Post-truth and the truth

The word of the year has got to be ‘post-truth’, right? I see Oxford Dictionaries agrees, giving it the accolade last month.

Post-truth has been everywhere this year – I even got to experience it myself, with projects I’m closely involved with at work being reported on by various news organisations in less than accurate ways. As an aside, seeing that occur in a field I’m familiar with made me wonder how many other news articles we read are inaccurate and misleading.

While it has been everywhere, post-truth has been most often associated with worldly ‘kings’ (including, but definitely not limited to, Donald Trump). It’s amazing (and concerning) how swiftly post-truth has risen into common usage, fuelled by politicians who should be taken to task by the public for their lies, but somehow haven’t been.

All this talk about post-truth got me thinking about what the Bible says about the truth.

I’m reminded of the scene in John where Jesus is arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate. The dramatic account of this scene is in each of the four gospels, however only John includes this dialogue (John 18:37-38):

‘So!’ said Pilate. ‘You are a king, are you?’
‘You’re calling me a king,’ replied Jesus. ‘I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
‘Truth!’ said Pilate. ‘What’s that?’

Doesn’t that last line from Pilate sum up nicely what’s been happening in 2016?!

In his New Testament for Everyone commentary on John, Tom Wright shares the following insights on this passage:

Truth isn’t something that you get out of a test tube, or a mathematical formula. We don’t have truth in our pockets. Philosophers and judges don’t own it. It is a gift, a strange quality that, like Jesus’ kingdom in fact, comes from elsewhere but is meant to take up residence in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He is himself the truth… Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world. And for you and me. 

Jesus is the truth, and the way in which he bears witness to this truth, the way in which he enacts his kingdom, is accomplished by him dying on the cross – the innocent dying in place of the guilty.

Once again, some thoughts from Tom Wright, this time from How God Became King:

And, in the broader Johannine perspective, we discover that the only word to do justice to this kingdom-and-cross combination is agape, ‘love’.

So, real truth is fuelled by agape, the highest form of love; selfless and unconditional; the love of God for man.

Real truth is what Jesus brings.

In the confusing world of post-truth ‘kings’, let’s instead focus on our king, the truth, Jesus.

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Are you not entertained?

I must confess that I’ve never seen the movie Gladiator – I assume this means I’d probably have to hand in my man card if such a thing existed! However, despite not having seen the movie, there is a scene from it that I’m very familiar with as it regularly pops up as a meme on the Internet (see the clip above).

Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

What an impactful scene; Maximus (Russell Crowe) forcefully questioning the crowd that has just witnessed his gruesome gladiatorial exploits. It may seem like an unusual connection, but the words he shouts frequently come back to me when I think about church – corporate Sunday services in particular.

Have you ever left a church service saying to yourself (or others) something like:

  • I didn’t like the songs we sang, or
  • I didn’t feel God today in the worship, or
  • I didn’t get anything out of that message.

Debate ensues about our experience of Sunday services, usually focusing on the singing (‘worship’) and sermon. I know I’m guilty of it myself.

How easy it is for the consumer culture of the world to infiltrate the church. For us to look at those up the front and expect them to entertain us – like Maximus we could almost see them saying at the end of the service: “Are you not entertained?” – although hopefully with a little less bloodshed!

Now I’m not saying entertainment is in itself a bad thing. If I want to be entertained I’ll go to a Foo Fighters concert or tune into a Warriors game (that’s the basketball team rather than league team, I’m not a masochist!). I just don’t believe that entertainment is what we should be aiming for as we gather on Sunday.

What should we be aiming for, you might ask? Let’s have a look…

The early Christian church in Acts is a good place to start. In Acts 2 we see the church in its infancy, with verse 46 saying “They worshiped together at the Temple each day…” Surely this is the ancient tradition we are continuing when we gather together as a church family on Sunday.

Worshiping together.

Just as this crowd of believers from different backgrounds gathered together two thousand years ago to worship God (and they would have been different – remember this was all happening at Pentecost – a Jewish holiday that saw people from many foreign lands gather in Jerusalem – from the get go the church was a group of very diverse people), so we gather together today to worship God.

So what does it look like to worship God together?

Worshiping God together includes not only singing praise (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19), which worship is often equated to, but also prayer (like the Acts church), listening and responding to teaching (Romans 15:16), the sacraments (baptism and communion), and the simple act of just gathering together.

