The Spirit of Truth

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“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.” ~ John 16:13

lucy-player-buttonWhen I was first ordained fifteen years ago, the “Word of the Year” was the word truthiness, which means “the belief that something is true based on intuition, opinion, or perception, rather than logic or factual evidence.” Last year the “Word or Phrase of the Year” was fake news, which refers to “false or misleading reporting that aims to deliberately deceive or misinform.” Truthiness. Fake News. These are just a few examples of the way in which we continue to struggle as a culture to discern was is true and good and right. Whether its politics or religion, the environment or the economy, over the past few decades we have been come to face to face once again with age-old question, “What is truth?”

Now, of course, the quest for truth is as old as human civilization. For thousands of years, philosophers and great thinkers have been searching for what is true and good and right. The difference for us is that we live in the so-called “age of information.” When it comes to living in this age of information, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that billions of people have almost unlimited access to information and data along with opinion and analysis. The bad news is that billions of people have almost unlimited access to information and data along with opinion and analysis. Therein lies the crux of our problem. We might as well call this the age of information overload, because the cell phone in your pocket has more computing power than was present in the computers that navigated the Apollo missions to the moon and back? The great paradox of our age is that we can’t possibly process all of that information, let alone discern, and assimilate into our lives, what is true and good and right.

Truthiness. Fake News. The Age of Information. It is in this cultural context that we hear the words of today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus says, “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.” When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth. What does that mean? How is it that the Spirit leads you and me, as followers of Jesus, into all truth?

To answer that question, we have to step back for a minute and look at the bigger picture. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus is repeatedly using words like “truth” and “believe” and “knowledge” and “understanding.” Typically, when we hear these words, we interpret them through our twenty-first century cultural context that tells us truth is about information. For the past few hundred years, ever since the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, the dominant cultural message has been that truth is about empirical evidence; it’s about what we can see and touch and prove and demonstrate through experimentation. Truth, according to contemporary culture, is about information.

And so, when we hear Jesus talking about “truth,” we think he must be talking about having the right doctrine and proper teaching. When we hear Jesus talk about “belief” and “knowledge” and “understanding,” we think he must be talking about having the right information. He must be reminding us that in order to be good Christians, we have to have believe and understand all the right things. If you skip one word of the Nicene Creed, you’re automatically disqualified. We conceive of truth primarily as information. And so, if Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, he must be talking about information. He must be telling us that the Spirit will make us understand and believe all the right things. Now, let me be clear, that information is important. What we believe is profoundly important. Doctrine is important. As Christians, we have two thousand years of incredible theological study and reflection, and we have more books than we can count on every spiritual and theological topic you can imagine.

But, my friends, the truth of the gospel is not primarily about information. The truth of the gospel is about relationship. Because, you see, in Christianity, Truth is not a concept or an idea. Truth is not a doctrine or theory. In Christianity, Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. When the disciples were confused and unsure of what they were supposed to think or do, Jesus said to them, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

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Paul: A Biography

51QbGN7T8JL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I recently read N.T. Wright’s new book entitled Paul: A Biography. Utilizing the narrative of the Book of Acts as well as biographical details from Paul’s letters, Wright provides a compelling picture of Paul, the man and his mission. What motivated Paul? Why did he endure such great personal sacrifice in order to share the good news of Jesus? What caused his message to find such broad appeal across the ancient world? These are the questions that Wright explores as he seeks to paint a portrait of Paul with all of his passion, perspicacity, and peculiarity! The reader must keep in mind that Wright’s chronology of Paul’s life is only one possible reconstruction, but the overall structure of the book provides a helpful overview of Paul’s missionary endeavors, his theological commitments, and his deep personal struggles. Rather than attempt to summarize all of Wright’s arguments and insights,  I simply offer the following excerpts for prayerful reflection.


God’s New Creation

[For Paul’s life and mission,] Jesus was the starting point. And the goal. The goal? Yes, because Paul never wavered in his sense that Jesus would reappear. He would “descend from heaven,” though to get the flavor of that we have to remind ourselves that “heaven” is not “up in the sky,” but is rather God’s dimension of present reality. Jesus would come from heaven to earth not – as in much popular fantasy – in order to scoop up his people and take them back to “heaven,” but in order to complete the already inaugurated task of colonizing “earth,” the human sphere, with the life of “heaven,” God’s sphere. God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his Spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realized that, contrary to his earlier guess, he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from this state of slavery and death and emerge into new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this he never doubted.

