Truth

The Witness Accuses and Rectifies

Pastoral Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that these peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Text: John 18:33-38

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the day in the Christian Calendar that reminds us that Jesus, Christ the King, is the witness that accuses the world as it is and through whom God will set all things right.

In January of this year, Michael Rich published, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. In 2000 Doug Groothuis’s book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, was published. Five years earlier, in 1995, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton had their book published, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age.

Sometime around 30 AD, Pilate asked the question, “What is truth?
Maybe 800 to 1000 years before that the editor that completed the work of the

Preacher in Ecclesiastes, summed up the Teacher’s work,

The Teacher sought to find delightful sayings and write words of truth accurately.

The recorded history of Israel includes this,

Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden.?’

Human beings have a long sordid history with the truth. We have always battled over what truth we prefer. The one thing we cannot escape is the world is no better after all these years of making up our own truth. In fact, there are some stories that expose what we often paper over.

She asked to talk with me.

“Do you know of any assistance?” It was not unlike the question in the form of a statement that came Wednesday morning as we awaited for the Regional Food Bank delivery, “We were told that you were helping with Thanksgiving Dinners.” The same question is sometimes posed, “Can you help with some gas so I can see my mother in the hospital?” When you drill down to ask questions about other sources of income you learn that this Dad is doing all he can to keep two households going while having faced cancer and helping a daughter addicted to drugs.

“Do you know of any assistance?” Many a grandparent has responded to the call to help raise his or her grandchild. Whatever the circumstances that create that need are magnified when also taking the responsibility for a grandchild with special needs. While the unemployment rate is down, some businesses are still struggling for work. This family owns their own business and what is normally a busy time has been very slow. This mother and grandmother is also a daughter – a near full-time caregiver. Cooking meals three times a day nearly every day of the week and cleaning house for her parents leaves little time to pick up a second job.

“Do you know of any assistance?”

When we hear the word assistance in this context we often think of government assistance. Are there programs to help in the face of these arbitrary circumstances? We criticize those who look to the State, the government, to help in these instances. But, we do not see the how little difference there is between the State offering help to a family in crisis and, say, an industry that is helped to get off the ground with subsidies and tax breaks, a business given incentives to move to this city or that, and how little you and I pay attention that corporate accounts often help offset our individual expenses. We decry socialism and yet see it at work in special considerations where advantages help the bottom line, help a company survive.

The witness of the woman asking for assistance accuses the world of a double standard. Rather than apply your taxes and mine neutrally, we are selective with our outrage and criticism. Businesses from which we might benefit are privileged over normal families that could not possibly be guilty for a special needs grandchild or the debilitating health of parents, much less the economic effects of low unemployment and low wages.

“Do you know of any assistance?”

Pilate became an accomplice to the plot to kill Jesus. Try as he might to maintain neutrality, he actually could only think of Jesus as a counter to a certain form of political power. He completely missed that Jesus was a King of a different sort. Sometimes we make the same mistake. Content to think that Jesus is king over some unseen spiritual realm, we fail to take account that Jesus bears witness to the State, of government, we created that at once simply carries out the preferences of the powerful. So long as we receive from the powerful we are content to share in the chorus of personal responsibility and hard work. When we find ourselves on the wrong end of those preferential positions, we discover that the State, government, is not neutral, but supports the powerful.

This is an illustration of the Powers of Sin and Death.

Bound up in the human experience is an accusation against the world as it is. We form our opinions rooted in what benefits us, or so we think. And then we learn that there are people who would rather live in tents in a man-made-no-man’s-land rather than, in

their words, “be killed in our beds.” Only privileged people get to criticize the plight of those we don’t know. When we do it is an accusation against whatever truth we have preferred.

Pilate was not the first. We will not be the last.

Into this world.

I was born for this.

Whatever you and I make of Jesus, whatever anyone makes of Jesus, when we read his words,

I was born for this,

sets up the clash that resulted in the death of Jesus. What you say? Human beings have manipulated the law long before we came up with the now slogan-like mantra, Rule of Law. Our lived experience is that the law rules us. Pilate operated under the rule of the State. His concern with Jesus centered upon a certain geo-political sense. Pilate’s question, Are you the King of the Jews?, has in mind the sphere of power we would associate with a President, the leader of any Nation-State. His concern was not for those whose lives had been restored, where the arbitrary pains of life had been rectified with healing and hope. There was no stream of the blind, the lame, the possessed or the once-dead to bear witness to Jesus and the power of love. Care for people was not Pilate’s concern. Over what geographic area would Jesus’ kingdom take in? That was the concern.

