17 Apr The Three Stages of Truth
The Three Stages of Truth
April 18, 2021
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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Last week we looked at the events of Easter Sunday afternoon, following the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by the women early that morning. Luke records what is often called the Emmaus Road story. Today we are returning to that same story and the verses that immediately follow it, looking at this event from a completely different perspective. Instead of thinking about Jesus appearing to his disciples as stranger, guest, and host, we are going to use this text to think about the biblical understanding of Truth. There is hardly a more human endeavor than to explore the nature of truth. And while philosophers, theologians, historians, educators and scientists have all pursued truth using various methods for millennia, in our own ways each of us are engaged in the vital pursuit of truth as well, because that’s how we make meaning of our lives. The word in Greek that concerns us today is aletheia, which translates in English as “nonconcealment,” or the disclosure of the “full or real state of affairs.”
As we saw last week, two disciples—one is named Cleopas but the other is left unidentified—leave Jerusalem to make the seven mile walk to Emmaus. Along the way they are joined by a stranger who appears to be a rabbi. Later the teacher, now revealed as Christ, appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and continues his lessons.
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown has examined the Emmaus Road experience with particular focus on the unique, powerful method of teaching employed by Jesus in order to convey the truth of a revolutionary new reality to his followers. In his study, [“The Boundary Area Between Biblical Perspectives and Religious Studies,” NICM Journal, 6 (Summer 1981): 69-90] Brown talks about truth as “transforming knowledge,” which he also calls “engaged knowledge.”
A good example of truth as transforming or engaged knowledge is the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The lawyer asks a good “academic” question: “Who is my neighbor?” What would naturally follow in a normal setting would be a discussion of the definition of “neighbor.” What actually followed in the classroom of Jesus was quite different. Jesus transformed an “academic” question into an engaged question: “Which among them [the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan] proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” Suddenly the discussion revolves around an issue that includes those both in and out of the story: “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus. As Brown puts it, “We do not really know the truth unless we are doing the truth, and only in the doing of the truth will we finally know the truth.”
For truth to become transformed from academic to engaged knowledge it must pass through three stages of development. Jesus illustrates these stages in his interactions with the two disciples on the Emmaus Road and then in Jerusalem when the two disciples gather with other followers to tell them of their encounter with the risen Christ. I invite you to look for this sequence as it moves from “searching for truth,” to “listening for truth,” to “embodying truth.”
The first stage, searching for truth, is captured by the question “What is going on?” On the Emmaus Road and later in Jerusalem the search for truth begins with what we often call “learning opportunities. In this case, a teacher takes the initiative with his students, challenging them with questions about “these things,” meaning the current events of the day. On the Emmaus Road part of the “these things” was a dismissal of the resurrection as an “idle tale” of chattering women. Later in Jerusalem, with the disciples cowering in fear, Jesus must deal with their reaction of terror at having him appear to them.
A genuine search for truth begins with where we are. It begins with what is happening in our lives and in our world. Jesus encourages the two on the road, and the eleven in Jerusalem, to express exactly what is weighing most heavily on their hearts and minds (even disbelief and fear). Only then does he interject himself into the situation.
But searching is only a starting point. If it goes no further, searching ends in disappointment, confusion, and fear. The disciples can’t make hide nor hair out of what is going on; it doesn’t add up; something is missing; things still haven’t changed. On the Emmaus Road they can only be perplexed about this mighty prophet: “We had hoped he was the one.” In Jerusalem they are paralyzed with fear when the very one they most desire to see actually appears before them. Yet it is only by experiencing this stage of searching for the truth that the disciples are ready to listen to the truth Jesus will now lay before them.
When I was a kid, I loved Aesop’s fables. Perhaps the best known is the fable about the tortoise and the hare. But there is another of Aesop’s fables about a dispute between the sun and wind over which is the strongest. The wind noticed a man walking along wearing a coat. He challenged the sun: “I am the stronger, and to prove it I’ll bet I can get the man to remove his coat before you can.” The sun accepted the bet. The wind blew and blew, but the more the wind blew, the tighter the man held on to his coat. Even at hurricane force, the man found ways to hold on to his coat. Finally, the wind gave up. The sun took up the challenge and tried a different approach. The sun shone down warmly on the man, gently but persistently. Warming under the sun’s ray, the man soon removed the coat.
