Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Bearable Truth


John 15:26-27; 16:4-15

The Day of Pentecost / Year B

Jesus said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Bearable truth.  When we were in kindergarten they taught us little George Washington said to his father, “I cannot tell a lie.  I chopped down the cherry tree.”  It was an age-appropriate lesson about the value of honesty.  Maybe it was 4th grade American history when we learned Washington was the father of our country, our first president.  Perhaps in A.P. history we learned more about his public and private life; that he was a general and that he was a slave owner.  If you attended a military school you might have studied in detail the various battles Washington’s army fought; examining in great detail the tactics he employed and debating the merits of each move he made: not a conversation for a kindergarten class… not a bearable truth at that age.

Bearable truth.  When it comes to understanding God’s dream for all people and for all creation, we are on a journey of discovery because the time has to be right for the Spirit to give us a bearable truth.  Some circles hold God ‘gave’ us the bible, as if was a giant data dump of all truth for all time.  I reject this notion.  The bible is a product of multiple human authors spanning centuries of composition.  Each writer detects God’s activity in the world and records it in a way which is authoritative.  Our Catechism teaches, “We call Scripture the word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible today.”  And the more we allow God to speak through the bible, the more truth we are given to bear.

For those first disciples the first bearable truth they learn is about Jesus Christ himself.  They come to see in a new and powerful way how the Scriptures of the original testament anticipate his coming into the world and speak a prophetic hope of what he will accomplish.  Consider today’s reading from the Book of Acts.  Peter, in his first public sermon ever, quotes a relatively obscure passage from the prophet Joel.  Now, this past week I read (what for me) was an interesting commentary about how Peter makes subtle changes to the original text so to make it more appropriate to his setting and time.  He gives new meaning to the prophet’s words in the light God’s deeds done in Jesus Christ.  Rest easy, I will not go into the details of the commentary!  All I want to say is it is a thrilling time to be a part of the Church as each day and each meeting brings new insight and revelation about the person who had been their companion for three years and is still present with them every time they break the bread and drink the wine.

This is the first bearable truth they learn and it is a blessing.  The second is more challenging.  We heard about it just a few weeks ago in the Lectionary reading.  Peter is in the home of Cornelius, a gentile.  Suddenly and without warning, the Holy Spirit descends upon this man and his entire household, just as it did in today’s reading upon a gathering which is entirely Jewish.  Well and good, you might think.  However, the early Church in no way, shape, or form thinks its ranks one day will be open to all people.  Without hesitation, Peter baptizes everyone present; an act which infuriates some of us brethren back in Jerusalem.  Once again those early believers are driven back to Scriptures and to the words and actions of Jesus.  Gradually they begin to discern God’s dream for all people is for all people and this becomes a bearable truth.

The early Church continues on its journey of discovery; at times being challenged by the culture and at times dealing with internal conflicts.  Paul writes at length to Christians about eating meat sacrificed to idols; a cultural issue thankfully settled by the Church well before our time.  The Church also endures various periods of persecution; some local and others more widespread.  Some Christians, even some bishops, under threat of punishment or death, recant the faith in order to survive.  When the persecution abates, the Church must discern how or if to welcome back those who have disavowed their faith.  More bearable truth must be discerned.

Evelyn Underhill famously wrote, “If we took the Christian faith seriously, ushers would not hand out bulletins in church.  They’d hand out crash helmets.”  If we are going to pursue God’s dream for all people we must acknowledge God is going to reveal it to us only in bearable truths.  Once we deal with one part of the dream which sweeps away a previously held convention, we are soon given a new truth to bear.  And just like the parable Jesus teaches about new and the old wine skins, a part of this journey is about discerning what to carry forward and what to leave behind.  The presence of the Holy Spirit lights our way.  It always bears witness to the truth.

This past week quietly marked the 36th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in 1988.  So much about our church has changed over the years and, at least from a historical perspective, changed rapidly.  Questions about gender equality, gender identity, same gender relationships, and the on-going stain of racism in our society have challenged our church.  As I see it, each has been initiated by some unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit which we have found present in places and people we did not expect, but cannot deny.  I for one and proud to be a part of a faith community strong enough to engage bearable truth.  I give thanks of this Pentecost Sunday for the Spirit who leads us into all truth.