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Sunday 27th July 2010. Keith Mascord

Truth and Unity

John 16 12-15; John 17:1-13

I’d like, this morning, to look at a promise and a prayer of Jesus; the promise in John 16 and the prayer in John 17. I want to look at what has become of this promise and prayer; and also what they mean for us; what are their implications … for us and for our journeys of faith.

The context of both passages is the final hours of Jesus’ life. He is on the cusp of being killed. And John’s Gospel has Jesus spending these last hours with his disciples, sharing the last supper with them, giving them last minute instructions – praying for them, encouraging them.

In John 16, verses 12 and 13, Jesus says this:

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth …’ REPEAT

That is the promise. The prayer that Jesus prays (one of a number in these chapters) is found in chapter 17 of John.

In verse 11 of that chapter, Jesus prays,

‘Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in the name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.’

In verse 22 and following, Jesus prays this:

‘The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

The prayer is that the disciples would be one. The promise is that they (that we) will be led into all truth – by the Spirit of Christ.

Unity and truth! Having the truth and being united. That is clearly what Jesus wants for his disciples (for us).

The trouble is it doesn’t look like we have got it; neither the prayer nor the promise appears to have been answered or honored.

Looking back into church history all the way back to the first century, and then looking around us at the great variety of Christian beliefs that that history has produced, it doesn’t look at all like we’ve been led into all truth. We certainly are not united in our understanding of what is true.

How do we deal with this? How do you deal with this as a congregation? I am guessing that there is a range of beliefs & passions & convictions & priorities within this congregation (as is definitely the case at Holy Trinity). How do we deal with our differences?

And you are different and we are different to churches down the road and around the suburbs of this city – including within our own denomination. We are all very different; and certainly not very united as Christians, no matter which way we look.

I had this illustrated for me just recently. Earlier this year, my mum passed away. It was very sad. I am still sad, but what was good was that all of mum’s children, most of their spouses and many of the grandchildren could be here in Australia for the funeral.

My brother from Portland, Oregon came out; as did my sister from Calgary, Alberta, along with my younger sister from Melbourne. We could all be here to honor mum’s memory and to grieve together. It was very special.

But we are all very different to each other theologically – very different!

We differ in all sorts of ways. We differ along the Calvinist/Arminian continuum, some of us Calvinistic, some of us not. We differ on the way we read the Bible. Some of us are more literal; others of us are more comfortable with metaphor & myth & mystery. We differ on our understanding of the future. One of us thinks that after Jesus comes back he will reign for a thousand years on earth, the rest of us think differently or are skeptical about this whole way of thinking.

We are so very different in the way we understand our Christian faith; in the way we understand the Bible – reflecting our up-bringing, reflecting the churches we have become part of; reflecting the fact that half of my family is in North America and the other half is here in Australia.

And those differences are found within just one family. What about your families?

My family is at least united in being Protestant. We are not Roman Catholic or Orthodox.

I grew up thinking that Roman Catholics weren’t Christian. I know of Orthodox people who don’t think we are Christian (Catholics or Protestants) – that if you are not Orthodox you are not Christian.

We are SO disunited, are we not … so not at one in our understanding of what is true?!

What has become of Jesus’ promise and prayer?

Before trying to unravel and resolve it, let me sharpen the problem a little further.

If you are already a bit depressed, let me make you a little more depressed – before I try to apply some medication!

There are one or two strange paradoxes about this issue of truth and unity.

One is that they seem to work against each other. It seems that those who are most committed to the truth … who put the biggest emphasis on the truth – are the least interested in unity, or they are only interested in unity with those who think like them!

Because truth matters so much to them – and, in many cases, they have decided what is true – they are not very interested in being associated with those who differ from them.

Passion for the truth can make people less inclined to pursue unity, except on their own terms.

Another (related) paradox is that those most convinced that they have the truth – all bottled and sewn up – almost certainly haven’t.

Jesus promised that his Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth, but ironically, those who believe (and perhaps trumpet the fact) that they have come closest to this ‘all truth’ – very often are a long way shy.

I was speaking at Prison Fellowship’s National Conference a month or two back – and they have recently adopted the Nicene Creed as their International Statement of Faith – and a reason for that is that in Eastern Europe most of their workers are of Orthodox background, in South America, Roman Catholic – and they have gone for a statement of faith that can unify them.

But there is a contrary tendency often at work within churches to keep adding to the list of core beliefs that would make you acceptably part of their fellowship – with this adding of extra beliefs often used as a means of excluding others and stifling differences of opinion.

And the more that happens the more likely it is that these churches become sectarian. Throw in a strong leader or two – and you can end up with a cult.

You’d think that the desire to nail down the truth would get us further along the road to all truth – but too often it seems to have the opposite effect.

What does that do to Jesus’ promise and prayer? Does it not make it even harder to see how it could be honored and answered?

Well perhaps. It does seem to make it harder.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Is there a way that we as Christians can be united on the way to all truth?

I think there is.