We Are God’s Poems

God has made us what we are; or, to bring out a different, but equally valid flavor of the Greek, we are God’s poetry, God’s artwork. God has accomplished, and will accomplish, the entire new creation in the Messiah and by the Spirit. When someone believes the gospel and discovers its life-transforming power, that person becomes a small but significant working model of that new creation. The point of being human, after all, was never simply to be a passive inhabitant of God’s world. As far as Paul was concerned, the point of being human was to be an image-bearer, to reflect God’s wisdom and order into the world and to reflect the praises of creation back to God. Humans were therefore made to stand at the threshold of heaven and earth – like an “image” in a temple, no less – and to be the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God. Here, then, is the point of Paul’s vision of human rescue and renewal (“salvation,” in traditional language): those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focused on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents. They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way of being human.

Unity In Diversity

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And they all spoke in other languages. – Acts 2

lucy-player-buttonIn the year 1951, a new word was officially added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This one word has come to define the period of rapid change that we have experienced for the past half century. This one word describes the growing interaction and integration among peoples, companies, and governments around the world. This one word helps us understand the explosive growth of big-tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. And this one word, you might have guessed, is the word globalization. If you think about it, in the twenty-first century, more than any preceding century, we have come to realize that we are living in a global society, which wasn’t even possible just a generation or two ago.

Now, about this word globalization. On the one hand, it’s a word that speaks to our potential for unity. We are interconnected and interdependent in unprecedented ways. And yet, on the other hand, globalization is a word that underscores our differences. Like never before, we are aware of the profound cultural, economic, and political diversity that comprises our world. Whether we like it or not, we live the age of globalization. We live in a world with over seven billion people, over two hundred countries, and over seven thousand languages.

And so, it might be hard for us to back in time and to imagine the world described in Genesis, chapter 11, a world in which there was one people and one language. Yet that is where our story begins this morning. God’s ancient people living in an ancient land. Speaking one language, seeking one goal, serving one God. At face value, it all sounds great. And yet, the apparent unity of God’s people is actually working against them and what follows is the famous story of the Tower of Babel. The people conspire to build a city, to erect a vast tower, to make a name for themselves, lest they be scattered over the face of the earth. The problem is that at the very beginning of creation humanity was blessed and commissioned by God to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. And so, by building this tower and staying in one place, God’s people are not just being arrogance, they are actually abdicating the calling and purpose that God had entrusted to them. In response to their unwillingness to fulfill their purpose, God confuses their language and scattered the people throughout the world. You might think of Genesis 11 as the beginning of globalization. Divinely induced diversity. The one becomes many.

Now fast forward to the Book of Acts. The disciples have been told by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.  And so, the great Jewish festival of Pentecost arrives, and the disciples are all in one place, waiting and praying, and waiting and praying. Suddenly, there is the sound of mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire begin floating over of the heads of the disciples. And they begin to speak in other languages, but each one hears them speaking in their own language. Now some commentators have referred to the events on the day of Pentecost as the reversal of the events at the Tower of Babel. But that’s not quite right. Because notice that what happens on the day of Pentecost is not the movement from many languages back to one. But rather, the miracle of Pentecost was that even in the midst of diversity, even in the midst of the multitude of languages and cultures, there was understanding and comprehension. In other words, the Parthians keep on being Parthians. The Elamites keep on being Elamites. The Mesopotamians, the Cappadocians, the Pamphylians, the Romans – they all remain who they are. They retain their language, their culture, and their identity. Yet now they are one in the Spirit.

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Living Resurrection: WEEK SIX

A New Creation

Click here to read Revelation 21


As we come to the end of our six week study on Living Resurrection Life, our final topic for reflection is the promise of New Creation. Our ultimate hope is not only to enjoy heaven after we die, but to participate in God’s new and restored creation – to enter God’s new world, which is no longer subject to the powers of death and decay, but is filled with glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Please take a moment to watch the following video from N.T. Wright, which provides an extremely helpful overview of all that we have discussed throughout this Easter season.

