Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38
We live in difficult and disorienting times. Sometimes I wonder if the world is going mad. Sometimes I wonder if I am the one who is going mad. What about you? One definition of madness is this: ‘a fundamental breakdown in the capacity to distinguish between what is real and what is not’. So how do you distinguish between the real and the not-so-real? And, more particularly for our purposes this morning, how should the Christian church go about discerning the real from the unreal?
Some of you may be thinking that to ask this question is either silly or just plain redundant. You may feel secure in your capacity to know what the truth actually looks and feels like. But tell me this: when our government told the Australian community that a group of refugees had threatened to throw their children overboard unless they were received into Australia, did you know you were being lied to? Or when Colin Powell assured the United Nations that Saddam Hussein possessed huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that he planned to use against the West, did you know that he had been lied to? Or, to pick a very live issue in our community at present, when Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten assure us that stopping the boats saves lives, how do you know that they are right, or that they are wrong?
Let me suggest, ever so tentatively, that many of us decide who is right and who is wrong before the fact. And that even after the ‘facts’ have come to light, that we conveniently change the ‘facts’ to suit ourselves. In at least two of the three instances just cited, reality was manipulated by powerful people for their own ends. They told us lies because the truth would have undermined their stated policy positions, their fundamental beliefs about how the world works, about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I suspect that this will be the case with the policy on stopping the boats as well. But, in all honesty, I do not yet know if I am right about that or not.
‘Time will tell us the truth’. That is what we say to ourselves. That is how we reassure ourselves when reality seems difficult to grasp. But will it? Will time, or the accumulation of evidence, ever convince some of us that our democratic, transparent form of government is not very honest or transparent? Large sections of the Australian community still trust what our governments tells us, despite everything: the children overboard affair, the weapons of mass destruction debacle, the reasons we were given for sending troops into Afghanistan. Large sections of the Australian community are still going to vote for what I call the ‘Liberal-Labour coalition’ at the next election, because they believe what they are told about being overrun by ‘asylum seekers’. So, for many of us it seems, time does not reveal the truth. Many of us prefer to believe subterfuge and spin, if we find it comforting, than face the truth of what is happening to us. Some of us are like the proverbial ostrich, who sticks its head in the sand when danger arrives. Some of us would rather die believing in comforting and convenient falsities than be taught the truth by either time or the accumulation of evidence.
For Christians, there is a plumbline that helps us to discover the truth, that teaches us how to read the world in such a way that we will eventually discern, not without effort I must add!, which way is up and which way is down. This plumbline is Christ, the holy wisdom of God revealed to us in the Scriptures. Christians believe that the deepest truth of things only comes to light when it is scanned, or passed through, the UV field of apostolic testimony. That is not to say that Christians, even Christian theologians, are immune from kidding themselves - as will soon become clear.
Now, are you one of the simple? Are you the one who cannot live with too much truth? Or are you one of the wise, those who are open to the truth no matter where it may take you?
Now before you answer too swiftly, I invite you to consider another piece of apostolic testimony, namely, the story of Peter as we have it in the gospel of Mark. Perhaps, like Peter, you pride yourself on being insightful, on possessing an aptitude for recognising truths that others find too difficult to countenance. For the gospel indeed tells us that it was Peter, amongst all the disciples, who first recognised that Jesus was the messiah of God, the one anointed by God to save his people from their sins. While the other disciples apparently saw Jesus as just another prophet, it was Peter who first recognised that he was the Christ. Surely there are grounds for a certain smugness here? If you were Peter, would you not feel that you were one of the wise, seeing things not usually seen and pointing to truths that others find too difficult to grasp? Well, perhaps so. We theologians are particularly susceptible to such feelings. But we are not alone in this. I can’t count the times that someone has told me, with an impressive sense of certainty and authority, what God is really like, without having spent more than a week of their lives with either Scripture or theology! At such times, I feel like an electrician who is being lectured about how to install a new heater by someone who believes that electricity is what elephants produce when they have eaten too much.
