The following is a transcript of the message preached at the First Baptist Church of Bristol, VT on 8 January, 2017.
Good morning! And Happy 2017!
Last month, I visited and talked a bit about the power of story. How the stories that we tell ourselves play into our perception of reality, and how we are participants in the one overarching Gospel story.
This morning, I would like to dive in a little further and dig into the concept of Truth, especially as it pertains to those who follow Jesus.
Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines Truth as fidelity, constancy, sincerity in action, character, and utterance; the state of being the case, fact, the body of real things, events, and facts; actuality, a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality, a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true, the body of true statements and propositions; the property of being in accord with fact or reality, true, fidelity to an original or to a standard; or capitalized Christian Science : god.
Jesus defines truth as follows: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples (Another translation puts it: “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings”). 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-32), and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
Here’s the thing: Jesus’s teaching isn’t just about how to think. And it’s not just about our personal salvation. Though both of those things are parts of his teachings.
Jesus’ teaching is about how to live.
And to be a disciple isn’t something that is set aside for a few holy folks.
To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus, to be seeking after Him, to be learning to follow Him.
Jesus doesn’t just tell us, “Here is how to think about things, sit back, relax, ponder long and hard, come to know all the right things, all the facts, and all will be well, let the clergy take care of the Kingdom work…”
No, Jesus shows us how to live. He places us in the midst of an experimental classroom that is our life. We see who God is, come to know His truth, through who Jesus is.
Being a disciple isn’t merely head learning. It’s learning how to transform one’s life, and thus, how to transform the world.
The Truth isn’t information.
The Truth is in formation.
So, what does Jesus mean when he tells us that this truth will set us free?
Dallas Willard writes, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, “he is saying that we will be liberated from all of the bondage that is in human life through sin, and especially from that of self-righteous religion. Positively, we will be liberated into life in the kingdom of God” (DC, p296).
Well, I think there are a couple of things to glean here.
Going back to the first half of the 20th Century, there are subtle differences in the notion of being free from something, or negative freedom, and being free to do something, or positive freedom.
Being free from something is saying that there is nothing stopping me from doing something. No one is telling me not to, so I can… Or you may be telling me not to, but I really don’t care, so I can anyways.
We are free from having to live up to some cultural image of what a man or a woman should be. We are free from the worldly definitions of success. We are free from having to fit into a particular pigeon-hole.
Being free to do something is saying that “I make myself, and answer to no one else, I am free to become who I want to be.”
We are free to live our lives for the Kingdom. We are free to sacrifice. We are free to love. We are free to live well, to live a life that is actually worth something. We are free to come truly alive while we yet live.
The typical example to portray these two versions of freedom, and to tease them apart a bit is an analogy where you are driving your car, and heading down the road. You come to a four way intersection, and are able to go straight ahead or turn either direction; you are free from any roadblocks keeping you from choosing any of the directions before you, thus exhibiting negative freedom. So you turn one direction. Then you make another turn. Now consider that the reason you made the turns you did was because you were suffering an addiction, and you ended up at the drugstore to buy cigarettes, a liquor store to make a substantial purchase, or a parking lot to meet a dealer to pick up a bag of heroin. And furthermore, making the turns you did, brought you away from another important appointment that you were supposed to keep. The addiction was what was really driving the vehicle, thus exhibiting a lack of positive freedom (The Art of Manliness Blog).
One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to reduce my sugar intake. As part of doing so, I have cut out sweetening up my coffee. Now, I could look at this as being freed from having to put sweetener in my coffee, or I can look at it as being free to taste the more nuanced flavors in my coffee without covering them over with sugar.
And I would add a secondary layer to Positive Freedom, which is being free to live for a greater purpose than ourselves. When I know the Truth of Christ, I’m not just free to be the person I make myself to be, but I am free to become the person I was made to be.
One of the things that causes a roadblock to non-believers coming to know Christ, or even for those of us on the path to knowing Christ to knowing him more deeply is a simple, juvenile version of negative freedom.
We often find people thinking, “Well, if I can’t still do x, y, and z, there’s no way I’d ever want to be a Christian.”
It is possible to view certain freedoms as imprisonment based on our perspective. Based on the lenses we are looking through, those stories we tell ourselves, whether true or false, because the very nature of making choices is that other choices become no longer within our grasp.
And then we fret over the cost rather than the value, missing the bridge from negative to positive freedom, if we realize we have any freedom at all.
We see this in our relationships. To look at the current state of marriage in our country as one such example: Rather than viewing marriage as the freedom to truly be yourself with another individual, to be loved for who you are, to love that individual for all they are, because of it and in spite of it, to be able to live out God’s love at it’s most intimate.
The lies of the enemy, embedded in our contemporary culture, would tell us that we are giving up our freedoms, that you are not able to see other people, you’re not able to do this, that, or the other thing, that you will no longer be able to have fun, that you are stuck.
Or we see the exact opposite lies masquerading as the truth: you’re free to leave whenever you want, for any reason that you want; marriage should be easy, if you don’t feel head over heels in love anymore, you’re free to throw in the towel, call it quits, get a divorce and move on.
And yet the truth of the matter is something so much deeper by far.
We are free to commit ourselves to one another.
That is a far different thing from slavery.
We are free to sacrifice, to live simply, to not have to try to live our lives in a manner predetermined by society to be successful.
We are free to be bound, rather than bound to be free.
This doesn’t only apply to marriage, but can extend to so many other layers of our lives- to being part of the Church of Christ, to our realms of employment, to simply being rooted in our communities.
