Monday, May 23, 2011
TO LISTEN TO LIVE VERSION:
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”
I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Christopher’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I need apologize in advance if this sermon isn’t very good. I’m not sure if you’ve been following the news, but the world was supposed to end yesterday and so instead of writing a sermon I spent all of last week eating Mexican food. That being said and I guess I mean this in more way than one – I am really glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
On October 2, 2006 ten young girls were taken hostage in an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. All ten were shot, five were killed and the gunman committed suicide. But as you may recall, that wasn’t the story – what most of us remember. What we all remember was the response of the Amish community, who expressed forgiveness toward the killer, took up a collection for the killer’s widow and her three young children, and even attended the killer’s funeral. As one author put it, “Several Amish families, who had buried their own daughters just the day before, were in attendance as they hugged the widow and … other members of the killer’s family.”
Here’s the question I’d like to wrestle with this morning – how? In the face of unspeakable tragedy, where did this Amish community get the heart to respond with such forgiveness, love and compassion? I mentioned that my primary focus is in Christian formation, which has to do with that process by which our hearts are formed into Jesus’s heart – which is a heart that forgives, that loves and that absorbs pain rather than returning it. But how do our hearts actually change? Or, perhaps another example, how do we become someone like Stephen who, as the rocks pummel his body, still managed to pray, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.” In a world where people hurt us and where we hurt people, how do we forgive? How do we love? How do we take the stones thrown at us rather than mindlessly just hurling them back? In other words, how do we acquire the heart of Jesus?
Here’s how the author of John’s Gospel would answer that question. We have to know the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” To live this life with Jesus’s heart – which is a heart that forgives, that loves and that absorbs pain instead of just inflicting it back – we have to know the Truth.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably suspicious of people that claim to have the truth, and the consensus of our culture is that we should all be free to figure out for ourselves what is true. As the U.S. Supreme Court declared back in 1992, “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” In other words, choose for yourself what is true – or the reason you exist – and you’ll be free. It’s that simple. Freedom, we think, is about choosing our own truth.
If it’s okay I’d like to meander for a bit, because it’s worth mentioning two philosophers in particular that were incredibly influential in shaping our culture’s view of truth – Nietzsche and Foucault – and this is what they said. “All truth claims are power plays. When people claim to have the truth, their real motive is to get power over others and control their behavior.” Now, perhaps you think I’m going to disagree and say what a bunch of hogwash but I’m not because on numerous occasions Jesus said the exact same thing. In particular, I’m thinking about the Pharisees. They were pretty obsessed with “God’s truth” and about who was in line and who wasn’t and time and time again Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that all they really cared about was controlling people and maintaining their power. I mean, why do you think they stoned Stephen? Because the truth Stephen preached was a threat to their power. And so Nietzsche was right. The people most outspoken about what’s true are often the most violent and coercive. I mean, let’s face it – Nietzsche, Foucault and Jesus Christ can all agree on something – it’s just got to be true! But – that doesn’t mean we can walk the way of relativism because in today’s Gospel Jesus is outspoken. “I am way. I am the life. I am the truth.”
You see, the greatest power play of all is to go around telling everyone that their idea of truth is a power play, and the problem with Nietzsche and Foucault is that they went around popping everyone else’s balloon but never popped their own because there’s something they failed to see – we all make truth claims – we all hold deep beliefs about who we are and the reason we exist – and so it can’t be the belief in truth itself that kill freedom. It’s what’s in the truth claim we’re making. To put it a bit differently, we’re all fundamentalists. The only question is this – what’s our fundamental? What fundamental – what truth – is at the center of our life?
Now, stay with me because I know what you’re all thinking – “what in the world does any of this have to do with the Amish?” I’m getting there. You see, what we hold as the deepest truth about this world and the reason we exist will always shape how we live (2X). And John actually begins his Gospel by giving us that reason. “In the beginning was the Word – or the logos in Greek – and the logos was God and the logos was with God and the logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” Now, that Greek word logos – it’s where we get the word logic and the word reason. In other words, John begins his Gospel by telling us that there is a reason we exist, a logic behind the universe, a Truth with a capital T that each one of us were made for, and that this absolute truth is not a philosophy or a principle or an abstraction or set of commandments or even a creed, but a Person – a Person that embodied the fullness of God Himself, a Person whose commitment to truth led not to someone else’s death but His own.
And so once again, how do we acquire the heart of Jesus? How do we live this life with Jesus’s heart – forgiving, loving, and absorbing the pain other’s inflict on us instead of inflicting it back? Here’s where I think the Amish can help. After all, what we hold as the deepest truth about this world and the reason we exist will always shape how we live. For the Amish, the deepest truth they held in their hearts was a story about a man that embodied the fullness of God and yet still chose to empty himself and die for his enemies rather than crushing them. The deepest truth they held in their hearts was that they could have confidence that those little girls’ lives would go on after death because Jesus was preparing a place for each one of them in His Father’s house. For the Amish, the deepest truth they held in their hearts was that their mission in life – what made them “successful or unsuccessful” people – had nothing to do with power or status or money but with how well their lives pointed the world to Jesus. That was the deepest truth they held in their hearts. What’s yours?
I’d like to share a quote from the late Henry Nouwen. “In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that cares, that reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no resentment and not a tinge of hatred. It is a heart that wants only to give love and receive love in response. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance to trusting the heart of God who wants to offer consolation and hope.” (In the Name of Jesus, 24)
To be a Christian is to believe that that heart – God’s heart – is the deepest truth behind this universe, and that this same heart was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It was on the part of God a powerless play. And in this world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women that know the heart of God. The Amish knew God’s heart. Stephen knew God’s heart. The question is, do we? Because I would submit that the heart of liberty is not to define our own concept of existence. The heart of liberty is to know the reason for our existence. In the beginning was the Reason – and the Reason was God and the Reason was with God and the Reason became flesh and dwelt among us – not to kill, but to be killed – full of grace and truth.