“THE SIX GREAT ENDS OF THE CHURCH.”
4. The Preservation of The Truth
We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.
The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)
- The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
- The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
- The maintenance of divine worship
- The preservation of the truth
- The promotion of social righteousness
- The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Today we are taking a look at number four. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.
The Preservation of the Truth.
Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through teaching and service. The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship. So we move to number 4 "The Preservation of the Truth."
The banner represents the light of truth shining in the darkness.
The dove reminds us that the truth we proclaim to the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us.
We are reminded of a scripture verse: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5)
Against the background of a world where many hold to a philosophy that declares all truth is relative, we suggest that there are absolutes.
The particular truth that we seek to uphold is the truth of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
In the midst of a changing theological landscape we declare ourselves to be both “Reformed” and “Reforming.” We recognize that the present work of the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding of the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ and how we see the work of God.
To a multi-faith world we declare that there are unique aspects to the gospel that need to be upheld, while acknowledging that God is God and free to reveal truth in ways that are unfamiliar to us .
Let's begin with a reading in which Pilate asks Jesus a searching question; “What is truth?”
28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" 30 "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." 31 Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," they objected.
32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. 33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" 34 "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" 35 "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" 36 Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place." 37 "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." 38 "What is truth?" retorted Pilate.”
Pilate seems a little confused as to why Jesus was even on trial. He seems perplexed by the Jewish customs and squabbles that have led to His arrest. He asks Jesus “What is it that you have done?” (verse 35).
We don't seem to be any better at answering that question for people. We talk a lot about the compassion and love and the healing presence of Jesus, but at the same time share this narrative of how hated He was, and how religious folk in particular saw Him as an incredible threat to their beliefs and how, even though He was the greatest, most wonderful, beautiful person that ever walked on the earth, God allowed Him to be betrayed, persecuted and crucified by people who truly believed He deserved to die.
And those abstract answers Jesus gives to Pilate... “My kingdom is not of this world. … my kingdom is from another place” “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” These are not statements that sound like they could be used in a courtroom defense trial. They are deeply philosophical and theological... and they produced a reaction of scorn from Pilate... “Huh! What is truth!”
In his essay on “Learning to tell the Truth” Chris Currie writes “In John's gospel, Jesus talks about truth a lot. Truth becomes flesh in the first chapter of John; the truth sets us free in chapter 8; Jesus declares Himself to be the way, truth and life in chapter 14, and here in John 18, just before His crucifixion and death, Jesus confesses that His major purpose on earth is to testify to the truth. Could it be that John is not simply leading us to the Cross as a tragic end to an otherwise noble life, or as a mysterious accident that came upon an unsuspecting religious leader, but that he is leading us to the Cross because it is precisely there, in the Cross, that truth is fully revealed?”
The Cross speaks to us as an uncomfortable truth. This was Pilates problem. He didn't want to deal with the truth about Jesus. He recognizes that Jesus may well be innocent, but … heck... there were just other things that needed dealing with. It was just not convenient to do the right thing!
At the Cross God is revealing truth in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. God is revealing that at the core of God's being is a refusal to turn away from us, even if it costs a completely innocent and beautiful human life. That God's solidarity is of such a depth, that God would rather accept betrayal than be divorced from being part of our lives.
As Chris Currie again writes “The truth about us is not rooted in our own deepest desires and longings, and even our own plans, but in Jesus Christ and His Cross. That can be hard to swallow.”
The Cross is an uncomfortable truth, because we are Pilate. We would rather not have to deal with taking the side of justice and righteousness. The Cross is uncomfortable because the truth is that had we been living in the days of Jesus we would have sided with those who shouted “Crucify”. The Cross is uncomfortable because we are frail disciples like Peter who would have denied Him, like those who ran away, maybe even like Judas who would have betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver, if we thought we could get away with it!
Remember that song? “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?... oh oh oh oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!” The truth of the cross... and our complicity in the same sins that nailed the Savior to the wood, should indeed cause us to tremble at our shallowness and sinfulness.
