As abstract minded as I am, always living in my own head, the only evidence of the Gospel narrative that works for me is that which is experienced or practical. I know the apologetics and intellectual arguments, but none are able to bridge the gap or overcome the reasonable doubts.
This idea that we can find God by climbing a tower of human knowledge is very appealing and especially for those of us in this age of information. It is a feature of Protestantism, where the soteriology is centered around the text, an individual’s ability to comprehend and then accepting certain propositions, which ends up being very Gnostic.
The blog, a few weeks ago, that questions resurrection apologetics, left things hanging as far as an alternative. If we can’t prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus died and rose again, as an actual historical event, how can we believe anything in the Gospel? Of course, we can’t prove the resurrection or any past event, how could we?
But is truth really about the past tense or some kind of intellectual theorem? Or is it something we relate to personally, that we must experience for ourselves?
Truth in Narrative
The most compelling evidence for the Gospel is the truth of the narrative itself and by that I mean how the older I get the more I realize that people behave exactly as those in the parables Jesus told and the accounts of his ministry. No, it doesn’t absolutely prove the extraordinary claims, but the Bible as a window into human psychology and sociology is quite fascinating.
Jesus started his ministry with a broad appeal, people wanted change and he quickly developed a following. It is very easy to gather a crowd by proclaiming to be the source of hope and change. But, as his teaching progressed, and it became clearer that his kingdom was not about the political power the masses wanted, and he started to say some weird stuff as he got to what would be required, the crowd thinned.
People don’t want the truth, they want their truth, to be validated for what they already believe. But Jesus taught the way to truth was by partaking of his body and blood, to make the sacrifice play, relying on faith and God for their sustenance rather than their own human reasoning. That’s why it was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler to attain eternal life—he was relying on his own goodness to save him.
Truth in Symbolism
It is interesting what freaked out the crowd in Jesus day also is a bridge too far with many who profess to be Christian:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.(John 6:35 NIV)
And he doubles down when the audience begins to grumble:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.(John 6:53-56 NIV)
This is what followed:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.(John 6:60-66 NIV)
This was a rejection of materialism. He was pointing to something mystical, something that transcended their understanding of reality, their version of the universe and thus they fled from him. It is also very interesting that the coming betrayal of one of the twelve is mentioned by Jesus in this context, that perhaps this is where Judas Iscariot became disillusioned?
My own Anabaptist religious roots, given the Zwinglian influence, is very agnostic as far as the Mystical Supper. While being strict fundamentalists otherwise, like insistence on a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Creation narrative, in the book of Genesis, they will deny the substance of the words that Jesus said (above) that caused so many to fall away from Him. To them being a “follower of Jesus” takes a very practical turn and too practical in that it ignores the mystical in favor of the rational.
But, if one believes that Jesus actually walked on water or really turned water into wine, why would they ever question (or try to reinterpret) when he says “this is my body” and claim it means something other than what he said?
The thing is, yes, there is a practical, even a humanist, component to Christianity and yet it all must be in this context of Communion with God or it is only human effort. And, to go a step further, no, it is not all about barn raising practicality either, it is about truth in worship. We don’t do what we do in a spirit of utopian idealism, we do it because we believe their is a substance of bread, a bread of heaven, greater than what we can sense with our taste buds.
Truth in Action
There are many who are into the pageantry of religion, wearing the ‘right’ colors or cut according to their tradition, yet not willing to live out the actual substance of faith and Communion. Yes, the Orthodox understand that Christianity centers on the mystical, that there is no spiritual life outside of partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Still, it is a denial of Christ, and not true mysticism, when the rituals are not a reflection of real love of our family:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.(James 2:14-17 NIV)
The book of James was inconvenient for Martin Luther and also for all of those who would rather keep their religion between them, their own understanding of a book, and God.
But the truth is not about our own personal knowledge or judgment. Judas could quote the words of Jesus as good as any of the other disciples. And yet it takes more than our understanding a set of propositions or a mental exercise. As Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” That is where the truth is, in our coming together, in our loving each other as Christ first loved us:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.(1 John 4:7-12 NIV)
In the parables Jesus told, in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, there is truth. Also, in our partaking in the mysteries of the Church, in our Communion together as the body of believers, there is truth. But the truth that us most significant, and the only real Christian apologetic there is, is the truth of our love for each other. That is the truth of Christ Jesus, who came in the flesh to demonstrate the love of God.
4 thoughts on “The Truth in Substance”
Hi Joel, I really appreciate the emphasis on truth being real in our love for each other. I’m a member of an Anabaptist church that believes that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and when we partake of Christ each week, I love the unity he brings to our congregation. To me, that’s surely one of the most beautiful and tangible results of communion, though there of course are many others.
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I’m glad that some Anabaptists are abandoning the Zwinglian perspective in favor of the Orthodox understanding. I believe when we dismiss the true spiritual power of symbolism we’re on a path to agnosticism. It is unbelief, essentially, and has consequences. At the same time, is the substance of our Communion truly there if we do not love each other? That too is a denial of Christ. If we partake yet are not transformed, then is the bread and wine the body of Christ in us or a curse?
Very well said. How to qualify our faith with meaningful proof has been a question for many throughout the centuries. While this subject may be somewhat subjective to the individual there are some universal qualifications as well. For me that is why there are four gospels: Matthew appeals to the prophetic proof, Luke appeals to the historical proof, Mark appeals to the experiential proof and finally John appeals to the Holy Spirits proof.
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A nice breakdown of the canonical Gospels. The right approach depends on the target audience. Of course, one act of self-sacrificial love I believe is more important than a book of apologetics. The strength of the Gospel text was those who went out, the commissioned Apostles, preaching, healing, putting hands-on and ordaining others. The testament we write with our lives, being the hands and feet of Jesus through our Communion with HIm, this is the capital ‘T’ Truth of the Gospel. The proof is us.