Let me make 4 suggestions that might help to get us there; 4 guiding principles that, should we follow them, would unite us on the way to all truth.

The first guiding principle is that we need to see this as a process, perhaps even a never-ending process, something we will need to always be engaged in – certainly in this life. Jesus said,

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth …’

That side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples had much they didn’t understand, much that they weren’t in a position to understand – but even after his death and resurrection, the disciples had a lot of processing to do – a process that took years and it continues to this day.

The New Testament (which was written over a period of 50 years or so) tells the story (explicitly and implicitly) of this unfolding process of understanding & appropriation.

Every generation since that first generation; every people group to whom the gospel has come has had to do the same – to read what we now have in the Scriptures and to understand it (as best they can) and to appropriate and internalize it … and externalize it in forms of liturgy and service.

We don’t stop. We never stop – interrogating and being interrogated by the story of Jesus and what that means for us.

It is not surprising that this process has produced the often wonderful and enlightening, although sometimes frustrating and misleading variety of responses down through history and around the world. We can learn much from that variety – if we are open to learn.

A second guiding principle that might help us understand and appropriate Jesus’ promise and prayer is that all truth is God’s truth.

We all want to know what is true. We all would like to be guided into all truth (into as much of the truth as we can find & grasp & embrace).

We want this promise to be fulfilled for us.

In terms of the conservative/liberal spectrum … literalistic fundamentalists down this end --- highly skeptical & hardly-recognizable-as-Christian liberals way down the other end … most people on this spectrum are committed to truth (in one form or another).

Some think that we can’t know the truth, but even they believe that is true.

We all want to live in the light of what is true.

And there are pitfalls at both ends of that spectrum aren’t there – and in the middle and all the way through?!

Conservatives down through the years have too often resisted the truth (when it comes from sources outside of the Bible) even when that truth becomes plain and well-evidenced. They have held out for a flat earth or an earth-centered universe or a young earth or slavery or apartheid or patriarchy. They have even been known to lie for God – in trying to hold onto beliefs when the evidence keeps mounting up in the opposite direction … and they have to twist the evidence to make it fit their view.

Liberals, on the other hand, although they are more open, in principle, to following the evidence wherever it leads, too often have just given in to the latest fads and fashions; without being critical, as they should be, of many of these trends.

But my point is that we don’t have to be afraid of the truth – whatever its source; whether geology or psychology or history or archaeology or physics. All truth is God’s truth – and we need to be open to reading and re-reading our Scriptures in the light of all we know to be true.

We won’t be led into all truth – unless we are always open to the truth – no matter how inconvenient or unsettling.

A third hopefully helpful guiding principle is love. Jesus, in praying that his disciples would be united, spells that out in terms of love.

Unity of belief is important and is something we can strive towards, but in Biblical terms more important than belief is love.

In the context where Jesus prays for unity he says this (and notice that he also mentions knowledge), verse 25 of chapter 17 of John:

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The sort of unity that Jesus has in mind here is the unifying presence of God’s love; more than that it is the unifying presence of God – who is love.

In John’s first Epistle, he puts it this way, in chapter 4, verse 7:

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.’

Verse 12:

‘No-one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.’

It is possible, you know, to love even those we disagree with – even those whose understanding and appropriation of the Christian story is different to ours – even if we think they could do better – if they came a bit our way!!

The truest or deepest Christian unity is the unity of love.

And a good reason for that can be seen when we consider one final and most important guiding principle.

There is every good reason to think that when Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth, the ‘all truth’ that he was referring to - primarily, if not exclusively - was the truth about Jesus.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, IS the truth. Jesus is the truth about God. In the quest for truth, Jesus is the primary referent. He is the major destination.

Where would the Spirit lead the disciples? The Spirit would lead the disciples back to Jesus … always.

The Spirit of God never-endingly leads us back to Jesus – to this amazing Word of God (revealer of God) – full of grace and truth … full of love, for God is love.

Do you know something, and this is probably true for you as well, in all of my 57 years, throughout all of my Christian life – filled with many turns, filled with many paths – often away from understandings I had had as a child – through many incarnations of faith; sometimes this way, sometimes that way, sometimes backwards, sometimes forward, sometimes doubtful, sometimes more certain – I have always been led back (time & time & time again) to Jesus – to this wonderful man, to this wonderful God in human flesh.

Jesus’ promise has proved true for me – and it is this Jesus and his love and grace that keeps me united – despite our many differences – with my brother and two sisters and with a host of other people I know I don’t see eye to eye with.

When I spoke and my siblings all spoke at my mum’s funeral just over two months ago, we were united in our love for our mother (who knew and loved this Jesus), we were united in our love for each other, we were united in our love for Jesus – who keeps on teaching us the meaning of love; who keeps on showing us the Father, whose Spirit continues to produce Christ-like love in each and every one of us – as we continue to be led into all truth.

It is by his Spirit that you at St Luke’s are united and can stay united (despite your many differences) as you and I (and all of us) continue along that road towards all truth.


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