The moral of the story is that people will only accept the truth when they, and not anyone else, are ready for and want the truth. Jesus’ confidence in allowing questions, doubts, and fears to surface before providing answers acknowledges the importance of maintaining a curiosity about life. When we are given all the answers up front, we forget how to ask questions, how to bring the particular issues of our individual lives into the universal search for truth. Partly because we are unused to asking questions, we often find ourselves initiating our search for truth out of a personal crisis, just as it was with the disciples.
Having opened the door to hear the questions that confounded them and the fears that paralyzed them, Jesus skillfully leads his disciples to the second stage of engaging truth which is listening for truth. Dialogue takes a backseat for the time being while Jesus takes an active teaching role, lecturing his students on “what went on in the past.” If you want to understand what is going on now, Jesus seems to be saying, then you must first understand what went on before. Steeped in the heritage of a history-conscious people, Jesus begins at the beginning in order to give context and make sense of the present. From the storehouse of scripture Jesus offers a kind of remedial course on salvation history beginning with the earliest of prophecies. But Jesus’ use of the past is not stagnant. He interprets the past within the context of the crisis-permeated present. The words of Moses and the prophets carry new hope and new life when they are delivered from the mouth of a resurrected Messiah. What was true for the first century church is also true for us. Disciples in every age must have the story reinterpreted for them. Jesus must be resurrected anew for every generation.
For followers of Jesus, the truth is not an armchair or ivory tower affair. The third stage of engaged knowledge is the ability to embody the truth. Moving from theory to practice is an essential part of what Jesus teaches.
As the travelers on the Emmaus Road approach their destination, they notice the stranger with them is going farther. Excited by their conversation and entranced by their companion, the two students invite the previously uninvited stranger to stay for supper. With that simple act they are no longer theorizing about redemption and reconciliation. They are now engaging in redemptive and reconciling acts, initiating the Eucharist they are about to receive. As Luke repeatedly makes clear, sitting at table places one in a unique interrelationship with one’s tablemates. There is moral accountability to hearing; hearing and obeying go together. Jesus’ two companions on the road demonstrate moral responsibility when they invite the unrecognized, unknown Jesus to share their food with them.
It is at this point, and not before, that they know both what Jesus has been talking about and who he is: “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread” To put it another way, wisdom and sight are revealed to us in acts of generosity and love. Jesus is made known in actions, not just thoughts; in commitment, not just conversation. Though terrified that they are confronting a ghost, the disciples in Jerusalem obediently feed Jesus, and in doing so, they are reassured of his real physical presence among them.
The disciples at Emmaus and Jerusalem do not simply gain new insights and ideas. They embody a new kind of relationship. As Brown puts it, at Emmaus the disciples discovered that “it is not ‘enunciated truth’ that matters so much as ‘enacted truth.”‘ (79)
Knowing truth is not fully possible unless we are doing truth. Again, to use Brown’s words: “It is a lot easier to reflect upon the truth than to reflect the truth ourselves.” Notice that the disciples in Emmaus didn’t say, “Did not our hearts burn within us when he broke the bread and ate with us?” Instead, they testified that it was “while he was talking with us on the road” that they remembered their hearts stirring. Their present enacting of truth gave life and power to the previous discussions of truth they had experienced on the road. We know what this is like, don’t we? I dare say we’ve all had experiences where we don’t understand the real meaning until we’re looking back, often from much, much later.
Embodying the truth happens in two ways. First, as the experiences of the disciples in Luke 24 illustrate, the truth must be embodied within. If we don’t have an inner conviction of the truth, we won’t stay with the process; there won’t be any further movement forward. But truth must also become embodied without. It must reach beyond our minds and hearts and escape our lips. When Jesus leaves the travelers in Emmaus, he does not actually leave them, for he leaves himself on the table in the bread. But the table is no longer the center of the action. Compelled by their new transforming knowledge, the two know they must go where the real action is. They return to Jerusalem that very night to tell others what they have experienced, and they go, knowing that Christ will meet them there. The episode in Emmaus is over, finished. It is not to be clutched or lingered over. They are not sit around saying to one another, ‘Wow! have we ever had a fantastic religious experience.”‘
No, when truth is truly embodied, it takes on the characteristics of the body, prominent among which is movement. Engaged truth calls for us to do something with what we know. It calls for us to spread the news, not sit on our hands. So, I leave you with a question: how are you called to embody the truth this week?
Hallelujah, he is risen! Amen.