When Jesus describes a kingdom not of this world, this did not make sense to Pilate whose concern was much more narrow.

My kingdom is not of this world

Into this world but not of this world.

Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s question reveals a better question. It is not, Are you the king of the Jews, instead the better question is, What kind of king are you? Jesus’ answer to Pilate reveals the limitation of the imagination when bound to such a narrow grid.

That Jesus did not refer to his disciples as subjects, soldiers, and that he outright rejected the form of power that would result in war, sets Jesus apart and requires an imagination not bound to the world as it is. So, when the question comes,

Do you know of any assistance?

We are not bound to a closed set of options. There are other possibilities. Confusing as it was to Pilate, it seems equally troubling today. Our imagination has so been captured

by the Powers of Sin and Death that we can only see the future world as it could be through capturing the Whitehouse for our team, the Congress for our side, even the Judiciary for our way. But Jesus told Pilate what he would tell us,

My kingdom is not of this world

The clue to a new imagination, what some have described as a sanctified imagination, is less a clue and more a person. Jesus responded to Pilate’s insistence that Jesus be pressed into the order of the day, the world as it is with,

You say that I am a king, I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.

If Jesus, his life and ministry, accuse the world as it is, know that his life, death and resurrection rectify the world, setting all things right.

Here are some distinctions . . .

  1. The world as it is may only maintain the order as it is, there is no means to rectify all that is wrong.
  2. Jesus, Christ the King showed a glimpse of the world set right every time he did what the world as it is could not do.
  3. Jesus, Christ the King, is more than an ethical model. Were it about living with a new ethic, it would merely be giving ourselves to a new law. Remember, the law only accuses. It cannot rectify what is wrong.
  4. Jesus, Christ the KIng, at once accuses, points out what is not right with the world as it. is, and through his life, death, and resurrection, sets the world to rights.

We await his return not for our escape from the world, but that the world will be finally made right through Him.

Tomorrow we, us, will help the woman with what she needs. Our hope is that we bear witness to the truth. We do not want to give testimony that they world as it is will one day make right the arbitrary events of life. We do not want to indicate that our participation in what helps her get by during this difficult time is all for which she has to hope.

We want to bear witness that in Christ, his Church, his people are not special but that we are present to the world testifying to the better place in the world which is in Christ.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version. No audio is availalbe for this sermon.

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Al Mohler’s Postmodern Turn (off) of John Franke

Al Mohler reads John Franke through his deeply embedded cultural, linguistic systems to such a committed degree he seems to be missing John Franke. In other words, when one is accustomed to culture warring where disagreement is expected it is difficult to give any space for the Other/other. Even more so to offer an even handed critique. Writing to get to his conclusions, Mohler tips his hat at Franke as if to say, “Yes, but … .” The feeling is a disingenuous attempt to get at Franke’s project in his recent book, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth.

Enter Scot McKnight, Just prior to Mohler’s published post, “Is Truth Really Plural? Postmodernism in Full Flower,” Scot offered more helpful review in a six-part review of his own – Manifold Witness 1-6. During John’s installation as the Lester and Kay Clemens Professor of Missional Theology at Biblical Seminary, Scot and I chatted about any number of things. We talked freely and frankly about the “Emerging/emerging church.” Scot had granted me a phone interview for a research project on the subject. One of the things we discussed was Scot’s contention that we do not listen well to others. It keeps us from healthy, constructive conversations. (You can find some very good material on the subject in the archives on his blog. I have linked to them before.) Scot even mentioned that many in my tribe (SBC) would do well to read Newbigin’s Proper Confidence. I agree.

What really confuses me is that if one really believes what one writes then greater care must be taken to pursue understanding. For instance, Mohler writes of a couple of positive elements of postmodernism. He noted,

Furthermore, postmodernism can provide a corrective to epistemological arrogance — the tendency to claim premature finality for our thought and truth claims.

Al then proceeds to make some final claims regarding truth as it relates for Franke’s project.

