June 16, 2019: The Spirit of Truth

June 16, 2019                                                                        Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN

 The Spirit of Truth

John 16:12-15

 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; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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 There’s a recurring scene at my house. My amazing husband performs some simple magic trick for my five-year-old son, Rhys. At first, Rhys will grow wide-eyed and amazed, but within an instant, he’ll recognize it’s a trick—an optical illusion. Then he’ll try to figure it out. “How did you do that?” he’ll demand of his father.

 And so begins the quest for truth.

 Truth is tricky these days. I’m old enough to remember when you could watch the evening news and believe that what the anchor said was true. Biased? Perhaps. But true. I’m old enough to remember when I could read the “news” and didn’t have to question whether this “news” met the scrutiny of an editorial review board. I’m old enough to remember a time when Americans held a common narrative—ABC, CBS, and NBC all told the same story, merely with different nuances of bias and perspective.

 Was this a perfect system? No. Marginalized views and voices were underrepresented. But there was a certain comfort in having a shared narrative with most people you’d encounter on a given day.

 Enter: social media.

 Overnight, it seems, anyone with a keyboard could create news and gain a platform. There’s not an editorial review board in Joe-Bob’s bedroom where he clicks away on his laptop propagating wild conspiracy theories, if Joe-Bob is even his real name. And that favorite talk-radio host or podcaster? Who holds him or her accountable for truth-telling? Where’s the line between opinion and fact? And let’s face it, who really cares whether it’s fact or opinion so long as I agree with it?

 With that mindset, we place ourselves in echo chambers so that we don’t have to hear or read ideas that challenge our biases, opinions, or beliefs. The division between us grows as those in my echo chamber vilify you and those in your echo chamber and vice versa. It’s easier to vilify others than to deal with the anxiety inherent in a pluralistic culture and the chaos and confusion symptomatic of this post-truth era.

 Phyllis Tickle suggests that this chaos and confusion isn’t new to this generation. She suggests that every 500 years or so, Christianity has to reinvent itself for a new era as it responds to a changing culture. The driving question, every time according to Tickle, for Christians experiencing the angst of these every-five-hundred-years existential crises is this: “Where now is our authority?”

 Five-hundred-years ago good Catholic folks began to question the authority of the pope. Eventually, after a grueling and long process, the Protestant reformers were able to answer the question, “Where now is our authority?” with the cry, “Sola scriptura, scriptura sola!” Only scripture. Scripture only. And if scripture was the authority, then people must be able to read and interpret scripture for themselves. Literacy for the masses became paramount.

 Second only to the authority of the scriptures was the authority given to those educated in the scriptures. Did you know most of the Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, were formed to train ministers? And now how much authority do ministers have, when Joe-Bob can publish his latest conspiracy theory on Reddit, and a minute later pay his $50 to OrdinationsRUs.com (or whatever) and receive his certificate of ordination? All from his bedroom . . . his 53 cats serving as his ordination council.

 Here’s how one pastor describes the situation:

 The whole notion of one person being wise and knowledgeable and everyone else sitting at their feet feels like it comes from another era. Authority has changed: it doesn’t come from accreditation, like academic degrees conferred or ordination undergone or job title recognized; it comes from likes and hits and trends and follows. The whole process of sharing information has been democratized. When I taught the introduction to ethics course at an American seminary, one end-of-semester evaluation sheet demanded the student be reimbursed not just by the college but by me personally for what he’d calculated as his outlay of $100 per lecture, because everything I’d said was available elsewhere. I don’t know what new information he wanted me to offer in an introductory course that was by definition discussing material available elsewhere. But the experience showed me that the authority of the professor is unavoidably subverted in the Internet age. A doctor faces the same issue with a patient: if the patient is coming with a breathing problem, it’s highly likely the patient has scoured the Internet for diagnoses and possible treatments, research that inevitably becomes the backdrop to evaluating anything the doctor might say. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the knowledge and information that’s available to everyone and the wisdom of the professional that discerns which item of knowledge is most appropriate for today . . . everything is up for comment, nothing can truly be trusted, and communication is speeded up and expanded as fast as it is devalued. The Babel that became Pentecost has become Babel again. [1]

  “The Babel that became Pentecost has become Babel again.” What does that mean?

 We celebrated Pentecost last week, that day recounted in the New Testament when the Holy Spirit fell among those early believers, giving them the power to speak myriad languages so that people from every nation could hear and respond to the Gospel. Many interpreters understand that event as a correction to what happened in the Old Testament at Babel, where God confused those trying to build a tower to heaven by causing them to speak all kinds of different languages.

 I agree with this pastor that we are once again living in the land of Babel—marked by the chaos and confusion of our grasping for truth and authority. We are Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, spinning around in a cyclone and landing in a strange new world with munchkins singing over us. How do we find our way home? “Follow the yellow brick road!” As Dorothy follows the yellow brick road, she meets up with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, symbolizing the integration of mind, body, and spirit. Where did the yellow brick road lead? To the all-powerful Wizard, of course—the authority and source of truth and knowledge. What happened when Dorothy finally met the wizard? At first, he seemed all-powerful and all-knowing until the little dog Toto pulled back the curtain, revealing that the wizard was just a charlatan . . . a man with a gift for special effects, and a knack for making himself appear larger and more powerful that he actually was.

