THE TRUTH TESTIMONY OF THE FATHER AND THE SON
Sermon delivered on the 17th May 2015 the Sunday after Ascension Day by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the Holy Eucharist at St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 1 John 5: 9-13 S. John 17: 6-19
S. John 17:13,17 Jesus said, "These things I speak in the world, that (my disciples) may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. ... Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth."
There is a great concern expressed in the New Testament, and particularly in the Johannine writings, for Truth. We will remember that it is in St John’s account of the passion of the Lord, that an exchange between Jesus and Pilate ends with Pilate asking, perhaps mockingly, “What is Truth?” In today’s Epistle and Gospel also there is considerable emphasis on testimony or witness, terms that we sometimes encounter in judicial proceedings of various sorts. In the Epistle St John emphasises that God provides reliable testimony concerning His Son, and in the Gospel Jesus affirms that He has declared the Name of God and the words of God to His followers faithfully, and that in receiving them they enter into the realm of Truth.
Anybody who has read into Church History with an honest mind will perceive that in the arguments and agreements reached in the early centuries about Creeds, doctrines and the Canon of Scripture the primary concern was to express the truth. As Jesus says in His great prayer of today’s Gospel, “Thy Word is truth.” - and He prays that His disciples may be sanctified in the truth. Whether or not the life and testimony of God would be conveyed to subsequent generations hung upon the truth of the words and formulations used ever since by the Church. St. Irenaeus and the other great thinkers and Fathers of the Church wrote and spoke so strongly against Gnosticism for this reason: that they discerned that these gnostic teachings could cause many to lose their eternal reward and joy, and that in these false words and teachings, God and His holy Name were dishonoured. In recent years there have been people building up arguments that this attempt by the Fathers of the Church to pass on the truth and exclude falsehood from the Church’s teachings was nothing but an exercise of power and vicious intolerance towards other sorts of Christians. Views have been expressed that the four canonical Gospels of Holy Scripture were only four out of many Gospels, that there were different forms of Christianity in the early centuries and that it was wrong for the most powerful form of it to have gained such ascendancy over the others as to suppress them. The great issue, however, is of what is actually the true testimony, and what is actually faithful to the Spirit of truth, and this was the guiding issue in the debates of the early Christian centuries. Can it be that we in the early years of the 21st century must be condemned not to give a greater weighting to matters of truth and falsehood in our common life than Pontius Pilate did? Back in the days when the newspapers and even the electronic media began, the justification for their existence would, I am sure, in large part be that the public had a right to hear the truth. But does a concern for truth genuinely exist in any depth any more in a sound-bite age, or the age of the social media? Whether so or not, St John reminds us that the high regard accorded to true testimony, a regard for the word of truth that takes precedence over the word of misrepresentation for selfish advantage, is to be the hallmark of Jesus’ followers. Coming out of a British election campaign which probably included some apocryphal allegations, and going into an an American campaign which is more than likely to, not to mention the current sniping of Cayman politics, we perhaps specially need to be reminded of these things, but it has to be said that it is not just in Cayman or Britain or North America that this reminder is appropriate, but throughout the West in many fields, including those of high finance and of institutionally-backed science.
The second lesson today, for instance, declares, “if we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that He has borne witness to His Son.” In the judicial proceedings of the first century a case had to be established by the testimony of two witnesses. St John is saying that the truth-value of God’s testimony is at least as great as the truth-value of two men. The scripture leading into this particular passage shows us that St. John probably has in mind the witness of the shedding of blood and water from the pierced side of Jesus at Calvary, or perhaps, and in parallel to this, the water baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and the bloody crucifixion at Calvary. The Synoptic Gospels tell of the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion, which must also be regarded as divine testimony to the Son of God. St. John goes on to say that those who receive God’s testimony to His Son are those who believe in the Son, and those who receive the testimony and believe in the Son are those that have life; while those who do not receive the testimony do not have life. We are evidently thinking of issues of truth possessing life or death implications.
In today's Gospel, which is part of the great prayer of Jesus known as His high priestly prayer, Jesus’ prayer for His disciples is that they will be sanctified or consecrated “in the Truth”. From the issue of the truth about Jesus that we have considered from the epistle, we turn to the issue of the truth about God, manifested by Jesus. Jesus was far from being merely a good man, held out to us as an example. On Him hangs the manifestation to us of the divine authority and the name of God. Jesus prays that upon His departure from the world, the disciples will be kept in the truth of that manifestation. Their unity and integrity depend upon it. So again, we see from St John that matters of the Truth about God and Jesus are life or death issues for us. This is a way of thinking about the importance of truth that we in our age are in great danger of altogether losing. From her own sources of belief the church is called to recover it and to teach it. The Truth about God and about Jesus is not merely certain religious peoples’ preference that you can believe or not and there will be no consequences. No, indeed, the consequences of belief or disbelief, receiving the testimony or not receiving the testimony are very great - and in the negative instance very terrible, as the great movements and causes of the last century have often shown, as well as some that are increasingly evidently threatening the common weal of our life today and quite possibly for generations to come.
We are now in that part of the calendar known as Ascensiontide, and the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 is a sort of entering in to the mystery of the Ascension of our humanity into heaven, redeemed and glorified by the finished work of the Saviour, after which Jesus would no longer be visibly or bodily present to his disciples, except in occasional manifestations. Jesus prayed that at that time the Father would keep His followers within His authority, within His Name that had been manifested to them. The first lesson from Acts shows us one way in which this concern for the apostles’ spiritual integrity as a group was exercised: there was an appointment of a replacement to the Twelve in place of the defected Judas, a sign of the corporate and spiritual continuity of what Jesus had established. Jesus had established the primacy of the words of Truth in the common life of His disciples and those who would follow them. In the midst of our truth-shy age, it remains our primary task as Jesus' followers to continue to establish the words and the works of the Spirit of truth. May we not be afraid to play our part.