Jesus’ key teaching on worship is when he is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:21-24. In verse 23 Jesus says “the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” So worship is about glorifying God – the Father, the Son (aka ‘Truth’) and the Holy Spirit (aka ‘Spirit’).  Importantly, worship must be sincere:

“Worship without truth does nothing for us and God rejects worship that is not done in truth. Truth without the Spirit is a manmade worship so true worship must be in the Spirit and in truth. God is seeking those who will worship Him in this manner. ” (link)

So when we gather together on a Sunday we are doing so first and foremost to worship God, in Spirit and in Truth. However, as is so often the case, the prevailing culture of the world, in this case consumerism, has crept into how we worship together.

Mick Duncan, in a sermon titled Do I really have to be religious?, talks about the need to name modern gods in order to dethrone them. When it comes to worship, he says it is the god of self that needs to be dethroned, and God himself enthroned. He says that we often reduce worship to ourselves, it’s all about us and how it makes us feel. This is the complete opposite of what worship actually means – that is, to ascribe worth – it’s not about us, it’s about God.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, touches on entertainment and the church from a millennials perspective. She writes (bold emphasis mine):

“We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus – the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

This consumer culture also places undue pressure on our pastors, worship leaders and others involved in the Sunday service, potentially transforming them into mere entertainers. Ben Sternke writes about this pressure, saying:

“It’s easy to look at your congregation on Sunday morning and feel like the pressure is on.

They got up early instead of sleeping in. They got the kids dressed and ready for church. You’d better show them it was worth it, or you won’t see them until Christmas.”

Ben also looks at the differences between worship and entertainment:

  • Entertainment depends on my skill. Worship depends on God’s presence.
  • Entertainment draws people to me. Worship draws people to Jesus.
  • Entertainment causes amazement in the talents of people. Worship causes awe in the love of God.
  • Entertainment leads to repeat visitors. Worship leads to discipleship.

This lines up with the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” True worship is about glorifying God, about bringing people to Jesus. If we approach Sunday mornings with a desire to be entertained (or to be an entertainer, for those up the front) then we’re only there for ourselves, not for Jesus.

So, if we are not here to be entertained, why are we here – what is the question we should be asking ourselves and others as we walk out of the church service on Sunday? I suggest it could be something like this:

“God, have you been glorified? Have you been glorified? Is this not why we are here?”

Loving our neighbour

the good stranger

My son has a great book by children’s authors Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen called Favourite Parables from the Bible. One of the stories from the book is The Good Stranger, based on the famous parable from Luke 10:25-37.

The story of the Good Samaritan has got to be one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. It focuses on what it means to love our neighbour and who our ‘neighbour’ is. This parable speaks directly into some of the most topical issues of today’s world, including how we as Christians respond to the refugee crisis.

The wave of refugees flooding out of Syria, Iraq and northern Africa has been incredible this year and at the forefront of world’s attention. Initial public response to the refugees, particularly following the tragic story of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, tended towards sympathetic, with people seemingly supportive of providing homes for these people who had risked much to escape a terrible situation. However, ever since the more recent terrorism events linked, either directly or indirectly, to ISIS (notably Paris and San Bernardino), the public response seems to be changing, with people like Donald Trump, a large number of states in the US, and a number of countries (particularly in eastern Europe) starting to tar all refugees with the same brush, with calls for closed borders and bans on Muslims.

It is becoming an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation – something that should be abhorrent to Christians. We are called by Jesus to love, and this call isn’t restricted to those that are similar to us, those that we’re comfortable being around. We’re called to love everyone.

The scandal of the Good Samaritan parable is that it is the Samaritan man who aids the wounded Jewish traveller, not the priest or the rabbi – aka the fellow Jews. Brian Krum, teaching pastor from Greenlane Christian Centre, was invited to preach at our church last Sunday. His sermon was on the woman at the well (John 4) – another famous passage that involves a Samaritan. Brian made it clear that the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people – they were the worst of the worst, complete outsiders, people who any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with. What a shock it must have been for the religious scholar for Jesus to turn around and say that we are to love everyone, including the Samaritans.

To see people and countries start to turn their backs on refugees because they are different and out of fear is awful and isn’t something we should tolerate. It’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation, because that is not how Jesus calls us to see people. Jesus says love our neighbour as ourselves, not make our neighbour like ourselves. I read a great blog post the other day about how the Bedouin love people through hospitality. Chad ends the post by saying:

Love just loves.

This is powerful and is what Jesus is calling us to do. Our response as Christians to the refugee crisis shouldn’t be ‘keep them away, leave them to fend for themselves’. We should be actively seeking to embrace these people who are struggling, hurting, longing for a peaceful life. We should be extending mercy and hospitality to them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan finishes with the following dialogue between Jesus and the religious scholar:

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Oh that we would take this to heart and go and do the same, both towards the refugees and everyone else in the community around us.

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