Sunday, May 13, 2012

Defining Truth

Defining Truth
1 Jn. 5:1-6[1]
It seems to me that our culture is locked in a battle over truth.  Unfortunately, in our debate over truth, we are simply talking past each other rather than actually discussing our differences.  I think part of the problem is that we have very different views on “truth.”  We differ greatly over the central idea that shapes us, forms us, and defines how we live our lives.  Is it that we are a society governed of the people, by the people, and for the people?  Or is it that common people have to be supervised by the millionaires and billionaires that have the money to buy out our government?  Is our defining truth that we are a beacon of freedom and compassion for the whole world, seeking to help those who are suffering and struggling?  Or is it that we are the world’s only remaining superpower, able to exert our will wherever and whenever we please?  Is our defining truth that we are an increasingly diverse people, and that diversity is our strength?  Or is it that we are a people who insist that everybody conform to the same ideals—mine!
We might call these central ideas our “defining truths.”  Defining truths are very powerful.  They determine a great deal about us—from what we think about political and social issues to how we relate to others and ourselves to what we hold as our faith convictions.  Unfortunately, many of us were instilled from childhood with defining truths like, “you’ll never do it right,” or “you’ll never be good enough to be worthy of love,” or “you don’t deserve to be here.”[2]  These kinds of statements may have been imposed verbally on us by parents who couldn’t handle their own feelings.  Or for some of us, our childish minds came to the conclusion that they must be true based on the way we were treated.  Sadly, those defining truths have a way of controlling our whole lives.  From work to family to money to faith, our defining truths have a way of running our whole lives.  And they can have a way of ruining our lives.
Our lesson from 1 John for today tells us that our faith gives us victory. [3]  I think part of the victory that our faith gives to us is to expose the lies that masquerade as our defining truths.  As we discussed last week, the Christian Gospel is that in Jesus God somehow came among us to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering, our struggles, and even our loneliness. One of the most important reasons why God went to all that trouble was to make it clear that we are not worthless, rejected, unloved people.  Rather we are—all of us and every single one of us—the focus of God’s unconditional and irrevocable love!
Some in our day will debate whether this version of “faith” as a “truth” that defines our lives is really all that helpful.  They will point instead to the idea that faith is simply a matter of trust.  I certainly would not want to minimize trust as an important aspect of our faith.  And I agree that when our defining truth becomes “THE defining truth,” we can do great harm in the name of that truth.  But that doesn’t mean that we should discard the notion of truth entirely from our faith.[4] 
One of the most important facets of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection is that all of it is a magnificent demonstration of a defining truth.  It is the truth that God loves us all, and will stop at nothing to reach us with that love.  It is the truth that there is no depth to which God will not go to embrace each and every human being with that love.  It is the truth that even death and hell itself cannot prevent God from reaching us with that love. When I think of faith as the “victory,” I think of it as not overcoming the “world,” so much as overcoming the fear and the shame and the pain that the defining lies we have lived with have inflicted on us all.  I think our faith that Jesus shows us God’s love for us all is a “defining truth,” an idea that sets us free to live the lives we were meant to live.
And when we can embrace that defining truth so completely that it frees us from the lies that have kept us bound—some of us for decades!—then we can also take that freedom and share it with the people around us, most of whom also have their own lies that defined them and have kept them bound and chained.  Then we can become the kind of people who love one another like Jesus loved us, by laying down our lives for our friends (Jn. 15:13).[5]  And when we embrace the truth that God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, then we can understand that there’s nobody out there who falls outside the definition of a “friend” we are called to love by laying down our lives for them.[6]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/13/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, 20. She calls this “the trance of unworthiness.”
[3] Cf. G. Strecker and H. W. Attridge, The Johannine Letters, 182; cf. even more definitively Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 271: faith “ amounts to a ‘confession,’ or ‘acknowledgment,’ about Jesus as both divine and human.”
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 20: “We all need a ‘way,’ I am not denying that, but I deny that anyone has the authority to Capitalize their way.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:835, where he defines the “victory” of faith in terms of the love that St. Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13:7 as “bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.” He compares it to  “the victory which takes place in and with the fact that love cannot waver, tire or cease in relation either to God or the neighbor …. It bears and believes and hopes and endures.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 117, 120-21, where he defines this attitude as “open and total friendship.”  Cf. also Brach, Radical Acceptance, 301, where offers an excellent definition of “friendliness” when she says, “We only need to pause, see clearly who is before us and open wide our heart.”

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