Sermon: “Testifying to the Truth”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19
Last Sunday we noted the difference between being (acting spontaneously) and doing (acting with planning). As we saw, Jesus advocated both at different times and in different situations, but his message to the disciples (males, who typically lean toward being) was that they must practice their Christianity in the world; it is not enough to be a child of God, one must put their beliefs into practice. With Jesus as our model, we must act as Jesus acted. We must do the right things.
Psalm 1, the introductory Psalm, starkly contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the wicked. Let’s look more closely at the attributes of the righteous: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners (i.e., the ways of the world), nor sat in the seats of the scornful. Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate (that is, read, study, and inwardly digest) on his law day and night” (Psalm 1.1-3). And what results? “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper” (Psalm 1.3).
“Happy” does not truly catch the significance or meaning which the psalmist had in mind. The Hebrew word, ashre, derives from the verb shr which means to go straight or to advance. As Yolanda Norton (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-psalm-1-14 ) observes, “Such an understanding of the emotion evoked by the psalmist suggests that following the instruction of God allows the individual to move forward, to develop, to grow in life. The “good way” is not devoid of problems, anxieties, or heartache. However, this way in relationship with God, grants us the freedom to evolve as human beings.” Those who study and obey God’s law live the good life, the moral life – they are growing more fully into the image of God.
In contrast, the wicked are like wind-driven chaff; they are unable to stand upright on the day of judgment, nor can they stand “in the council of the righteous, For the lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed” (Psalm 1.4-6). The wicked embrace the ways of the world.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks of being in the world but not of the world. To set the broader context, Jesus has previously spoken of the world. By world, Jesus means the systemic evil inherent in our social and economic structures and practices, e.g., systemic racism, sexism, ageism. All of these are characterized by violence and hatred. Jesus ends John 16 by telling his disciples, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (vs. 33; NRSV).
In today’s reading, Jesus prayed, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours” (John 17.9; NRSV). What is Jesus asking? In the verses which precede today’s reading, Jesus prayed: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (John 17.1, 4; NRSV). Thus, Jesus is asking that he may be glorified, that he may rightfully come into his glory, so that he may glorify God, be glorified in the disciples, and the disciples may have the assurance of eternal life.
But Jesus asks something more. After saying, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them,” Jesus asks, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17.10-12; NRSV). Jesus further says that he has protected them such that none were lost save for Judas; however, the world hates them for they do not belong to the world. Jesus further prayed, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17.13b; NRSV). Jesus desires the disciples live joy-filled lives. But note, Jesus further prayed, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17.15-18; NRSV).
You may already have noted how Jesus’ prayer reflects the words of the psalmist in Psalm 1. The disciples have been trained in righteousness; they delight in God’s word, and Jesus asks that they be sanctified, that they be set apart in God’s word. Yet, in being set apart, Jesus does not ask that they be physically separated, or taken out, of the world. He asks that they be in the world but not of the world. Only in this manner can they “bear fruit in due season.”
By extension, Jesus desires the same for us. What assurance do we have of that? Although not a part of the assigned reading, the gospel continues, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17.20-21; NRSV)
Let’s look more closely at being sanctified in the truth. As disciples who are sanctified in the truth, we are called to bear witness, to testify to the truth, through the power of the Spirit. Our reading from 1 John speaks of this testimony. Unfortunately, the reading does not include these preceding verses: “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree” (1 John 5.6-8; NRSV).
Why is the testimony of these three important? One of the earliest heresies, Docetism, held that Christ did not have a natural, physical body but only an apparent one. John’s reference to the water and the blood, a reference to the crucifixion, affirm the physical body of Jesus Christ. Docetism was a big lie.
As John reasons, God’s testimony is greater than human testimony, and God has testified to his Son. John says, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5.10-12; NRSV). One who bears the testimony of God walks in the good way commended by the psalmist; she moves forward, develops, and grows in life. She does not linger in the way of sinners nor sit in the seat of the scornful.
The world, and the wicked of the world, would always have us believe big lies! All you need for happiness is to buy this product. The big lie always serves the world’s selfish interests, the ways of the wicked. At times, things may seem very dark, but as resurrection people, we must cling to our faith that God’s truth will prevail. I cannot speak for you, but I am encouraged by the actions of Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney who have chosen to confront a big lie many would have us believe.
The Washington Post reported as follows:
Before the vote was taken to oust her as House Republican conference chair, Cheney, a United Methodist, led the group in prayer. “Dear God, Fill us with a love of freedom and a reverence for all your gifts,” she said, according to CNN. “Help us to understand the gravity of this moment. Help us to remember that democratic systems can fray and suddenly unravel. When they do, they are gone forever … Help us to speak the truth and remember the words of John 8:32 — ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ May our world see the power of faith.” Shortly after the vote, Cheney told reporters she remains committed to a Republican Party “based on truth.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/liz-cheney-ousted-from-party-leadership-invokes-pope-and-the-power-of-faith/2021/05/12/aa53cdfa-b370-11eb-bc96-fdf55de43bef_story.html)
Some are already attempting to discredit her by questioning her sincerity and pointing to what they perceive as lapses in moral judgment ( https://theintercept.com/2021/05/12/liz-cheney-republican-house-trump/ ). Such is the practice of the world.
Let’s face it, we need more who will remember that all truth is God’s truth; we need more who are willing to pay the price of testifying to the truth. May God protect them and sanctify them in the truth.