Nevertheless, back to being smug about one’s insightfulness. Peter, having apparently seen the truth about Jesus, then demonstrates to all that he has missed the real, existential, significance of this truth. For when Jesus begins to teach the disciples what the messiah was sent to do—that is, to suffer the rejection of the authorities, to be tortured and killed, but then to rise again on the third day—Peter cannot bear it. Taking Jesus aside, he rebukes him. ‘Look, Jesus, don’t be so downhearted. You’re the messiah, for goodness sake. The messiah thrashes his enemies. He doesn’t suffer and die, he makes others suffer and die. He makes them pay for their sins!’ All of which reveals, from the point of view of those who first heard this story, that while Peter correctly identified Jesus as the messiah, his ideas about messiah-hood were deeply flawed. ‘Get behind me Satan,’ said Jesus in reply, ‘for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things’. And there’s the rub you see. God’s ways are not our ways. What we would like to be real is rarely the ‘really real,’ the real that God is. For we rich Christians from the post-industrial West corrupt ourselves with forlorn desires for a peace that bursts into bloom apart from the costly scars of sacrifice. So say the martyrs. And they tell us the truth.
In the reading from Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, along with everyone who is reading the story, that there can be no peace without a fight, no rest without work, no resurrection worth having, apart from one’s death. Those who want to protect themselves from the truth will only end up being destroyed by it, says Jesus; and those who want to own the truth, that is, to make and control the world according to their own solipsistic lights, they will end up losing the only thing that really matters: the truth of who they are in God. The really wise people, according to Jesus, are those who are willing to submit and sacrifice their version of the truth to that of Jesus. The wise are those who trust Jesus absolutely, even to the point of letting everything else go, every truth they have ever clung to for the sake of solidity and certainty in the world. The wise are those who die to such things in the belief that Christ will raise them anew, new beings in a new world, a world in which the only truth worth clinging too is the love and grace of God. So, who is feeling smug now? Certainly not me!
Christians, then, have a really strange—strange, that is, by the usual standards—approach to discerning the real from the unreal. Christians are, at one and the same time, both absolutely sceptical and absolutely trusting. Christians cannot believe that any version of truth produced by the world, whether by politicians, scientists or theologians, is completely and absolutely right. Apparent truths, no matter how subtlety constructed, need to be tested for their inherent capacity to hide us from the truth. For while the world is indeed real, in Christian understanding, its reality oftentimes consists in its failure to come to terms with the really real, that is, with God. So Christians are called to test and approve everything, especially the truths we manufacture about ourselves.
Yet—and here, surely, is the most extraordinary paradox—Christians can only be so sceptical on the basis of an absolute trust in a particular truth, the faith and belief that God is there, and that God is love. Without this, I would argue, there is no basis for a productive and creative scepticism, there is no really real by which we might evaluate what appears to be real. Equally, without this faith and belief, there can be no finally successful motivation for seeking the truth. For if we do not believe that the Real is finally on our side, that the Real is, in fact, a personal reality who is other than us, who nevertheless loves and welcomes us, then our search for the truth will always be permeated by a lingering suspicion that we are really alone in the universe, that the universe may well be only the entirely made-up conversation that we have with ourselves.
Someone will of course ask, and someone has always asked this of Christians: ‘But how do you know that God exists, and that God is love?’ The answer is the same today as it has always been. We know, not because we have discovered this truth ourselves, but because God has reached out to us across the chasm between God’s being and ours, and revealed that God is there, and that God is love. That revelation is none other than the man, Jesus Christ, God with a human face: God the other, who is nevertheless closer to us than we are to ourselves. So close that our knowing is not so much our knowing, but the knowing of God in and through us. We see in a glass dimly, nothing is surer, but we see nevertheless. We see that we are seen, and we love that we are loved.
And so we return to where we began. If we are mad, perhaps it is because the world regards us as out of touch with the reality it manufactures and reifies. If we are sane, perhaps it is because we have opened ourselves up to a reality that others do not wish to see. For all that, let us not forget that the truth of God is stranger even than fiction. Let us pray for the grace to be sceptical about the truths we are told in the daily round of news and advertising. Let us pray for the grace to be sceptical about the truths we design for our own comfort or security. But let us trust, absolutely, in the God who is grace and truth in Jesus Christ. For without him, we will never find the courage to admit our mistakes and let our truths go. We will never, therefore, becomes signs of the truth for a world that is going mad.