computer screen. I’m not telling you how it is. I’m just a person of faith sharing my truth with you as one of the witnesses God has sent into your life to accompany you for a time in your own faith journey. Don’t think you have to agree with me. If need be, struggle with my witness for a bit along the way, and then keep moving.