 But let’s talk about Toto for a moment, Dorothy’s little scruffy dog. Each character in this masterful story has a deeper meaning. Toto is with Dorothy nearly the whole story, helping her along the way. Toto knows things Dorothy doesn’t, like the fact that the scarecrow is talking, and that there is a man behind the curtain. Toto represents our intuition (in the popular vernacular), our “adaptive unconscious” (in academic language), or (in the language of faith) the Holy Spirit.

 How does Jesus describe the Spirit in the passage we read together in John? Let’s read it again: “When the Spirit of truth comes.” And what does Jesus say the Spirit of Truth will do? “He will guide you into all the truth.”

 Just like Toto pulled back the curtain on the Wizard, the Holy Spirit pulls back the veil separating us from truth.

 But how? How does the Holy Spirit guide us into truth? Two primary ways: we think, and we feel—we use our mind, and we use our gut.

 The Holy Spirit, or what Jesus calls the “Spirit of Truth” in this passage, is revealed through its fruit.

 The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Galatia, taught that there are nine qualities or attributes characteristic of a person or community living with the authenticity that comes from the Spirit of Truth—these are the “measurables”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). In this post-truth era, these nine qualities are still a great litmus test—a way for you and me to discern whether a person or a community can be trusted.

 So you’re trying to decide whether to hire someone, or vote for someone, or date someone, or trust someone, think, “Does this person manifest love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control consistently?” Now nobody’s perfect, but a generally trustworthy person will exhibit these qualities consistently in most areas of their lives. The same litmus test can be useful for finding a church or book club or any kind of community. (By the way, Chapel, you’ve got good fruit!)

 The second way to heed the Holy Spirit is through a simple gut check.

 In a previous position, I needed to hire someone to fill an associate role. There was an internal candidate who wanted the job and I really wanted to help this person, but there were some red flags—something didn’t “feel” right. There were issues with boundaries that I recognized but couldn’t quite name to myself or to the many stakeholders who were pressuring me to promote this person. Long story short, I promoted him, and he was a disaster—he created tremendous division within the small organization I served. Ultimately, it was my fault because I promoted him. I painted my red flags green. Don’t. Ever. Paint. Your. Red. Flags. Green. If you don’t trust your gut, it will bite you in the . . .

 We commonly use the phrase, “Trust your gut,” which means lean into your intuition.

 Malcomb Gladwell, in his 2005 book Blink, tells the story of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California purchasing a statue that turned out to be a forgery. The museum spent fourteen months studying the piece before buying it: they took core samples to test its age, they researched the documentation that came with it, even tests by sculpture experts in Athens. But when they finally put it on display, art history experts doubted its authenticity. They couldn’t name why they doubted it, exactly. One expert said it felt like there was a glass veil between him and the statue. The art experts instantly felt, intuitively, that it was a forgery, even though a rigorous fourteen-month analysis gave the museum confidence it was authentic. The end result is that the stature remains in the Getty, with a placard that states, “About 350 BC, or modern forgery.”

 Gladwell’s premise of the book is that sometimes we make our best decisions in the Blink of an eye, using our intuition, and that over-thinking decisions can lead to “analysis paralysis.” He cautions that our biases and prejudices can operate at the subconscious level—and that we must guard against that. But by and large, Gladwell makes the case that we must learn to trust our intuition, or “adaptive unconscious,” for its keen ability to quickly and accurately assess any situation.

 Why should we trust our intuition/adaptive unconscious? Let me quote M. Scott Peck from his 1978 bestseller, The Road Less Traveled: “To put it plainly, our unconscious is God. God within us. We are part of God all the time. God has been with us all along, is now, and always will be.”[2] “The fact of the matter is that our unconscious is wiser than we are about everything.”[3]

That’s the Holy Spirit he’s talking about. Thomas Aquinas loved to say, “If it’s true, it is always from the one Holy Spirit.”[4]

 As we navigate life together in this post-truth society, we don’t have to be anxious or afraid. We don’t have to throw our hands up in the air and say there’s no way to know what’s true and what isn’t. Why? We’ve got the Holy Spirit; therefore, we’ve got the truth! We can discern with our minds whether another person is acting through the power of the Holy Spirit by whether they manifest love and the other fruits; we can feel with our guts, our intuition, the Spirit within, that which is true in any situation. Trust the Spirit. Lean into that power in your lives.

 Jesus said something else about truth in John 8:32:

 “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Samuel Wells, https://www.faithandleadership.com/samuel-wells-social-media-trending-or-transforming

[2] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 281.

[3] Ibid, 251.

[4] https://cac.org/truth-is-one-2016-11-22/

Debbie Wilson