05.17.15 The Word of Life John 17:6-19 Sermon Summary
All of us seek the sanctification of our own lives—to be set aside for a purpose, to know there’s a reason for our existence. Jesus prays that we will be sanctified “in truth.”
- What is required for human testimony to become divine testimony
- Why being “sanctified in truth” requires spiritual discernment of God’s Word
- Two approaches to the Bible and two hot-topic examples
- Three helps in discerning God’s Word to you for living a sanctified life
- A postscript on the Lord’s Supper
Recently I’ve found the Revised Common Lectionary quite hostile to the preacher, and this week is no different. I couldn’t find another way through these passages than a heavily theological one. My apologies, but here goes.
The reading from 1 John says that the “testimony of God” is greater than “human testimony.” (5:9) Human testimony is nonetheless valuable. It is why the scriptures were written. The very first verse of 1 John makes as much clear: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
The parent book of 1 John, the Gospel of John, makes the same point: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Human testimony includes not only the Bible, but the entire tradition that arises from the Christian community including devotionals, sermons, holy conversations, song lyrics, and prayers. In all these ways and more, we humans testify to one another about God’s presence in our lives. Still, these human testimonies are insufficient—they are not yet revelation. All these remain human testimony and are not “God’s testimony”—not even the scripture is God’s Word until it receives the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Human testimonies may be very convincing, but they have only intellectual power. They may lead to faith, but eventually such intellectual “faith” will fail because it is based on human testimony, not divine testimony. In Paul’s words, it is a faith based on human “eloquence” verses the kind of “foolishness,” that is, divine testimony, that Paul preached. (see 1 Corinthians 1-2)
The Holy Spirit is required for human testimony to become God’s testimony. Calvin offers perhaps the best explanation of this truth, summarizing, “The Word itself is not quite certain for us unless it be confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.” (Institutes 1.9.3) Within the Presbyterian tradition, we believe that, “God’s word is spoken to his church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction.” (Confession of 1967, 9.30)
This theological understanding is essential as we consider how to live in the world as Jesus prays for and sends us out to do. He prayed that we would be “sanctified in truth.” This is the purpose of our lives. We do not belong to the world, but we are sent into the world. And the world is a hostile place for those who try to live according to God’s Word.
Living according to God’s word is not as simple as quoting a verse from the Bible. That is not living according to God’s Word, because without the Spirit, it isn’t God’s Word. To live according to God’s Word we need the Spirit. This means that while we might begin with the human testimony, we still have to discern God’s Word within it.
There are two approaches to the Bible as it relates to its ability to lead us according to God’s Word. The first says that the Bible includes unrealistic ideals appropriate to a religious text, but we have to live in reality.
As an example, take the Bible’s teaching about matters of peace, war, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In the Christian community, the Bible teaches to:
- Turn the other cheek when someone strikes you
- Bless those who curse you
- Repay evil with good, not evil
- Never avenge yourselves
- Overcome evil with good
- As peacemakers, bless those who persecute you
- Love your enemies
The first approach to the Bible recognizes these as unrealistic ideals; they’re nice, but they’re not to be taken literally.
The second approach says that the Bible reveals ideals, but we have to discern provisional allowances.
As an example, take celibacy. According to Jesus and Paul, celibacy is preferred over marriage. It facilitates our complete focus on God alone who is our true covenant partner. Celibacy in this age foreshadows our status in the “age to come” where no one is given in marriage to one another.
The second approach to the Bible acknowledges this ideal, but recognizes that we have to make provisional allowances. Marriage is such a provisional allowance.
You can (and we are called to) apply one of these two approaches to scripture to other topics, including:
- The death penalty
- What to do with our extraordinary wealth
- How to respond to the beggar on the street
- Birth control
- Every issue of importance in your life
If you choose the second approach, the one that requires “making provisional allowances,” you’ll have to do spiritual discernment. I think it’s the more difficult approach. I also think it requires more faith. I think it’s what Jesus is calling us to in his prayer that our lives be “sanctified by the truth.”
Fortunately we have some guidance on how to do this spiritual discernment from Jesus’ prayer.
The first thing to remember is that spiritual discernment is communal. We never do it alone. Jesus assumes that our lives are sanctified in community. So it’s important to identify the scriptural ideals and the provisional allowances in our lives with others, and especially as the church.
Second, remember that Jesus has prayed for this for us—and he continues to do so. This is one of the reasons for the Ascension (celebrated on Thursday of this last week). Jesus ascended to the Father in order to continue his priestly ministry of intercession on our behalf. What he started in his life on earth he continues in his life in heaven.
Third, remember God has given us the Holy Spirit. We live on this side of Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit which we celebrate next week. And this is another reason for the Ascension. Jesus said unless he leaves, the Spirit will not come.
In his prayer, Jesus said he has sanctified himself so that you and I also may be sanctified. To this end, and as we follow his command to go into the world, let us pray and listen for God’s Word to us, that we may live lives sanctified in truth.
P.S. Sanctification and the Sacraments
In the past, the prayer before Communion used to be called the “consecratory” prayer. In other words, it was a prayer for sanctification of the elements of bread and wine. This prayer sets aside the elements for holy use. It is the same use as Jesus’ life, and the same use as the Bible. All these, when sanctified, are forms of God’s Word. They speak God’s Word to us and lead us into God’s presence.
The Eucharistic prayer (as we call it today) begins with an opening dialogue (“The Lord be with you . . . And also with you.”) This recognizes the communal discernment required for the sanctification of our lives.