What is Truth?

The Feast of Pentecost . . . a dramatic and charismatic experience.

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.    –Acts 2:2-4

It was chaotic . . . as we just experienced. But the emphasis was not tumultuous but unifying, in that everyone could understand, because the Gospel was proclaimed to all in a language that they could understand. 

The Gospel of John reports that this Holy Spirit event took place fifty days earlier – on Easter day – when the risen Christ appeared to the frightened disciples who were hiding out behind locked doors. 

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’   –John 20:19b-22

Since the Gospels weren’t written to be histories, the discrepancy about when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples isn’t really important. Both John and Luke affirm that the Holy Spirit dwells in the community of the resurrection.

The symbols and metaphors in these texts are rich, powerful, and vibrant: wind, breath, fire. 

  • They reach all the way back to the story of creation when the Spirit  (or mighty wind) of God swept over the face of the waters and brought form out of chaos. 
  • They remind us of the story of Adam, formed out of clay, and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. 
  • They recall the story of the Tower of Babel when people all spoke one language and tried to build a tower to heaven so that they could be like God. God destroyed the tower, scattered the people, and gave them different languages so that they couldn’t communicate and cooperate in such an effort again. 
  • But on this Pentecost occasion, not only were the barriers of language overcome, but some of the folk represented in Jerusalem that day were peoples long extinct: Mesopotamians, Medes, Elamites. The implication is that the Holy Spirit of God transcends time and space.
  • And fire. There was the fire of the burning bush at which Moses encountered the God who called godself “I am who I am.” 
  • The children of Israel were led out of slavery in Egypt by a pillar of fire.
  • The tongues of flame dancing on the heads of the disciples represents both a freedom from the bondage of timidity and fear, and a call from God. It was an ordination. They are ordained to speak Good News, and immediately they begin to proclaim the Gospel with power and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm literally means “filled with God.”  

Earlier in John’s Gospel, in the fourteenth chapter, Jesus had told the disciples about this Holy Spirit that he would send to them. He said:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.   –John 14:16-17 

The Spirit of Truth. What is truth?

That’s Pilate’s question to Jesus at the trial. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’  –John 18:37-38

Jesus didn’t answer Pilate. But he did respond to a question from Thomas. Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’” (John 14:6)

So Jesus is the truth; and the Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth who will lead us into all truth. Obviously, not all truth was sewed up, fixed, complete, when Jesus left the earth.

We wrestle with what is true. What is true about Jesus? The Church spent the first 500 years debating about whether Jesus was human or divine . . . and that debate breaks out again every few centuries.

We struggle to understand what is true about many things.

  • Does the sun revolve around the earth, or is it the other way around? Galileo challenged the truth of his time.
  • Did creation happen exactly as described in the first chapter of Genesis, or the very different account in the second chapter of Genesis, or did the creation evolve? Darwin challenged the accepted truth of his day, even delaying publication of his book, The Origin of Species, because of the damning reaction that he knew was sure to come.
  • Einstein suggested that truth is relative, depending upon one’s perspective.
  • And over the years we’ve been challenged about the truth of our humanity. Thomas Aquinas believed that males were God’s perfection and females were the result of some defect in conception. This held such sway that even here in the United States of America, women were excluded from full citizenship until the Constitution was amended in the 1920. In the Episcopal Church, that bastion of liberality, we’re only now approaching the 47thanniversary of the approval of women as priests and bishops which happened in 1976.
  • In our own time we’ve been challenged to set aside an old way of thinking about gender and sexuality. This coming Saturday some of us will be marching to affirm Pride for approximately one-tenth of humanity that is created LGBTQ—Lesbian, Bi-sexual, gay, transgendered, Questioning. Same-sex marriage is less than a decade old, and there are many efforts today to deny the totality of human rights to LGBTQ folk.

“What is truth?” Some say that it has been fixed in the literal texts of Scripture. But others of us understand that the Spirit of Truth continues to reveal new and greater understanding of God’s reality. 

Please pray that we may be open to hear the Holy Spirit of Truth as she continues to work among and within us.

Roland Allen was the chief theologian on Christian mission in the 20th Century. In a book entitled Pentecost and the World he wrote about the debate in the early Church about whether Gentiles could be included in the church of Jesus.

In arriving at a decision in a question of doubt, the apostles were guided solely by their sense of the Spirit behind the action, not by any speculations as to consequences, which might ensue. And so they found the truth. Gradually, the results of the action manifested themselves, and, seeing them, they perceived what they had really done, and learnt the meaning of the truth revealed in the action. But if, from fear of the consequences, they had checked or forbidden the action, they would have lost this revelation. They would have missed the way to truth.

The seminary I attended had as its motto the words of William Sparrow, who helped found Kenyon College and Bexley Hall Seminary before becoming Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary: The motto, engraved over the entrance to the library, is this: “Seek the truth–come whence it may, cost what it will.”  For me those words are a call to walk into the truth of Christ and to trust in the Spirit of truth. 

We do not always know the truth on any particular issue. But we know Jesus. And we have the Spirit, given to us in baptism. And so we go forth into the world and into our lives, trusting in the power of the Spirit. Truth is more important than orthodoxy. We welcome new ideas. And we are open to new revelations of the Spirit of truth.

Happy Pentecost!

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