Holy Tuesday – Fear of Truth

  • Preacher

    Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts

  • Readings

    John 12.20-36

The C13th mystic and poet, Rumi, writes:

Be with those who help your being.

Don’t sit with indifferent people, whose breath

comes cold out of their mouths.

Not these visible forms, your work is deeper.

A chunk of dirt thrown in the air breaks to pieces.

If you don’t try to fly,

and so break yourself apart,

you will be broken open by death,

when it’s too late for all you could become.

Leaves get yellow. The tree puts out fresh roots

and makes them green.

Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?

 

As we travel through this Holy Week together, we’ve begun to consider what it might be like to live in the Kingdom of God right now; to think about what fears consign us to what the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden calls the ‘unlived life’; to use the different characters and situations we encounter in Scripture during Holy Week to confront aspects of ourselves that stop us flourishing as God intends.

This evening, I’m going to consider ‘Fear of truth’. Let’s remind ourselves of the Gospel passage set for today. John 12, verses 20-36:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 

Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

Today, we meet these Greeks who approach Philip and say ‘we wish to see Jesus’. We learn nothing about them apart from this, but it seems likely that they have heard of this great teacher who performs miracles and who, in some quarters at least, is being hailed as the Messiah. They are keen to see this for themselves.

When Jesus is alerted to this request, his response is not what we might expect. He immediately starts talking about death: his own impending death, and the death of self that is required to be a true follower. ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ I suspect that, if those Greeks were present for this, this might not have been what they were expecting.

And those who were already there start questioning. ’We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever’: how can there be death involved? This was in direct opposition to all their teachings. It made no sense. Was he the Messiah, or not? Was he going to die, or not? How could he suggest something that appeared to undermine their entire tradition?

So, within this story there are different levels of response and discomfort when faced with the truth that is the person of Jesus.

But Jesus doesn’t back down. Throughout this week we get the sense that time is running out for him, and he uses every opportunity to tell them what following him involves. He outlines the cost of discipleship and, perhaps not surprisingly, it evokes confusion and, I suspect, fear. The truth that Jesus reveals is undesirable, even repellant, to these followers. The truth that Jesus demands of us might feel similarly unattractive.

A common phrase is ‘truth hurts’, and this is often the case. Hearing truth is hard. Telling truth is hard. Trying to figure out what, actually, is truth is hard. Small wonder, then, that we are keen to distract ourselves and avoid it where possible. But we are told that Jesus – the very person of Jesus – is the truth; the way, the truth, the life. And what we witness this week shows us this truth in all it’s shocking, unpalatable, glorious facets

The idea of dying to self, and facing truth are closely related.

Sometimes we feel we cannot afford to face the truth. Once we start trying to be honest with ourselves, with others, with God, we might feel as if we will come apart – actually, in some sense, die internally. It can seem as if this self that we have built up so painstakingly, the self that our reputations, our careers, our relationships are built on, cannot be dismantled without our losing everything.

Harry Williams writes:

‘Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside. Thinking of it as outside is generally a trick we play upon ourselves – a trick to hide from us what we really are, not comfortingly wicked, but incapable, for the time being, of establishing communion. Our wilderness, then, is an inner isolation. ... Often we try to relieve it – understandably enough, God knows – by chatter, or gin, or religion, or sex, or possibly a combination of all four. The trouble is that these purple hearts can work their magic only for a very limited time, leaving us after one short hour or two exactly where we were before.’

 

This avoidance, which can take many forms, can leave us stuck in a very dark and lonely and frightened place from which there seems no escape. As Emily Dickinson writes:

 

Dying! Dying in the night!
Won't somebody bring the light
So I can see which way to go
Into the everlasting snow?

 

Within this darkness of denial, avoidance, and isolation which feels like death there is a light which will not be overcome. A tiny, sputtering flame sometimes, perhaps, but a light nonetheless.

It is the light of Jesus’ unfailing, unconditional love and understanding that might enable us, slowly, tentatively, to start considering truth: the truth of what has happened to us, what has stopped us being able to love, or to accept love, or to love ourselves. Self-understanding is a fairly futile exercise if it does not show us how we might be better able to love.

At every given moment we are offered an opportunity to glimpse something precious – about ourselves, about our place within the divine life, about our citizenship in the Kingdom of God – but we cannot do this while harking back to the past or fretting about the future.

The glimpse of light we’re offered is always now. And each time we have the opportunity to make a different response; to change, which is what the Church calls repentance. This demands us to be attentive to thinking, at each given moment, ‘how can I respond to this in truth?’ And so we will likely discover, in this Christ-light, that there are truths we deny, truths from which we hide, truths that keep us as if safe from the excoriating vulnerability of knowing ourselves in the way that God knows us.

And this is the point, really: Jesus already knows us. We are only ever hiding from ourselves. While the saying ‘truth hurts’ is often true, so is Jesus’ assertion that ‘the truth will set you free’.

It is freedom from shame, and pride, and envy, and insecurity that we are offered in each given moment: the truth, when viewed in the light and love and mercy of Jesus is no longer murky, or rotten, or shameful. It is held, and cherished; loved, and transformed. We are redeemed by Jesus who took all our hidden, dark bits to the cross, because, being truth, he had none of his own. In showing us how to die to self, he also shows us how to live as resurrected people – in the here and now, in the Kingdom of God.

And so we can come to see that our fear of truth, and of the cost of truth is misplaced, because the cost is actually gift. The opportunity to die to self is a gift because it is a full life, a real life, a true life; what R.S. Thomas describes as ‘the eternity which awaits you’.

To end, I’d like to read the whole poem: The Bright Field, by R.S. Thomas:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the

pearl of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.