21 NOVEMBER 2021
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Fr Richard Browning
At 2.23am last Sunday morning, my youngest son Matthew was to be found among vandals, reeking havoc upon the local corner store at the bottom of our street.
Earlier, at 2.17am, Matthew was lying in bed minding his own business. He says there was such a racket going on that the whole nighbourhood should have woken up, “and you especially Dad”, he said pointedly.
Having been woken from sleep, there was something in Matt that caused him to rise, leave the house and walk down the street, phone in hand, ready to investigate and present himself as he did: ‘Hey there you guys’.
I finish the story here. But because of the power of story and the fact that many will want to know what happened next, I need to say, all is ok and all ended well.
I tell the story for its simple plot:
There is first the hearing of the world beyond our own comfort;
There is the something that is stirred within;
There is a rising to leave what is known and a moving towards the other;
And there is a presenting of oneself: ‘hey’.
Truth and Bearing Witness
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, Pantokrator. We all know that Jesus reframed every label, from Christ to Teacher to Shepherd to Lord. So as we approach the language of King, a label that Jesus did not appropriate despite talking a lot about ‘the Kingdom’, we should at least be open to a wider interpretation than monarchy.
I am limiting today’s inquiry to barely one verse in the Gospel, verse 37:
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,
This is John’s summary of the entire Good News:
it is all for one thing, Jesus’ testimony to the truth.
Testify or ‘bear witness’ comes from a Greek word we know well. It is ‘martyr’. This should help us understand that bearing witness to a thing requires presence, full-bodied, whole hearted presence. It is said that the blood of the martyrs is ‘the seed of the church’ (Tertullian). For the moment though this can be said: testifying to something is not what you phone in. Bearing witness is what happens in and with your body.
This word appears 76 times in the New Testament. Over half of them occur in John’s writing. In John’s Gospel, there is no birth narrative of Jesus. Bearing witness is a phrase John uses to emphasise the presence of God is in person. John’s enthusiasm for the word and the way he uses it suggests he is drawing attention to the obvious: the incarnation.
The second word of interest is truth. I had a colleague who changed her name from Ruth to truth. Well Alathea actually which is Greek for truth. The Greek word is really interesting. The letter ‘a’ is a negation and ‘lathea’ means to hide or cover. So truth means to reveal, to uncover. It can also mean remember. What is Jesus uncovering by his presence?
It is not possible to read John’s account of the Gospel and not have his introductory words on hand – the prologue. This is the best lens with which to understand what is the Good News he is communicating. Jesus’ presence bears witness to something that may otherwise be hidden and lies at the heart of creation. What is revealed is that truth is a person. Come back to the start of the gospel and remember. I offer a playful interpretation on the word ‘Logos’ to help uncover what Jesus is pointing to:
In the beginning was the Truth and the Truth was with God,
And the Truth was God.
Truth was in the beginning with God.
Through Truth all things were made.
Without Truth not one things came into being.
What has come into being in Truth was life.
Later as the prologue comes to a close, we read:
and the Truth became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.
Jesus is God in person, and bears witness to the heart of reality. We make this extraordinary discover: truth is a person.
The Reign of Christ judges all ruling powers
This revealing as testimony is a damning judgment against any and all empires and ruling authorities.
God is present in the world, in person, and refuses to take up the sword, he never uses coercive powers for individual advancement or self interest, even and especially in the service of the ‘Kingdom of God’. Jesus is fully present in the face of human authority and is crucified at the hands of state sponsored execution. In so doing, the cross is transformed as a symbol of fear to hope, judges and condemns human violence and testifies to God’s rule as a victim, a servant, the lamb. Our addiction to possessing (land, status, material), our affection for control and coercive power is exposed as the ways of this world. Jesus has entered this world from outside it as a witness to what is true and plants here God’s kingdom and embodies here God’s will, on earth, in person, as in heaven.
This is the good news: God’s presence condemns our addiction to possession and power.
What is truth?
We might think Pilate’s question is unanswered: what is truth? The answer, like all other great questions, is in the story: it is presence.
I have worked in a school for 17 years whose key value was truth. In the strength of nearly two decades reflection, I dare to use words to answer Pilate’s as I, like maybe everyone else here have wondered, what is truth?
Truth is be searched for,
discovered and loved.
Truth is a gift.
It always liberates.
Truth can never be owned, only lived into, born witness to, embodied – in person.
Truth is relational,
Truth is knowable and unknowable, light and shadow.
To be for truth is to be for life.
In the Christian tradition, truth is person – truth is Jesus. As Jesus says:
For this I was born and have come into the world:
to bear witness to the truth.
Making visible what is true
We are brought to where maybe every homily should end, and this is mission.
What is true that you make visible in your body? What beauty, what grace, what dignity, what goodness, can others see and experience because of your witness?
The presence of Jesus makes visible an imagination that was cast in the beginning: every human being, bearers of the image of God; every human being, worthy of God’s presence and love. I finish with two stories about dignity.
Fistula and the dignity of a mother
I am associated with a remarkable organisation call the Barbara May Foundation. The work of this organisation is to address what used to be a common fear among any woman approaching childbirth. If labour becomes obstructed, and the relatively simple procedure of a caesarean is not possible, great trauma can occur to the birth canal. A fistula can result making a soon-to-be-proud-mother a childless outcast incontinent of urine and sometimes faeces as well. Surgery makes a profound difference. Barbara May Foundation makes these operations possible in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Southern Sudan. But let’s be clear. The surgery does not bring dignity to the person. The dignity is already present within the person. Dignity is already there, it is already true. What surgery does is remove the soil and stench and make the inherent dignity visible, first to the woman herself, and then those in her midst.
We don’t have to go to Ethiopia to make dignity visible. We can do this right where we are. Here in our homes, in our neighbourhoods and workplaces, we can relate to each other with a kindness and respect, that points to, honours and makes visible what is already true.
Thread Together and the dignity of a mother
A story from yesterday. It happened around 3pm at Indooroopilly Uniting. They do a remarkable ministry with vulnerable people, many of whom are refugees. This church St Andrew’s assists with a work called Thread Together. It is really simple: brand new clothes are rescued from landfill and made accessible for free to those who at the edge. Sharon, who sat just there at the 7.30am service with her husband Bill, is a volunteer. She was a part of a simple conversation with a mother from Afghanistan. The clothes she now had to take home were clearly delighting her, and this mother, whose name means a kind of flower, freely shared pictures on her phone of extravagant and remarkable dresses from Afghanistan. She shared stories of her family, still in Kabul and the regions, while concern and worry flickered across her face. And Sharon listened, asked simple, open, loving questions. Sharon offered the only thing that really mattered there: her presence. And in Sharon’s presence a tiny miracle occurred: what is true was honoured. Where trauma causes flight and the impossible search for safe refuge follows as does anxiety and hardship in a new land. There in a moment, two women exchange smiles, care, joy even.
I end with the story from the beginning.
As the people who are drawn to the rule of Christ, we find our dignity honoured and affirmed.
We called into the street: the noise and needs of the world at large press in the same moment our names are called by God;
We are asked to stir, rise, and move outward;
We are called to show up and bring the only thing we have that will change everything: our presence.
This is called mission, that in our bodies we bear witness to what is already true. And the earth be blessed and God be praised.
The reign of Christ is rooted within creation itself. There is no inclination for coercive power. There is a love in which the world was conceived and redeemed in the body of the Present One, full of Grace and Truth. We are asked to bear witness to this truth in our own bodies.