May They Be ONE

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lucy-player-buttonOn the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for his disciples. Now he prayed for many things, but one of the most specific things Jesus prayed for was unity. “Father, may they, my disciples, be one, just as you and I are one! And then after the resurrection of Jesus, in the earliest days of the church, the great apostolic leaders, Paul, Peter, and James all exhorted their congregations to be of one mind and one heart and one purpose. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John is given a vision of the throne room of God and he sees a vast multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation worshipping and praising God in unity and harmony with one another. So, what we discover in the New Testament is a chorus of voices calling for God’s people to be united in ONE heart, ONE mind, and ONE purpose. This is the call that has been upon the church from the very beginning.

And yet, for nearly two thousand years, the church has struggled to answer this call. In fact, I think it is fair to say that we have failed rather miserably. The most recent data indicates that there are an estimated 43,000 thousand Christian denominations throughout the world. To put that in perspective, there are only 206 sovereign nations in the world today, which means that for everyonecountry, there are approximately 209 Christian denominations. Something is not right with this picture.

So, what have what done about this problem? Well, what we have done is what the church has done since the Acts of Apostles, we formed a committee! Or several committees to be exact. The Episcopal Church has the Office of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations. The Methodist Church has a General Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns. The Roman Catholic church has the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And the list goes on!

These various committees, commissions, and councils have done important work over the past several decades. However, over the past 100 years…the number of Christian denominations has exploded from around 1,600 to almost 20,000 in 1970 to 43,000 today. It seems pretty clear that we are moving in the wrong direction. So, what are we missing? Why is it so difficult to move toward ONENESS as the body of Christ?

I think, first and foremost, we have lost sight of the fact that the UNITY Jesus prayed for is forged in the context of relationships. We can get lost in the numbers. 43,000 denominations! We ask ourselves, “How do we even begin to tackle a problem of such magnitude?” We begin by cultivating and nurturing the bonds of love and affection that are meant to characterize our relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ.

You see, Jesus didn’t come to start a committee. He didn’t say to the disciples, “If you all vote exactly the same way, then you will be one.” He didn’t exhort his disciples to agree about every theological, philosophical, and political precept. What he said was, “A new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you!” Serve one another. Wash each other’s feet. Lay down your lives for one another. My friends, Jesus’s prayer for unity is a prayer that we might love one another. It is a prayer that the same bond of love and affection that exists between Jesus and his Father might also exist between each one of us.

We often witness this unity in the unlikely of places. I have had the privilege of serving twice as deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Now, you might think of the General Convention as the mother ship of all committees. Between the bishops and the clergy and lay deputies, there are over 1,000 voting members of convention. And thousands more attend the convention as guests and visitors. It’s hard to overstate the incredible diversity represented by these thousands of people. Every theological and political position is present in some form or fashion. But in the midst of that diversity, I witnessed moments of profound Christian unity. And I witnessed those moments in the context of relationships. People praying together. People sharing meals together. People wrestling with important issues, but doing so with great love and compassion and respect for one another. The unity of the Spirit can’t be legislated. It can’t be mandated by a committee, a commission, or a council. It has to be forged in the context of the hard work of relationships.

UNITY requires effort. Think of some of the most intimate relationships in your life. Relationships with your spouse, a child, a parent, a close friend. These intimate relationships can be hard. But Jesus didn’t pray, “Father, may they be one…unless it gets too hard and then it’s okay for them to walk away! But that’s exactly what we do!  We live in a culture of disposability. The prevailing mindset used to be that, “If something is broken, you fix it!” Today, the prevailing mindset is that, “if something is broken, you replace it!” This mindset of disposability is affecting our relationships as well.

But, you know, sometimes there are things worth rebuilding and restoring. When I was a young boy, I spent my summers on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. And my grandfather had an old dock. Every year, the dock would continue to deteriorate and eventually it became unsafe for us to use. Many of us kids were encouraging my grandfather to simply buy a new dock. Most of the other cottages along the lakeshore had new state-of-the-art docks with ladders and diving boards and slides. But my grandfather, being a rather frugal man, decided to rebuild and restore the old dock – and guess who got to help!? First, we disassembled the dock and salvaged all the parts that could be reused. And then we took a trip to the lumber yard to purchase the necessary materials to rebuild the dock. To this day, I still vividly remember spending the next two weeks of vacation rebuilding the old dock under the direction of my grandfather and guess what? – It’s still there! There are things in life that are worth rebuilding. There are things in life that are worth restoring. And our relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ should be at the top of that life.

