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More or Less in Temporal Order
Monday, July 28, 2014
The Great Ends of the Church: The Preservation of the Truth
Preached on Sunday, July 27, 2014
Scripture readings: 2 Timothy 1:3-14; John 17:1-5; 20-26
“What is truth?”
A mom and dad were worried about what to do with their little boy who was telling lies. One day he ran into the house and told his mom, “Mommy there’s a lion in our yard!” She looked out and saw a big golden-retriever. She told her son to go up to his room and pray about the lie he had just told. The boy came down later, and his mom asked him if he had anything to say about his lie? The boy said, “Yes Mommy, I told God, and he said that he thought the dog was a lion, at first, too.”
Jesus, when he was about to be sent to the cross, explained part of his mission and purpose to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus told Pilate that he had come to bear witness to the truth. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” But he didn’t stop and wait for Jesus to answer his question. (John 18:37-38) Pilate didn’t “stay for an answer”, either because he didn’t believe in the truth or else he didn’t want to be inconvenienced by it.
If we read on, in the story of Jesus’ trial, we would find that the governor was really only interested in his own survival, and in his own success. He served himself, not the truth.
Or you might say that Pontius Pilate, the brutal but cowardly Roman governor, was his own truth. His truth was whatever served him, what ever worked for him. And we find more and more people of the same opinion in our present day.
We live in a time when fewer and fewer people believe in an absolute truth, or in absolute standards of good and evil; right and wrong. People are more and more likely than ever to say that, “the truth is whatever works for you.”
We live in a world that asks, “What is truth?” because it doesn’t really want a truth that is truly true. We live in a world; that, more and more, doesn’t believe in the truth at all.
What if “whatever works for you” is to lie, or to take things from work, or to cheat on your tax records, or to spread a rumor about another person? What if “whatever works for you” is to use other people for your own advantage, or to pretend to be someone you are not; whether it’s on the internet or in real life?
Now during these weeks we are thinking about the great “ends” or purposes of the Church.
First, remember what the church is. The church is the gathering of the people of God into what the Bible calls the body of Christ. God wants a gathering of his people.
He wants a gathering because, in the world as it is, we see the opposite of gathering. We see a scattering. In the brokenness of our world we see division. We see conflict. Sin has made a crack in everything, and between every human, and even on the inside of every human, and God wants to bring the pieces together and mend them better than any glue on earth can do.
God wants a group of people who belong to each other; and who know that they belong to each other; who know that they need to work together. And one of the purposes of our belonging to each other and working together is that this is the way to “preserve the truth”. The preservation of the truth is a great cause that we serve in our life together: in our partnership, in our unity, in our worshiping, praying, learning, working, and carrying out the mission of Christ together.
We want to be found by each other and by the whole world to be people who are true and who can be relied upon, in big things and in the so-called little things. This is because we are witnesses, in this world, of a God who is true and who can be relied upon. The world we live in needs to know that there is a great and wonderful and transforming truth that it needs to known; and that this truth can be relied on; and that this truth is to be found in God.
There is a lot of responsibility in the job of the preservation of the truth. The preservation of the truth is like a relay race. The church is a team in the relay race of truth.
The race has lasted thousands of years. According to Paul the race included his forbearers, the people of
, as well as the people
called the church, which includes us. Each generation, over thousands of years,
has carried the baton and passed it on to the next generation. Israel
But even in our own present generation, in this congregation and all around the world, we pass the baton back and forth as we pray for each other, and as we take our turns in serving, and as we encourage each other.
Many people are skeptical about whether it is possible to preserve the truth. They compare it to the parlor game where everyone sits in a circle and one person is chosen to whisper a message to the person on their right, and the person on the right passes the message on, in a whisper, to the person on their right, until the message goes all around the circle. When it goes all the way around, it becomes a completely different message.
Now, if I got the message mixed up, it would probably be because I don’t hear as well as I used to; or because I don’t say, “What!” But I believe that most of the messing up comes from the fact that people are playing a game. The people in the game treat the message as a game.
But we are not playing a game. We have a message that has been entrusted to us by God. We have not changed the message. Though some Christians have changed it, or tried to, or never got it right in the first place, the Church, as a whole, has never changed the message.
An example of how the message has been passed along without changing it is in the thing we call “the creeds”. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word (“credo”) for, “I believe.” The creeds are statements of the truth you believe in; the truth you live by. The creeds are ancient, and they come from people who were serious about their faith: serious about passing it on.
The creeds and the confessions of the church have a history that goes back to the beginnings of the church. We can say the Apostle’s Creed (the core material of which had already become tradition by the early second century)* and the Nicene Creed (which comes from the year 325 AD) and we can see that the message has not changed.
