Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House--Psalm 1, Luke 12:49-53, Romans 6:19-23
For those of you who are conversant with the Myers-Briggs typology, I am an INTJ—and on the P to J scale, I’m a quite advanced J, not off the chart, but not ambiguous either … which means that, as a Christian pastor and doer-of-theology (I would certainly never call myself a theologian, particularly in this setting) … as a pastor and “theologizer,” I’m very fond of the sheer notion of truth. When Pope John Paul II published his encyclical in 1993, Veritatis Splendor—“the splendor of truth”, he had me just with the title, although I certainly do “resonate” with much of the content as well. As Jesus said to the disciples of John the Baptist, “the truth will set you free.” Of course, Christians believe and bear witness that Jesus himself embodies Truth“; he is, in effect, “truth incarnate.”
Truth is life-giving, because it’s … well … true; it reflects reality, things as they actually are. We have this wonderful image from Psalm 1 in tonight’s liturgy: “streams of living water” that produce vital trees bearing healthy fruit. Truth is that stream of living water; it seems no coincidence that he who declared himself to be the truth also spoke of himself as a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life. Given the life-giving properties of truth, then, it’s amazing—is it not?—how human beings spend so much time denying the truth and running from the truth. Some of us all the time and all of us some of the time would greatly prefer an attractive fantasy to a challenging truth.
But truth is like fire and water—absolutely essential for life, but also capable of destroying life, quickly and thoroughly. Truth, that many-splendored thing, has the potential to become toxic when it is detached from him who, in his own being, is Truth. When ‘truth’ is not understood in the light of ‘Truth’, it has the capacity to become an idol, and an idol, as we are told repeatedly in scripture, is a false god, whatever or whomever we put in the place of God other than God himself, a god whom we make in our own image, an idol that we cast in the mold of our own predispositions and prejudices and insecurities and fears. And idolatry, as we know, is sinful, and sin is by nature death-dealing. As we learn from St Paul as he writes to the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.”
In the passage from Luke’s gospel that we read tonight, Jesus talks about the “division” that his ministry provokes, and the hard choices faced by those who answer his call to discipleship. In our contemporary ecclesial context, one is tempted to understand the kind of “division” Jesus is talking about as describing some very familiar fault lines that we draw in our own minds, fault lines like the one between those who are “orthodox” and those who are “heterodox,” between “reasserters” and “reappraisers,” between “revisionists” and those who stand for the “faith once delivered.”
But what if we’re getting it all wrong? What if the sort of division that Jesus is talking about doesn’t have to do with any of those categories? What if what Jesus is trying to describe is the division between those whose gaze is fixed on ‘Truth’, and those for whom ‘truth’ has become an idol?
In South Africa, during the painful and tenuous transition from apartheid to majority rule, there evolved a curious institution called a “Truth & Reconciliation Commission.” Yes, the truth needs to be told, and it was the job of these commissions to facilitate all the truth-telling that needed to happen. When the truth is suppressed or denied, neither health nor life can long endure. The ability of people who had been ravaged by the institutionalized racism of apartheid to tell their stories, to expose the evils of that system to the purging fire and cleansing water of truth was a necessary step in the healing of that nation. But truth-telling that is abstract, truth that is strictly propositional, truth that doesn’t somehow point beyond itself, quickly become an idol, a sinful, death-dealing idol. By contrast, authentic truth-telling leads inexorably to reconciliation. The kind of truth that is liberating, that sets free, the kind of truth that is a stream of living water welling up to eternal life, is, in the paradigm of the gospel, always configured to reconciliation, always manifesting—if I can be forgiven for exploiting and repurposing the language of liberation theology—always manifesting a preferential option for reconciliation. My friends in Christ, the most sinful, the most death-dealing form of idolatry, is the impulse to use truth as a pretext for staying un-reconciled.
I have the dubious distinction of inventing the term “Pax Nashotah” in a blog post some years ago. I did so very casually, and without more than a couple of moments of thought, but it seemed to gather currency rather quickly. The Pax Nashotah speaks of the peace that truly passes understanding, that only Jesus can bring, that would be eternally elusive if left to our human inclinations. All of us who are part of the larger Nashotah family, but especially those who are part of the day-to-day on-campus community, bear a share of the responsibility for making this peace concretely incarnate. It is the fruit of grace, but as we learn when we study theology, grace perfects nature, grace travels in the channels dug by ordinary human exchanges. When we relax our vigil, we are easily seduced by—if I can coin an oxymoronic phrase—“false truth.”
So I’m wondering tonight whether the sort of division Jesus speaks of describes not a chasm between, say, the orthodox and the heterodox, between Episcopalians and those for whom the Episcopal Church is an historical antecedent, but, rather, those who let truth trump unity, and those who tenaciously cling to the ministry of reconciliation? And make no mistake, the ministry of reconciliation is hard work; none of you, I suspect, need me to tell you that. At the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops, one of our guests was Archbishop Justin’s canon for reconciliation, David Porter. Canon Porter is an Ulsterman, and earned his stripes in reconciliation ministry on the streets of Belfast. He told us that “reconciliation can be a real bastard sometimes,” because it usually means that somebody, if not everybody, feels like they didn’t get justice.
Beloved, this gospel we share, this gospel we proclaim, is nothing other than the ministry of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another in and through the one who is at the same time our truth and our peace, having broken down every dividing wall of hostility through his self-offering on the cross. To the extent that there are divisions among those who own the faith of Jesus, the world is scandalized and the gospel is robbed of its power. To the extent that we, in a spirit of “true humility and self-abasement,” can unleash the grace of reconciliation to flow over every area of our lives, when our passion for truth is ever configured toward the end of reconciliation, we are like trees planted by streams of living water that bear fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. Everything we do shall prosper. Floreat Nashotah and praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.