During this period, where we are unable to meet together in church, Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 24th May 2020.
During the lockdown, I have enjoyed being able to listen every Sunday to the morning service on Radio 4 at 8.10am, a time when, before the lockdown, I would often be preparing to leave home for a 9.00am service. Last Sunday the service was from Glasgow. The Gospel reading was from St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 14, and included the following words of Jesus to his disciples: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.’ Jesus was warning his disciples that he would be leaving them soon, but he would not leave them without support. He would leave them the Spirit of truth. Since last Sunday, I have been reflecting on the question: ‘What is Truth?”
In Chapter 18 of his Gospel, John describes Jesus’s appearance before Pontius Pilate:
‘[Pilate said:]“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”’
So what is Truth? Is it something unchallengeable? Is it something that has actually happened and can be attested to by witnesses? Is it something that can be scientifically proved? Is it what we believe? Or is it what other people want us to believe? To the temple authorities and the mob outside Pilate’s headquarters, who wanted Jesus’s blood, the truth to them was that here was a charlatan, blasphemously claiming to be the Son of God. Truth is not always what people think it is, but what they want others to believe.
To many peoples and religions, God is the supreme source of all truth. But few clergy will get away without at least once in their ministry being challenged by sceptics with the question: ‘Do you believe that everything written in the Bible is true?’ Of course, it depends what you mean by ‘true’ or ‘truth’. My short answer to the question is a qualified ‘No’. Let me explain why I say that.
There are many different genres of literature, from history books, to novels, to poetry, to law books, to philosophy, songs, even joke books. If I told you a joke, I am sure you would not believe that the events in the joke I tell you actually happened. If I read a poem to you, you would not necessarily believe that the events described in the poem actually happened.
The Bible is made up of many genres of writing: the law laid down in the Old Testament books; Jewish history; traditional Jewish folklore; songs (the Psalms) and poetry (for example, the Song of Solomon), to name a few. There are stories which are clearly allegories, and there are many parables. I don’t think many people would believe that the story of Jonah actually living inside a whale for three days is factual history; nor that the events described in every parable that Jesus told actually happened. By and large, Jesus made up stories that people could understand in order to get over to people the messages – the truths – that he wanted them to grasp.
I am currently reading a book entitled ‘The Vicar’s FAQ’, by Caroline Symcox, who, at the time she wrote it, was a Curate in the Diocese of Oxford, but is now a Team Vicar in umpteen parishes in the Diocese of Gloucester. She tackles the question of the ‘truth’ of the contents of the Bible in a little more detail that I can go into here, so I mention this very readable book in case you feel you would like to read more on the subject of Christian belief.
The really important point I want to make about the contents of the Bible is that, not everything described can be taken as truth in the sense of historical, provable fact. But down the centuries theologians have agreed that the books of the Bible contain hidden truths from God, if we can make the effort to search for them: truths about God; truths about his relationship with the people he created; truths about human nature; truths about life; truths about death; and truths about forgiveness and salvation.
What does truth mean for us in our everyday lives? In the present crisis, do we believe all the statistics? Do we believe that the scientists and the Government are telling us the truth? We want to know the truth about the extent of the risks we face. We want to know when it is all going to end and we can get back to normal. The truth is not always immediately discernible.
But time and patience will lead us to the truth. And when we discover truth, we will feel liberated. In chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, Jesus compares truth with sin. If we allow it, we can make ourselves slaves to sin, but Jesus says: If you believe what I say (the truth), “the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
Christianity is not a speculative theory. The New Testament is a statement of historical truth based on the eye-witness accounts of many people. As the Rev. Leslie Badham (one time Vicar of Windsor and the Queen’s Chaplain) says in his book, ‘Verdict on Jesus’, ‘ … it was not the Church that created the facts, but the facts that created the Church.’ And within the historical facts (the historical truths) are many spiritual truths, if we care to look for them.
I am sure that we all have an innate sense of knowing the difference between truth and untruth. To finish on a less serious note, I thought I would share with you an amusing little story I came across this week that illustrates the point:
Little Girl: ‘Mummy, do all fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time …”’
Mother: ‘No, darling. Some start with, “Sorry, I’m late, dear, I was detained at the office”’.
May the Spirit of Truth lead you to all truth. Amen.