Isn’t it ironic that, especially in a consumer culture, we can get caught up in being slaves to freedom? Bound to having an open way out? We think we’re free to pursue the next great thing, and yet, we are mindlessly enslaved to always pursuing the next big thing, constantly on the move, never resting, seemingly never-ending. Until it does, and we lie there in our last moments wishing we had better heeded the words of Christ, and followed his teachings, and grasped onto the freedom to truly live while we were yet alive.
Let’s take it back to Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy for a moment Willard comments, “dwelling in his word is not just intensive and continuous study of the Gospels, though it is that. It is also putting them into practice. To dwell in his word we must know it: know what it is and what it means. But we really dwell in it by putting it into practice” (DC, p296).
So, yes, we have to be regularly entering into the Scriptures, and we have to be allowing the Scripture to regularly enter into us! And we have to put the things that we learn into practice. Immediately. Don’t put it off until next week. Don’t even put it off until tomorrow.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
How do we live out this Truth with our lives as well? How do we learn to follow the man-God, Jesus with our every breath?
One thing that we can do is to enter into the Word daily. To intentionally set aside some time every day to dive into the Scriptures, and to commune with the Lord in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal the Truth of Christ in our lives and through our lives, that we may come not just to know the right things, but to live the right things.
When we follow the teachings of Jesus faithfully, Truth seeps out from our very core.
It is oh so important that we don’t follow the freedom of culture, and become slaves to “facts”, to the news, etc.
The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, we end up letting circumstances dictate our emotions, and letting our emotions take control of our lives. Secondly, we end up entrenched in a worldview that says we need all the facts. We need to know all the things that are factually accurate, that are true, in order to know anything.
And yet, that’s not what Jesus tells us. Actually part of Jesus’s teaching, part of the Truth, is that we are to embrace mystery.
Jesus tells his disciples, speaking about the end times, in the books of Matthew and Mark: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (MT 24:36, MK 13:32). And continuing in Matthew, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (MT 24:42).
Mystery has its place in the Truth.
And yet, we get caught up in things that may be true all the time, which actually serve to draw us away from living out the Truth, putting into practice the sum of Jesus’ teachings.
Oh, what are the sum of his teachings, by the way? Jesus offered a rather succinct definition in Matthew 22:38-39: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”
It all revolves around love.
To be truly following Christ, is to be truly and utterly dependent upon Him, to die to ourselves to come to life in Christ.
Jesus tells us that as we are going, we are to make disciples. We are to love one another. As we follow along the Way, we are to bring others along for the journey with us.
We are not just to hand someone a book, and tell them, here, go read this and figure it out. We are to live out, model, and exemplify our lives in accordance with the Word and Will of God, and invite others into that life, into the life of a community.
Our lives ought to be lived in such a manner that others notice a marked difference from the lives of people in our secular world, not to stand at opposition with those lives, but to stand as alternative, as welcoming, all-inviting, loving, counter-culture.
With this, as with all things, there is an importance of practicing good communication. With our words and with our lives.
We live out much of the truth of the Gospel through communing with others, through communicating with others; through our shared lives, together.
Speaking the truth of our situation to each other brings us to a freedom we may have long been avoiding.
The truth will set you free.
The truth of it all is that we are individually and collaboratively disciples of Christ, that we are not perfect, and yet we are perfect in Him.
When we internalize the truth of Christ, we are freed from our slavery to our fear, and particularly our fear of admitting our fears. It takes great strength and courage to admit our weaknesses, fears and anxieties to others.
We have to speak to truth in order to see the truth, and to live in the truth. We have to delve back into the teachings of Jesus, to pick up His cross and follow Him once more, to put each other before ourselves.
Even when we’re tired, even when we’re grumpy, even when we’re hangry…
Communicating our our weaknesses, actually serves to free us from those very same weaknesses, and allows us to bear our burdens together rather than alone.
And like any good thing, this takes practice.
Which leads me to one, final analogy: Some of you know that I practice Historic European Martial Arts, or Historical Fencing. As with practicing any martial art, it takes a lot of time to learn the rudimentary pieces, and then to build upon those and to build upon those with new maneuvers, new techniques, new hand-works, and footwork, and body mechanics, and then to tie it all together. And much of this feels really strange at first, moving your body in ways it has literally never moved before, and connecting those motions together fluidly.
We study and train our techniques from interpretations of 14th-16th century fencing manuals.
Sometimes, even now, a few years into training, I will read a passage, and think I know what it’s telling me to do. Then I go try to pull it off, only to find out I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was telling me to do, especially when trying it out with someone else.
And often, it seems the things we feel least comfortable with are the things we need to do the most.
It takes putting the words into practice, and doing so in the context of others, to truly know what they mean.
The same is true for following the teachings of Jesus.
So, read the words of Jesus. And then get together with a small group of people to experiment with those words, to learn to put them into practice.
If you need a great place to start, head over to Matthew 5 and read and reread and reread again Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount.
Knowing the Truth without living the Truth is actually killing the Truth.
Much of the reason that Christians often fail to connect evangelism with discipleship is that, unfortunately, that is exactly what they have had modeled to them: a lack of connection between the two. There is a faith that exists alongside Christianity, which also calls itself by the same name, and is basically used to reinforce how the individual is already living, without focusing on drawing the people therein closer to Christ, to transformation, to resurrection. Instead of surrendering ourselves to Christ, we are often content surrendering Christ to ourselves; our whims, our wills, our desires.
So, when Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to abstain from judging others, to live out our faith openly, to be merciful, to hunger and thirst for justice, to work for peace, to reconcile ourselves to one another, to commune with Him through prayer, worship, and fellowship, and to make room for his commandments to be written on our hearts and on our lives, we ought to be listening.
And not only listening, but actively participating.
Light overcomes darkness. Not the other way around.
Now, go forth, and be the light.