UNITY IS FORGED IN THE CONTEXT OF RELATIONSHIPS

UNITY REQUIRES EFFORT

The work of UNITY is countercultural. It is not something that comes naturally to us.  The reality is that the difficult work of forging unity in the context of relationships often takes us out of our comfort zones. The first sermon I ever heard by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, was a sermon entitled “Crazy Christians.” He said, “We need some Christians who are just as crazy as Jesus. Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God — like Jesus.” I believe the work of forging Christian unity among the people of God requires a similar degree of craziness. We need Christians crazy enough to believe that God really is working through the messiness of our divisions to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We need Christians who are crazy enough to look at the divided and polarized world in which we live and proclaim boldly, there is ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. My friends, Jesus prayed that we might be one. And God’s answer to that prayer begins with us!

Living Resurrection: WEEK FIVE

A New Mission

Click here to read Acts 1


This week, as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and prepare for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, we pause to reflect on the radical mission entrusted to the first disciples. Whereas the people of Israel were called to be “a light to the nations,” with the expectation that the nations would come to the mountain of the Lord, the disciples are commissioned to go to the ends of the earth to bear witness to the resurrection and the new life they had discovered in Jesus.

Living Resurrection Life WEEK FIVE

Absence and Presence

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“If you love me, you will rejoice that I am going to my Father.” – Jesus

This morning I would like us to reflect together on the meaning and significance of two words. These two words represent the paradox and tension that we often experience in the spiritual life.

The first word is absence. Now, if you think about it, in almost every facet of our lives, the word absence is more often than not associated with something negative. For example, if you’re a middle school student and your homework is mysteriously absent from your backpack, you’re likely going to receive a zero on that assignment. Or if you’re a financial manager and a significant amount of money is discovered to be absent from one of your major accounts, you’re likely going to find yourself in prison. Or for the guys, if it is your anniversary, and the card and gift and flowers are somehow absent on that particular day, you will likely find yourself sleeping on the couch that night.  Absence more often than not is a negative experience.

There are, of course, much more serious and life-changing experiences of absence. When we encounter significant loss in our lives, we experience first-hand the absence of those we love. When there are sudden changes and transitions in our lives, we experience the absence of what was, but will no longer be. There are times in most of our lives when we even experience what seems to be the absence of God. Those times when we endure the dark night of the soul and the agony of feeling alone and afraid. There are times when the intensity of that experience rises up from deep within us and we cry out in desperation, “God, where are you?” Sometimes the only response is silence. This one word “absence” I think summarizes those seasons in our lives characterized by doubt and despair.

Which brings us to this morning’s gospel reading. In today’s reading, we have actually gone back in time. It is once again the night before the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death, and not only for his death, but his resurrection and ultimately his ascension. In other words, Jesus is preparing his disciples and he is telling them in no uncertain terms, “I’m leaving.” But what is surprising is that Jesus tells his disciples to rejoice in the fact that he is leaving. He says, “If you love you, if you are really with me and know what I am all about, you will rejoice, you will be glad that I am going away.” In other words, if you love me, you will celebrate my absence!

Now I have to be honest and say that I struggle with these words from Jesus. Because I’ve always thought that my faith would so much stronger if I could actually be with Jesus. I mean what would it be like if Jesus was physically here in our midst and we could see him and touch him and hear him and know him as the disciples did two thousand years ago. How much stronger might our faith be? How much deeper our love? How much more resilient our hope and trust in God’s power? But Jesus says to his disciples, “No, that’s actually not right. It’s actually better if I go. It’s actually better if I am not here.” So, rejoice at my departure. Be glad when I am gone. Celebrate my absence. Why?

Presence. That’s our second word. Presence. Jesus is telling his disciples that his absence will actually bring about the fullness of his presence. Jesus said, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” There will a going and a coming. There will be a departure and an arrival. There will be an ending and a new beginning. There will be an absence, but that absence will actually result in the fullness of presence.