When we place McKnight and Mohler side by side we are not comparing Bishop Spong to J.Frank  Norris. (A reference for my Baptist friends. I could have used John MacArthur.) We really are comparing what most would consider two conservative voices, thought Scot may be left of Al – many indeed are. Both men are committed to evangelism. It is this subject that pushed McKnight to get some distance between himself and some in the emerging church. He has since thrown his lot in with Dan Kimball and Erwin McManus and The Origins Project. Trust me, I know the difference between McKnight and Mohler. But only in a theological world gone made would anyone suggest McKnight weak on the gospel.

Franke underscores truth, and pay attention to the lower case “t,” as the domain wherein human beings talk about God. And, those attempts to talk truthfully about God only comes through the grace of God. Even our best attempts to grasp God fall short for only God may obtain “Truth.” In fact, the Triune God is Truth. the means whereby we engage the Truth is through the person and work of Jesus, the Christ. In a recent Christianity Today piece titled, “Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” John reiterates his conviction about Jesus, the One and only.

Yet, Mohler fears Franke’s embrace of pluralism. But, reading pluralism in this context as anything other than the pluralism found in the history and expression of the church is to conflate pluralism as a cultural relativism contending all roads lead to god with John’s focus. Herein is Mohler’s postmodern turn. Practicing a bit of his own version of “reader response” he must be correct in his critique for that is “how he read John.” So, after all, the meaning is in the interpretation. But, Mohler flatly argues against this!

And, since Mohler conludes that Franke’s position does not allow for “verbal inspiration” of the Scriptures, Franke could not possibly find the Scriptures authoritative, as, say, Mohler. So convinced is he that he asserts Franke has sold out doctrinal accountability. I could not find that in my copy of the book to save my life. Could not even find the inference. How about you?

We Southern Baptists adopted Henry Blackaby. His Experiencing God led a host of folks to consider how the Spirit of God mediates the presence and reality of God through the Scriptures and the Church. Now we have a history of re-working our past so that once great heroes of our very young tradition are now envisioned as anti-heroes. I am hoping we will not do so with Blackaby. He, for one, returned the work of the Spirit to the life of the church under the Scriptures rather than “over” the Scriptures for many Southern Baptists.

Finally, I find it interesting that Franke looks across the landscape to offer a notion of how it is we understand the history of Christian witness in the history of the church in its many forms. How do we do so without devolving into unending inter-nicene warfare? (I realize many would find this welcome.) For that Franke is willing to sacrifice doctrinal accountability according to Mohler, And yet, Mohler made much of his signing of the Manhattan Declaration wherein he joins the ranks of those with whom he would surely disagree regarding their doctrinal formulations. Relativist?

One other positive Mohler pointed up about postmodernism, as if postmodern philosophy were monolithic,

Positively, the general worldview of postmodernism reminds us that we are deeply embedded in cultural and linguistic systems that shape and influence our thinking.

Ah, yes, and that is a positive only if we embrace it.

Manifold Anticipation for a Plurality of Reasons

Nearly one year ago I attended a one day conference on the missional church at Biblical Seminary. The event coincided with the installation of John Franke as the The Lester and Kay Clemens Professor of Missional Theology. Before the event I enjoyed chatting with John as we strolled the small campus in Hatfield, PA. He gave me an article he had written that would be something of a distillation of his soon to be published book, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth.

After repeated emails from Amazon.com that the publication date had been pushed back, I received shipping confirmation late last week. Today my copy yesterday. There is little doubt I will set aside a number of books I am reading to get right into this one. Already I stole away some time to read much of the “pre-matter.”

Brian McLaren outlined a number of reasons this book may be valuable. Throw in Tony Jones introduction to the series and most will consider the book to have a plurality of reasons not to be read. Not so here. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Footloose where the Reverend Shaw put an end to burning books he had inadvertently influenced. Surely we are beyond those days of burning books too.

From my high school days right up through the present I have wrestled with the diversity of Christian denominations. Even when I would repeat my pastor’s mantra growing up that “Southern Baptists are the closest thing to the New Testament,” I felt uneasy. Friends would pigeon hole me asking, “So you think you are the only ones going to Heaven.” Surely I did not think so. But that was the climate then and with the push in our denomination for what it means to be Baptist now we head hunt those who are not Baptist “like we are.”

I look forward to reading how John works with the reality of the kaleidoscope of beauty when we consider the breadth of the Christian faith from its early days until now.

Stay tuned.