A century before the Protestant Reformation, during what we consider to be the darkest times of the church, in its knowledge of the truth of the gospel, there was a man who lived in the lands of
was named Thomas a Kempis. He wrote a famous book called “The Imitation of
This is what Thomas a Kempis wrote about the center of the truth of the gospel. He wrote: “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection against our enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross joy of spirit, in the cross the height of virtue, in the cross the perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of the soul, nor hope of everlasting life, but in the cross. Take up therefore your cross and follow Jesus, and you shall go into life everlasting. He went before, bearing his cross, and died for you on the cross; that you might also bear your cross and desire to die on the cross with him.” (Second Book, Chapter 12)
This is what we believe and, when Thomas a Kempis wrote these words they were the accepted teaching of his day. Most of the corruption in the church of his day (that led to the Reformation) was about power, and ambition, and money. There were many confusing things that the church taught during that time, but the truth was still there.
The Christians of that generation carried the baton in their day, as we do in ours. The preservation of the truth means seriously taking up our positions together as faithful relay-racers in the race of the truth.
The truth we are carrying in this relay race includes a number of ingredients that all belong together. We are called to preserve a truth that is both a “pattern of teaching” and a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul says: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Jesus Christ.”
The pattern of sound teaching is the outward statement of the message. Faith and love are the living relationship with Jesus Christ that the message describes. Faith and love are what Christ makes possible thorough his cross and his resurrection.
The truth is a message about a standard of life that is called “holy”.
Holy doesn’t mean perfect. A holy life is a life that is different and unique, because God has set your life apart for himself. He has set your life apart to show his purpose, and to work out that purpose. That is God’s side of your holy life. Your side of a holy life is a commitment to live your life anchored in God’s ways and God’s purpose.
Holiness has nothing to do with perfection. It has to do with the difference that comes from a purpose.
God’s truth is also about grace. It is the message that says that grace makes the pursuit of a holy life possible. The message and the teaching are about what God has done in Christ to set us apart to his purpose.
The message is about grace; the un-earnable, unconditional love of God in Christ; and the power of the grace of God to give us a new life. Paul says: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God who has saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything that we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” (2 Timothy 1:8-9)
The message is about who the Lord is. It is about the nature of God, as he is in himself, beyond time and space. The message is also about what God has done in our world, in human history: Paul says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:9-10)
The truth that we are to preserve is about the power of God to save us by coming to our help. In Christ we are given the Spirit of God to replace our neediness with God’s abundance, our fear with God’s power, our poverty of spirit with God’s love, our immaturity with God’s discipline. (2 Tim. 1:7)
There is a pattern of teaching, here, that we are to preserve. Only a church can preserve this pattern of truth, because it is about grace; and only people who are one in the Spirit, one in their experience of a relationship of grace with God, can teach grace by example.
Only by God’s people being one can other people learn what a God of love can do. Jesus says: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)
The Bible teaches us surprising things about the truth, and how to preserve it. Part of the truth should be rules for living: the right way to live. But if the truth was nothing more than rules for living, then our job would be to be judges of each other, and judges of the world. And this would put us in danger of self-righteousness. Rules for living are part of the truth, but the truth goes far beyond that.
Part of the truth should be the correct information of who the Lord is and what the Lord has done. But if the truth were nothing more than this information, then our job would be to be information experts, and we would be tempted to show how clever we were, how smart we were, and who could argue the best or quote the most scriptures. The knowledge of who the Lord is and what the Lord has done is part of the truth; but the truth must go beyond that.
Preserving the truth goes beyond preserving the rules or preserving the correct information. The truth that comes from Christ is a relationship; a fellowship with God. Otherwise preserving the truth would turn into just another way of trusting in ourselves.
But the truth of Christianity is about trusting God. Truth is not a thing but a person, and that person is none other than God himself. This is why Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Paul did not write, “I know what I have believed”, although he was very clear about what Christians were to believe. Instead, Paul wrote: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” (2 Tim. 1:12)
Trust and faith take us out of ourselves so that we remember who the Lord is.
When we remember that the Lord is God, it does another great thing; because we easily get afraid when we think about the task of preserving the truth. We feel so small and the indifference of this world seems so big. We want to give up. We get timid, or tired, or embarrassed, or ashamed, the way Timothy needed warnings about.
Sometimes we even get angry about preserving the truth, as if we could do it by shaking the world by the throat. It is much healthier for us to know that God is the real truth, and that it is not our job to preserve God; though we may work for him and be the messengers of his truth.
God can take care of himself. God is the preserver of his own truth. And God preserves us, all the time.
The Lord has entrusted his truth to us, because the Lord, as we see him in Jesus, is very humble, and generous, and gracious. We don’t deserve the honor of this calling, but this is what grace is about; and so we are messengers of the grace of God. The truth is about grace. When we are living day by day in the grace and power of God, then whatever we have to share will be the truth.
And yet the whole truth is much more than any individual can show. The whole truth is much better shared by people who are gathered together and work together by the love of God.
More than any individual, the church itself needs the grace of God, doesn’t it? The church is unworthy of its message, but grace is God’s gift to the unworthy. So, with all the church’s errors, and with all its faults, and with all its sins, it is God’s great purpose for us, together as the church, to preserve his truth in this world.
(*Concerning the early development of the creeds, see the works of Irenaeus and Tertullian.)