Jesus said, “My Father and I will come and make our dwelling place with you. My Father will send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will remind you of all that I have said to you.” Jesus is telling his disciples that he has to go, so that the fullness of God, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” will now come and dwell with them and in them and through them. And when the fullness of that presence is manifested in our lives, Jesus says that the result is peace, the shalom of God. A peace that the world cannot give.

Yes, there is absence, but that absence leads to the fullness of God’s presence, the fullness of God’s power, the fullness of God’s peace, coming and dwelling with us, in us, and through us. And so, Jesus says, “Rejoice, be glad, and celebrate!”

Now, the sermon could end at this point. Yes, there is this experience of absence, but that absence ultimately gives way to presence, so let’s just have a party, let’s just put on our happy face, and shout “hallelujah!” But I don’t think it is quite that simple.

Because it seems to me that Christians from the very beginning have wrestled with the tension between these two words. We have struggled to understand this paradox.

I mean, in the face of absence, Mary Magdalene still went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Thomas still needed to touch the body of his Lord and Teacher. When Jesus ultimately ascended into heaven, the disciples were looking up as long as they possibly could not wanting to let go. And for two thousand years, many Christians have struggled with what so often feels like the absence of God. Times when we pray, and it seems that nothing is happening. Times when long to feel and experience God’s love, and all we sense is empty space. Times when we desperately need to know that God is with us, and yet we feel as isolated and disconnected as ever. We have to acknowledge the experience of absence.

Because I don’t think the spiritual life is a simple journey from absence to presence. I think we actually spend a lot of our time in the middle. In the midst of the tension. In the midst of the paradox. And it is here in this in-between space where faith is formed. Where trust is cultivated. It is here in this in-between space where we come to know what it means to hope. Not for what is seen, but for what is unseen. It is here in this in-between space where we come to know the depth of our dependence upon God and God alone. It is here in the tension, in the paradox, that we come to know the essence of grace.

My friends, Jesus calls us into the mystery of his absence and into the promise of his presence. And, because that is true, let us rejoice and be glad and celebrate! Amen!

Living Resurrection: WEEK FOUR

A New Hope

Click here to read First Peter 1


For the past three weeks, we have been exploring three different passages from the Letters of Paul, which represent the earliest Christian witness to resurrection. This week, we turn to the First Letter of Peter, which may represent a much later period of the early church, perhaps as late as the early part of the second century. The general theme of this letter relates to the question, “How are Christians to live in the midst of persecution?” The answer to this question is hope – not just any hope, but “living hope” given through the power of the resurrection.

Living Resurrection Life WEEK FOUR

Living Resurrection: WEEK THREE

A New Life

Click here to read Colossians 3


In week one, we explored the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith and that through the resurrection a whole new reality, a new world has begun. Last week, we reflected on what that means for our  lives as Christians. Through our baptism, we have died with Christ and been raised to newness of life. The process of dying and rising is the paradigm that defines so much of our spiritual journey. In week three, we will explore how we live this resurrection life in the context of community. How do we treat one another? How does the resurrection change our lives and our relationships with one another?

Living Resurrection Life WEEK THREE

Mother’s Day Prayer

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Many of you have asked about the prayer I offered on Mother’s Day. The prayer is one that I have revised over the years, but here is the version I prayed on Sunday. 

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Almighty God, we give you thanks and praise for how you have created us and called us into relationship with you as your beloved children. As a mother cares for her children, you also care for us and even when we have wondered far from you, you long to gather us together, like a mother hen gathers her baby chicks under the shelter of her wing. 

Today, we give you thanks for our mothers who gave us life, who cared for us, comforted us, loved us, and helped us become who we are today through both their strengths and struggles. 

We pray for those whose grieve because their mothers have died and for those who never knew their mother’s love. 

We pray for those whose relationship with their mother is strained or broken.

We pray for mothers whose “hands are full” with children at home and for those with “empty nests”; for those who have become mothers through adoption, marriage, guardian ad-litem, and foster parenting.  

We pray for women who struggle with infertility, like Sarah and Rachel; and for those who have experienced loss.

We give you thanks and praise for all the women who support and encourage others like a mother.  For women who serve as teachers, mentors, aunts, neighbors, pastors, and leaders in our community and around the world. 

Pour out your blessing on all women that they may be filled with wisdom and grace; strength and patience; and unbreakable love, through your son Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN