A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (1:15-17, 21-26)
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.
4 It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.
A Reading from First Letter of John (5:9-13)
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (17:6-19)
Jesus prayed for his disciples saying, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And 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 your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
In St. John’s account of the trial of Jesus, when Pilate asks him whether he is in fact a king, Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Here is Jesus’ own description of what his mission was all about: to testify to the truth. And in response, Pilate poses the question, “What is truth?”
That is a question that challenges people of all ages, including our own: “What is truth?” It is one with which we find ourselves wrestling throughout our lives, both in society as a whole and in the church.
In our society, especially during an election year, we find ourselves trying to distinguish truth from falsehood. Several organizations, like PolitiFact and Factcheck, specialize in examining claims made by political candidates and commentators in order to determine the relative truth of what they say. And I am sure that none of you is surprised that not all of things that the candidates and commentators say are exactly the truth. Among other things, candidates and their supporters seem always ready to try to claim a high, moral justification for their positions, even when those positions clearly contradict the values espoused in the scriptures of both Old Testament and New.
Even in churches, we find ourselves facing that question, “What is truth?” There we encounter conflicting approaches to the Bible and to other parts of our religious heritage. There are some people who claim to take the scripture’s words literally, supposedly without interpretation — although the choice to take that approach is itself an interpretation. Such a fundamentalist approach is actually one that gained popularity only in the past century, and not really the traditional way to view the sacred writings at all.
Understanding the scriptures, probing them, living by then is never so simple, or so simplistic, as fundamentalists claim. Yet trying to understand them and trying to live by them is critical for those who would be followers of Jesus.
The gospel reading that we heard this morning is part of Jesus’ so-called “high priestly prayer” from John’s account of the Last Supper. And, in the concluding verses of that reading, John has Jesus refer to “truth” three times: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Our role, like that of Jesus, is to testify to the truth. But that brings us back to the question “What is truth?”
As you know, I have spent much of my professional career studying and teaching about the Bible. And when people have asked me, usually in reference either to the creation stories or to some supposedly historical event, whether I believe that the Bible is true, my standard answer is “Yes. I do believe that the Bible is true; and some of it actually happened.”
There is a big difference between the two. Truth is far greater than a mere accounting of what actually happened: what we would have seen if we had been there at the time or had access to a video and audio record of an event. Truth includes the meaning of what has happened, the significance of the stories that have been told. And that deeper truth is far more important than questions about whether or not something happened exactly the way that the stories describe.
Children, in elementary schools, work through a series of assignments helping them to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, between fact and opinion. But gradually, they come to learn that just because something is fiction does not mean that it is not true. Just to use one example, I would assert without hesitation that the plays of Shakespeare are true, even though very few of the events portrayed in them ever happened. They present us with truth at a far deeper and richer level than a mere listing of events could ever do.
Great literature, music, the social and physical sciences, mathematics and all the various fields of human study and knowledge have the potential of enabling us to see one or another aspect of the truth, one or another way of viewing the truth. They obviously do so in vastly different ways, but each has something to contribute, whether or not they purport to tell us how things actually happened.
In a similar way, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments offer us a far deeper and far richer insight into God and into life in God than any list of actual historical events could ever do. Instead of trying to force them into our narrow categories of “what actually happened” – which, by the way, is not the way that the writers or their original audience would have thought of them – we need to explore them, probe them, and look through them toward the core messages that they are trying to present. We need to view each of them within its own literary context and within the time and culture in which each originated. And then, using those means of coming to a clearer understanding of them, we need to find in them the experience of God that they writers had and were trying to convey to us.
If we get hung up on literal facts, instead of working to understand their far deeper truth, even the greatest stories of our religious heritage will prove to be of little value to us in living a life of genuine faith; for, as author John Bradshaw observed, “The gospels are more likely to be deeply true than superficially exact” (Oral Transmission and Human Memory, pp. 305-6).
As we prepare over this coming week to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of Truth on the great feast of Pentecost, I suggest that we ask God to help us, as a church, to move beyond arguments over what literally happened and what did not, and to search together at a deeper level for what the scriptures and our entire religious heritage have to tell us about God, about ourselves, and about the rest of God’s creation.
That quest is, in the end, the real search for truth: the truth that lies in God alone.