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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Truth? John 14:15-21 and the difficulty of 'smooth surfaces'


When one preaches in the Eucharist it is nearly always a report on experience; on how one is responding to the gospel. I found this gospel hard to engage with – hard because it is a farewell address before our Lord leaves the disciples – and it’s hard to argue with.  It feels so personal but it also feels so strangely abstract.  Beautiful, rarefied, holy words but so smooth that it feels as if there is no rough edge to catch on you and stick!

For instance the opening phrase: ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’.  How do we actually read that?  Do we read it as an admonishment, imagining it being said with a finger wagging gesture?  I don’t think so.  It is a statement that seems to flow from the inner life of our Lord, the (perichoretic) life of the Trinity where divine love circulates and flows and it’s a life that will be available to the disciples as they live in Christ and the keeping of the commandments is not so much a matter of rule-keeping but a manifestation of that circulating love.

One of the other words that we hear in this reading is ‘Truth’.  Jesus promises the disciples the ‘Spirit of truth’.

Truth is a powerful word.  Yet what we mean by truth is not as clear as we like to think. 

On a day to day basis our experience shows that truth is a vulnerable concept. Think of the Oscar Pistorious murder trial in South Africa at this time – and how elusive and fraught the truth seems to be. In cricket, what is the ‘truth’ about match fixing?   Our politicians are frequently under fire over ‘truthfulness’ – for instance, Minister Judith Collins and Mr John Banks.  One remembers that the ancient philosopher Aeschylus claimed that when war comes (or any of the messiness of life) truth is the first casualty. 

In one of the darkest moments of the gospel, when he is on trial before Pilate, Jesus says ‘for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ (John 18:37b)  

In John truth is a constantly recurring word.  In the very first chapter John speaks of the revelation of Jesus Christ ‘And we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth’.  What does he mean when he describes Christ as being ‘full of truth’? In a gospel which is so repeatedly shaped by the contrast between light and dark, one senses that truth is almost synonymous with the idea of light and revelation and when mention of truth is made the text almost begins to glow and convey a sense of luminosity.  As we let John’s glowing images warm us – glory, love, light, truth – we begin to grasp what is meant by being indwelt by the Spirit of truth.

In the New Testament our word Truth comes from the Greek word ‘alethea’ and the initial letter ‘a’ functions like our prefix ‘un’ which means ‘not’  (see it in words such as unfeeling, unhearing, unobserved, unremembered). Take the prefix ‘a’ away from Alethea and we have Lethe, which in Greek mythology was the name given to the river in Hades from which the dead drank in order to forget their past.   And so "a-lethea" - truth - has the sense of: waking up; remembering; overcoming oblivion and stupor; being alive and vital; not being deceived by false ideas or desires or scams; SEEING what is as it actually is.

No wonder then Paul in Ephesians (5:14) quotes from an early Christian hymn saying ‘Sleeper, awake, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you’; and in the early icons we see Christ opening the grave of Lazarus to call him out; or we find images of Christ leading the dead out of the maw of hell.  Paul says something similar in Colossians (3:4): ‘When Christ who is our life appears then shall you also appear with him in glory’.


Christ ‘the way, the truth, the life’ is the one who comes to wake us from our stupor and blindness; draw us out of the dead end we have strayed into; free us from the false self that we have become – he draws us into truth and light and his life...

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