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Easter 7

Sunday, 12 May 2024
John Conway, Provost

Truth is that larger reality that is always more than we can imagine, and yet into which the resources of our tradition guides and inspires us.

Easter 7

Acts 1.15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19

What is the truth of John’s Gospel? We just heard part of the final section of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse; a long speech stretching over more than 4 chapters of John’s Gospel; a speech, and then prayer, presented by John as given by Jesus to the disciples on the night that he is betrayed.
What is the truth of that prayer? That’s a crucial question to ask of any text that we are given as authoritative; but it’s also a question that this particular gospel passage raises itself. Within this prayer for the disciples, Jesus asks his Father, ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’
Jesus prays that his disciples might be sanctified in truth; and so asking what the truth of this passage is, where that truth is to be found, where it resides, is a crucial question. Not least because the ability to talk about truth, to have it as an aim, feels very contested today. It’s not clear where truth is found in our divisive age; we are often reduced to simply saying that at best each of us has our own truth. That, in other words, truth is something entirely subjective – truth is what we find works for me; and your truth might be something entirely different to mine. What is truth, and what might it mean to be sanctified in it?
The most cursory reading of John’s Gospel, and of the farewell discourse in particular, reveals that we are dealing here with a very different text from the other Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels as they are known, are, like John, the product of sustained reflection and significant shaping; but nevertheless, compared to John, they are rooted in something closer to recognisable history – in what might have happened. The Synoptics have significant agreement on many basic details. John’s Gospel overlaps with them in key respects, but it is also a very different text. In particular Jesus in John’s Gospel gives long speeches unlike anything in the other Gospels. The Farewell Discourse, although presented as being spoken on the night before Jesus died, is saturated with reflection on the significance of his death, and from a perspective that can only be described as post-resurrection. In other words, the passage of John’s Gospel we just heard is at one stage removed from what the historical person of Jesus might have said; it is unlike anything he is recorded as having said elsewhere. So how do we understand the truth of John’s Gospel?
The most common understanding of truth in our age dominated by science is that truth is simply, only, what can be shown to be a proven fact: either a scientific fact about the world around us, or an historical fact that we can know with certainty happened, was said or done. But such a narrow conception of truth cannot sustain us: ponder how much of what finally matters most to us is left out by that conception of truth – our relationships of love, most fundamentally, are not captured by that definition of truth; or at the least are reduced to something we no longer recognise, or are sustained by. But if truth is not simply the piling up of facts, is it then simply subjective – truth is what we find ourselves believing; and your truth is not my truth?
This last week, on May 8th, the church celebrated the life of Julian of Norwich. That is the anniversary of the day, in the late 14th century, on which, as a seriously sick 30 year old, this woman whose original name we actually don’t know, received a series of visions. Recovering her health, she became an anchoress, a hermit, attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich, after which she became known. There, for the next 15 years, she pondered the gift of visions she had been given, as well as ministering to the increasing number of people who came to her seeking counsel. After 15 years she wrote her book, Revelations of Divine Love - the fruit of that pondering. It is the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman that we have. In its conclusion she writes this: From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. ‘You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing! Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or understand anything else – ever!’
The freshness and directness of those words still speak to us. Knowing something of the history, the life-threatening illness and times she lived in, the fifteen years she pondered, helps us sense some of what is not immediately said – the struggles and costliness it took to arrive at that lyrical conception of love. Julian brought to her struggle to understand, the tradition and faith in which she stood - the story and person of Jesus. Julian’s visions, in those 15 years, are in conversation, wrestling with, the story and person of Jesus. What emerges is a fresh articulation, a reclaiming of what is both ancient and new. And the truth of those revelations continue to inspire readers and pray-ers of her work more than 600 years later.
What is true of and for Julian is true for John, and us too. The farewell discourse of John’s Gospel is the fruit of a process of pondering that is much closer in time to the historical figure of Jesus, than Julian or us. But it too is a sustained meditation on the person of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection; on the significance and truth of him, as it is revealed in the life of the community, the church that John is part of. Truth is that which emerges from such sustained engagement; with sitting within traditions of reflection and action; of community and love; of bringing our own experience and struggles and griefs and joys to that tradition, and discovering something fresh emerging.
In terms that John’s Gospel articulates, truth is the larger reality we discover in being known and loved, in knowing and loving, participating in the deep, lasting life and love of the Father and the Son. And being sent in that love to love the world. Truth is the journey that Oliver embarks on today; a lifetime of making sense for himself, of him being sanctified, led by the Spirit, into truth. That Spirit-led journey, in the context of the community of the church, is to discover more and more the meaning of what is promised on his behalf today: continuing in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers, he will grow in love.
Truth is what Christian Aid Week invites us all into year after year – a response to the extraordinary love of God, the love that unites us with our brothers and sisters across the world in a bond that is the unity of God’s own self. Truth is that larger reality that is always more than we can imagine, and yet into which the resources of our tradition guides and inspires us. And Christ, the risen and ascended Christ, walks with us, every step of the way. Amen.

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