We fool nobody but ourselves if we believe we would be the only person in Jerusalem that dark night who saw what was really happening and would have spoken in Christ's favor! The Cross is the place where God says, “To hell with your sophistication and enlightened views and good intentions. You are no different than anybody else. You are human and You cannot save yourself” That can be hard to swallow. That is the uncomfortable truth of the Cross.
But it's also a glorious truth. For it means God, in Christ, has done for us what we can never do for ourselves. Offer hope. Open a doorway to righteousness. Clear away whatever it is about us, that stops us pursuing God's kingdom with vitality and passion. That is the truth that we need to preserve, for it grants us a way to serve God with strength and courage. Which just happens to be part of our next reading about Joshua (1:1-9)
Joshua 1:1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' aide: 2 "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them--to the Israelite's. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates--all the Hittite country--to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go."
If God commands Joshua to be strong, courageous, fearless and confident, we can assume it was because God knew that, in his heart of hearts, Joshua felt fearful, weak, discouraged and not up to the task. Joshua's source of confidence is in one thing alone. God promises to be with him. It is God who will make a way. It is God who will protect him, v9: “The LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
This is strength and courage, not in self-sufficiency but in God's ability. Just as our salvation is rooted in what God has done for us, so our ability to do the things God calls us to do, is linked to God's ability to empower us, through the Holy Spirit, for the tasks God wishes us to accomplish. In his sermon on “Leading in God's Way” Jerry Cannon writes “Real success is not a matter of strength and courage alone, but strength and courage that comes from the knowledge that God is walking with us”. (p.99)
It is this knowledge that God “has our back” that offers to us the guts, the grit and the backbone to live for God. Cannon continues; “I think we need to apply this principle not only to our personal lives but also to the life of this congregation. It would be easy for or us to look at the life of this congregation with only our human eyes and human understanding and say, “We're to small and insignificant to have any influence …. Let's just do what little we can and be satisfied with that”. You know what that kind of statement says? It's a weak excuse for a weak faith. If we are going to lead God's way, the first thing we must do is be strong and courageous, for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.”
Another uncomfortable truth. We can be self satisfied and allow our fear to guide our ventures, rather than allow God to lead us into unknown adventures! The solution to such a dilemma, in Joshua's case, is found by applying the truth of the Book of the Law to his life. “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (verse 8).
Cannon, again writes; “The sure way of connecting the law to the heart is the saturation method.... Saturation? Think of the head football coach winning the championship football game and being bathed in a bucket of Gatorade. And think of that bath being repeated day after day. Saturation in the truth of God's Word connects law to heart, truth to life.”
He suggests that when we try to live without consulting God's Word, it is deliberate, voluntary ignorance. Such ignorance will not stop us from suffering the consequences of acting stupid. He concludes; “The wisdom we need is available. In the Christian life, it's not just about reading God's Word occasionally; it's about meditating on its truth and letting God's Word saturate our spirit and shape our lives.”
Again, we are back with that idea that as a Christian church we are called to preserve the truth, a very particular truth, namely the truth that is found within the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Another reading... 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
When I was a pastor in Beckley, WV, just a block away from the church was Mountain State University. The local Methodist minister worked part time there as an adjunct professor teaching the ethics course. A couple of times, when he needed to be away, he asked me to stand in for him. One of the sessions I took had to do with the sources of authority upon which we make our decisions.
We listed a number of topics on the board. Killing. Cheating on a spouse. Abortion. The theft of food by a hungry person... and then talked not only about the rightness or wrongness of the actions, but also “Why” they were right or wrong. How did they effect others? How did they effect the society in which the action took place? How did they effect the individuals involved?
It lead into such questions as; “Do right and wrong depend upon the culture we live in, or are there such things as absolute right and wrong? And who decides how right and wrong should be either punished or rewarded? Is morality subjective or objective?”
In his essay “A Passion for Truth” Peter B. Barnes talks about four sources of authority.
The first is science. Science offers us observable realities. The earth goes around the sun. Of course it does. But simple facts and statements are not always helpful in making ethical decisions. Just because the earth goes around the sun does not mean I should not punch you in the nose if you trespass on my property. Facts can be interpreted. Statements like “Studies have shown” or “Polls indicate” are taken as indicating something important. In the current political climate, they are also questioned. The phrase “Alternative Fact” springs to mind!
