Jesus said ‘Sanctify them in truth, your word is truth.’ The word truth is a word that we find frequently in the Gospel of St. John. Let me give you a few more examples than the words we have just heard in our Gospel this morning.
In chapter 1, we read that Jesus is ‘full of grace and truth’(1). In chapter four that we are to worship ‘in spirit and truth’(2). That Jesus testified to the ‘truth’ in chapter five(3). That the ‘truth will make you free’ in chapter eight(4). In chapter fourteen that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth the life’(5).
That we will be led ‘into all truth’ in chapter sixteen(6) and so it goes on.
The contrast with the other three Gospels couldn’t be greater. In Matthew’s Gospel the word truth is never heard. In Mark once and in Luke we hear it twice. So we could say that the fourth Gospel is one obsessed with talking about truth.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Jesus comes before a rather bewildered Pilate he asks ‘What is truth?’(7)
It’s this question I want to explore a bit this morning, as we ponder the words we’ve heard in our Gospel when Jesus prays that his followers may be sanctified ‘in truth’.
For me John’s obsession with the truth isn’t just about events, whether they happened, or whether they were true. The Gospel is also speaking of something rather more profound.
The truth of which John speaks is about the truth at the heart of all things. A truth that we can’t quite pin down yet we know to be real. A truth that invites us to live expectantly, believing that more is to come as we are ‘led into all truth.’
Last year I was fortunate to spend some time with the Dominican priest and theologian Timothy Radcliffe when he came to give two talks to Churches Together.
He was an inspiring person to be with, not least because his life has been spent working out what the motto of his order ‘veritas’ or in English ‘truth’ means.
For them whilst some truth has been given in the person of Jesus Christ, to follow him means to live a life dedicated to seeking his truth at work in the world now. A world which is as we all know is diverse, made up of people of different faiths and none.
I once heard a radio interview with him when he was asked how he reconciled the truth of his faith as a Christian with the truth of someone of another faith.
His reply has stayed with me. He spoke beautifully about how truth was not to be understood as a means to separate us, as if it was something to be possessed. He was secure in what truth he knew but he was also deeply interested in what truth would be revealed by the other.
He said we’d got rather stuck into a vision of truth bound to literalism. Whereas the truth of which he spoke, and of which I think the fourth Gospel speaks is rather different. It is richer, and deeper.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. At the beginning of the Bible we hear the story of Adam and Eve. Now that story is not literally true. I don’t believe Adam and Eve walked this earth. Yet that story is filled with truth. About temptation and making the wrong choice. About blame and responsibility. About our ability to deceive ourselves.
So truth is more than whether or not something happened and that’s what the fourth Gospel invites us time and again to ponder. ‘The truth will set you (us) free’ as St. John wrote, the question for us today is do we want it to?
Perhaps we would we rather be spoon fed our faith, told what to believe and what to do. I think some people do want that. But I don’t think that’s what preaching is about. I don’t think I’m here to reinforce simple truths or encourage lazy thinking.
I believe that God wants us to be free, free to be creative, to think and grow and flourish. The preacher’s task for me is more to offer a lens through which to see, rather than tell you what you are seeing. To invite the listener to be inquisitive, truth seekers.
This is what the words ‘sanctify them in the truth’ mean for me. We are made holy as we seek the truth.
I’m glad to belong to a church which, sometimes uncomfortably, is open to new truths being revealed. Just think of the truths that have been revealed afresh in each generation.
Insights have been given that have changed the way we see things, from slavery, to women’s ordination, from race, to human sexuality. Thank God we might say.
And no doubt new truths will be revealed in the future, unwrapped one layer at a time. The challenge is to not close our hearts and minds off to them, but to be open, willing to think and change and grow.
A couple of weeks ago we watched the movie Victoria and Abdul. A film in which Victoria becomes enchanted by a Muslim from India.
Abdul became an unpopular figure amongst the establishment, they didn’t like him at all, he disturbed the order of their lives. But Victoria warmed to him (at least in the film) because he opened up for her new truths and ways of seeing and being.
The life of the church isn’t one of being a club for the comfortable but a place where we are stretched and challenged, invited to think and live differently. As I draw to a close I offer you some words of poetry, as we pray to be sanctified, made holy by the truth.
Truth is here but never quite yet
unwrapped one beautiful layer at a time.
There’s only so much we can bare you see
only so much we can dare to be.
Unsettling truth this, to be lived each day
truth now and not yet,
yesterday and more than we can say.
This truth is danger,
this truth is what
makes us live and love
and through in our lot.
We are being led into the truth that sets us free. For me, for us, we explore that truth in the company of the one who said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord.