December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
Unlike my sister, who is an attorney in Atlanta, I was never tempted to go to Law School. But I am a big fan of courtroom dramas portrayed in fiction and film. One of the most iconic scenes comes from the 1992 Movie “A Few Good Men”, in which Tom Cruise, playing a young navy defense attorney, is cross-examining a Marine General played by Jack Nicholson. Cruise and Nicholson have this heated exchange until finally Cruise yells, “I want the truth”, to which Nicholson screams back, “you can’t handle the truth.”
This morning John the Baptist is on the witness stand giving his testimony to Jesus Christ who is the Truth. Forty-seven times in the gospel someone presents their testimony as a witness for what is happening in the Jesus-event: like “the Samaritan woman at the well who “testifies, ‘he told me everything I have done’”. The Scriptures, the disciples, Jesus’ own works, and even God the Father” are all called as witnesses to Jesus.Fourteen times it is John the Baptist who is the witness. Saint Augustine said, “John is truthful, Jesus is the truth.”
In this gospel giving testimony is all John does: we notice he never calls the people to repentance and reformation of life. He is never described as a prophet dressed in camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary on the Gospel of John, page 30
No, in this Gospel John is a witness who gives testimony to Jesus Christ, so that…so that, people will believe in Jesus and follow him.
And of course that this is also our job: to bear witness to Jesus.
On one hand, this is a clear and simple job description: just point to Jesus. If anyone asks you a question about what Christians believe or practice, just point to Jesus—to one of his parables, healings, or to his death and resurrection.
But in practice this proves confusing and tricky, because sometimes the Jesus we point to is not the one in the Gospels but one we’ve invented.
A couple of examples: Take our Evangelical sisters and brothers in Christ. On occasion, some read the Bible through the lens of certain cultural assumptions we grew up with in the 1950s: Like the assumption that men are favored over women, the rich favored over the poor, and the righteous favored over the sinners. When the Bible is read through this lens, Jesus becomes the champion of the cultural status quo. This picture is very different from the Jesus in the New Testament whose spent his life overturning every one of these cultural assumptions.
Remember the scene when Jesus is teaching his apostles in Martha’s house in Bethany and right there on the floor with the men is Mary, Martha’s sister. This lesson is repeated at the empty tomb when Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene and commissions her to bear witness to the men what she has seen and heard. In some churches today, women can learn from Jesus but they are allowed only to teach other women and children.
As you know the Bible shows Jesus embracing the poor, while telling the well-off that their possessions can be an impediment to joy, if we forget to practice generosity.
Likewise, Jesus hangs with sinners and criticizes the morally certain. He says they are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but full of corruption on the inside. Matthew 23:27
Lest we get a swelled head, Episcopalians can also distort the image of Jesus. We are justly proud of how beautiful our liturgy is, but sometimes we forget Jesus’ first call is not to worship him, but to follow him. Sunday worship can become a way to get our religious ticket punched, thus giving us permission to forget Jesus the rest of the week.
This creates very part-time disciples. In previous churches I overheard a man say, “Oh, you know, I volunteer at church, therefore I don’t have to financially support the church.”
He heard the call to give his “time, talent and treasure” as a multiple choice test in which he only had to choose one.
When salvation comes to the Barnabas in the Book of Acts, he sells some property and gives it to the apostles for the work of ministry. Then, he finds Paul and takes him to the new church in Antioch and together they teach there for a whole year.
Christ calls us to be all-in.
This is one reason the different churches need each other. Evangelical, Mainline, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Conservative, Progressive, non-denominational—we all need each other, because none of us has the full Truth on our own. This is one reason I love our local clergy gathering twice a month: UU all the way to RC and much in-between. We need each other’s perspective!
Some of you may be thinking about the saying attributed to Saint Francis, “preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary”? This is sometimes used to excuse a person from the obligation of ever talking about Jesus. They think, “I’ll be nice and that will be enough!”
Of course this is not bearing witness, but refusing to take the witness stand at all. This is Peter in the courtyard saying, “I do not know the man.”
Also, to my horror, I found out last week that Saint Francis never said any such thing. The closest thing is a sentence in the Franciscan Rule in its instructions to preachers that, “All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.” Which means their words and actions must be congruent as they bear witness to the Master. Rule of 1221, Chapter XII
I find this one of the hardest parts of being a disciple. How easy it is for us clergy to fall under the judgment in Matthew 23 when Jesus says of the Pharisees: “For they preach, but they do not practice.”
We bear true witness to Jesus when our words and actions are brought together.
But we can’t do this on our own. Rather it is the Spirit working in us that slowly moves us towards integration, where what we believe and how we live are brought into union with Jesus. This integration of our inside and outside can be quite painful. It requires honest self-reflection to notice the times we are making Jesus in our image, instead of letting Jesus make us in his image.
John the Baptist understands this when he points to Jesus and says, “He must increase and I must decrease.” John 3:30
Sometimes Jack Nicholson is right, we can’t handle the truth: The truth that our discipleship has been just another way to dress up the ego to look good to the world, instead of The Way to find our True Self in Christ as we serve the world.
But Jesus knows we are human, weak, and frail. So in John 8:31 we hear, “Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. 32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Even though sometimes we can’t handle the truth, the Truth that is Jesus knows how to handle us—and set us free to love.