Second there are cultural norms. Whatever becomes normative for society, as reflected in popular culture, becomes the accepted authority. The phrase “Everybody is doing it” becomes “So it must be the right thing to do!”
Thirdly, there are subjective feelings. “I have to do what's right for me”. “How can it be wrong if it feels so right.” So called 'situation ethics' base the rightness or wrongness of an action, upon past or present experience and emotional feelings. “If it feels good and it doesn't hurt anyone, then just do it.”
Fourthly, there is revelation. Barnes comments: “For Christians the Bible serves as the revelation of objective truth from the One who is beyond scientific verification and who is not bound by cultural norms or subjective feelings. Revelation is God's truth freely given to us.”
It is this concept of revealed truth that the church has historically sought to defend and preserve. It comes from the concept that there is a God, that this God has spoken to us over the centuries though flesh and blood people, who recorded what was revealed to them in Scripture. Most of all God has revealed God's truth in a person, Jesus Christ, who, in John's gospels terms, was the “Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Paul talks to Timothy about Scripture as being “God-breathed” and essential for equipping the disciple in the ways of the kingdom. That we should teach sound doctrine because there was a tendency for folk to prefer hearing whatever suited their “need of the moment” rather than embracing God's revelation.
When, on the first Sunday of Lent we were thinking in our service about the temptation of Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, we saw how He counteracted the devil's lies with the phrase, “People do not live on bread alone, but upon every Word that come from the mouth of God”
Bill Robinson (quoted by Barnes) writes; “As Christians we believe in absolutes. Early church councils affirmed the anchors of our faith. Jesus made absolute claims. He said that He is the only way to God – a rather incendiary remark in today's pluralistic world. But as Christian leaders our stout defenses against attacks on moral and spiritual absolutes often omit the way in which we embrace those absolutes – by faith. As finite creatures, we cannot know absolutes absolutely. When Jesus claims to be the only way to the Father, by faith we believe Him. It is not an absolute claim we mortals can prove empirically. But evidence supporting the reliability of Scripture, along with witnessing the profound impact of Christ's transforming love, allows us to hold a reason based faith that Jesus was telling the truth.”
Having said that Jesus is “The Truth”... we know we are not the only show in town. Not only do other philosophies offer differing ways of discerning truth, other religions contain truths at variance with those contained in the Christian Scriptures. How do we deal with that? That's the subject of Michael Lindvall's chapter titled; “My Way or the Highway or Many Roads to Heaven” But first... another reading.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" 6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." 8 Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." 9 Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10 Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
Lindvall points out that when Jesus made the statement about being “Way, Truth and Life” there existed no such religion as Christianity. He was talking to a small group of followers who were about to witness His betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection “These words are part of Jesus' struggle to make His disciples understand why there is no way around the cross. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life - and that way that truth- and that life are about to be made visible in the towering tragedy of the cross and the towering miracle of the resurrection. In context, Jesus's point is there is no way to the Father except by self-denial, obedience and trust such as this.”
He notes that there have been two polarizing views of Jesus words. The first, often adopted by those of a conservative persuasion, he characterizes as “My way or the highway.” According to this perspective, all other religious and philosophical perspectives – be they Humanistic, Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic – with the exception of Jewish texts in the Old Testament – are at the best wrong and at their worst demonic. This is the way of Christian exclusiveness. There is no way but the Christian way, no truth but the conservative interpretation of Christian truth and the only outcome for life for those who don't accept the conservative presentation of Jesus as the way is to burn in hell. My way or the highway.
The liberal alternative is to suggest that “Many roads lead to heaven.” There is one God. So aren't all religions simply different pathways to the same destination? The moral relativism of the 1960's decided for us that there are no such things as absolutes. He writes “Life is like going through a cafeteria line; some folks like the meat loaf; others like the chicken tetrazzini. Some folks like Jesus, others like Buddha. Take your pick. It's all the same. As long as you are tolerant, it's just a matter of personal spiritual preference.”
The problem with this view is maybe illustrated by Steve Turners poem “Creed” in which he writes “We believe all religions are basically the same. At least the one that we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.” Anybody who has actually studied comparative religion will be clear that all religions are not the same and most disagree on the two basic principles of what God is like and why we are on the planet!
The problem with “My Way or the Highway and Many Roads to Heaven” is their over-simplification of the issues involved. Reformed theology has wrestled with the question of how to relate to our religious and non-religious neighbors for centuries and the answer that they have reached is simply that - it is not simple.
However, there are two insights reformed theology offers that need to be held together.
The first is this. As followers of Jesus Christ we are invited to believe, implicitly and courageously that the way of life He offers to us is truly the way to live and a true reflection of what life is all about. That if we throw the weight of our life upon His revelation, then we will truly experience the abundant life that God desires for us, life that is not lived within the boundaries of womb to tomb, but within an eternal expanse that goes from before the womb to beyond the tomb.
As we study the way of Jesus we will observe His acceptance of people... religious and far from godly, Jew and Samaritan, Gentile and Roman, Greek and heathen, outsider and insider. The only ones Jesus seems to reject are those who claimed to know religion so well that they created regulations that made themselves the only true people of God.
Lindvall writes about not seeing people who do not share our perspective as 'scalps' to be collected for the Kingdom, yet always being prepared to talk about the love and acceptance we have found in Jesus Christ and be prepared to affirm the way, truth and life we have found in Him, with out suggesting that other folks perspective, experience and understanding did not have an equally validity.
The second principle he suggests we need to hold on to is the sovereignty of God. To quote “The sovereignty of God says that if God wants to speak through secular art or pagan philosophy, even other religions, God can perfectly well do so, simply because God is God and God's freedom, God's sovereignty, cannot be bound. The sovereignty of God reminds us that the divine mystery cannot be fully contained in any system of thinking.... the church doesn't contain God, God contains the church.”
This is not a new idea. The second century theologian Justin Martyr spoke of how pre-Christian philosophers such as Plato, when he wrote about the “Logos”, the eternal word of God, were giving expression to truths about Christ before Jesus had even been born. Likewise, the whole Old Testament pointed to His coming in ways the writers could never truly understand from their historical perspective.
Lindvall concludes “If we keep our eyes on these two towering truths, in tension with each other as they may be, we find this dynamic place towards the center. And here we can be clear about our Christian conviction, on the one hand, and be open to those with other convictions on the other. Yes, Jesus Christ is my savior, and none other. But the God this very Jesus mediates to me is a vast God.”
I would also want to add that we can read the words of Jesus about being “Way, truth and Life” in either an exclusive or an inclusive fashion.
If we read them in an exclusive way, we would seem to be in denial of the way Jesus actually ministered to people. If we say that only those who hold to a certain form of theological expression that holds out no hope beyond it's narrow terms, then we seem to be in denial of the very person who made the statement, that He Himself is the Way and, Truth and life.
If we hold to an inclusive way of understanding His words about being Way, Truth and Life, then we will suggest that wherever a person is finding a way to be the person God is calling them to be, wherever a person is discovering a truth that is setting them free and wherever a person is discovering a way to truly to live, then knowingly, or unknowingly, they are discovering something about Jesus Himself. Such would appear to be totally in syn with the gospel accounts of Jesus ministry, who excluded nobody except those who denied the broad scope of God's love towards them.
The Fourth great end of the church: The Preservation of the Truth.
The light of truth shines in the darkness. The dove on the banner reminds us that the truth we proclaim to the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. We are reminded of a scripture verse: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). Against the background of a world where many hold to a philosophy that declares all truth is relative, we suggest that there are absolutes. The particular truth that we seek to uphold is the truth of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
In the midst of a changing theological landscape we declare ourselves to be both “Reformed” and “Reforming.” We recognize that the present work of the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding of the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ and how we see the work of God. To a multi-faith world we declare that there are unique aspects to the gospel that need to be upheld, while acknowledging that God is God and free to reveal truth in ways that are unfamiliar to us .
The preservation of the truth. And next time... number five. “The promotion of social righteousness.”