G'day. If we've not met I'm Rod and I want to add my welcome to the one Nic gave earlier. It's great to have you here for the launch of our second morning service. I hope you enjoy your time with us this morning and you'll want to come back next week. This morning and over the next couple of weeks we'll be exploring the question 'Is church really relevant anymore?'
Obviously I think it is, or I wouldn't be doing this, but I have to say straight up that there are good reasons to think the church might have had it's day. I mean, wake up and smell the coffee – we're in the 21st Century right? We don't believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden, and we don't need God to make sense of our world. We have perfectly good, rational, scientific explanations that make the very notion of God seem more than a little out of date.
And besides we just have to look around the see the empirical fact that churches are dying – people are voting with their feet, it's clear that most people don't think church is relevant, because they can't be bothered going any more.
And if we're honest the question of relevance isn't even the biggest one for lots of people – there's lots of words they might use to describe the church, but relevant isn't one of them – words like intolerant, homophobic, irrational, anti-scientific, maybe even anti-Semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic.
Well if that's you I hope we can go some way to changing your mind, but I have to admit that I'm not going to have time to answer every charge against the church today. We have tried to answer some of those issues in the past and you can find talks up the back from our big questions series last year that might interest you if that's where you're coming from.
But what I'd like to do this morning is to present a more positive case for the church. I'd like to tell you one of the reasons why I think the church is still relevant, why the church will never go out of date. We'll look at a couple more reasons over the next few weeks, but today I want to argue that the church remains relevant because the church has an important truth to tell - a vital and life changing truth; If I'm honest, a world changing truth. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's start with the truth. I think we'd all agree the truth is important. I'm sure you're familiar with the expression 'the truth will set you free'. Sometimes that's literally the case. For instance in the 'The Shawshank Redemption' Andy Dufresne discovers a truth that sets him free when he runs his rock hammer along the wall of his prison cell and finds that the wall is crumbling. This truth literally set's Andy free as he digs his tunnel to freedom.
But most of the time we don't mean it literally do we? We mean it figuratively – telling the truth is a liberating experience. I remember stumbling on an interview with Olympic gold medal winning diver Greg Louganis – he won the 10 m tower and the 3m springboard gold in LA in 1984 and defended his titles again in Seoul in 1988. In the heats at the Seoul Olympics he smashed his head into the spring board on one of his dives. He suffered concussion and a bad cut - but he recovered to win the gold in both the 3m springboard and the 10m tower. He was lauded as a hero and the greatest diver ever.
The interview I saw was several years later when Louganis released his autobiography. In his book he revealed that at the time of his accident he was HIV positive. He knew it, but he chose not to tell anyone. Remember he cut his head open on the diving board and bled in the pool. He could have exposed all of his fellow competitors to the HIV AIDS virus. But he chose not to tell them that. Instead he had himself stitched up and continued the competition. It was several years later when the stigma surrounding HIV AIDS had died down a bit that he chose to 'set the record straight' in his autobiography.
To the interviewer this cast his heroic performance into a whole new light – he'd knowingly put others at risk. And owning up to it might have serious consequences for his reputation, for how people remembered him. So she asked why he chose to reveal it at all. Louganis answer? 'I kept remembering that saying "the truth will set you free".'
He wasn't literally captive to anything – well not that I know of, not that this truth would release him from anyway – but his conscience was uneasy about what he'd done – and what he'd not done – and he wanted to unburden himself. The truth will set you free. Telling the truth releases us from the burden of keeping secrets or covering lies.
And it's true in another sense too isn't it – we need to be able to tell the truth to ourselves. In the world of business books Jim Collins' 'Good to Great' is apparently an all time classic – classic enough someone like me who's never been in the business section of a book shop has heard about. In that book Collins, reports on a study to find the difference between companies that were merely good (1424 of them) and those that went on to become great (only 11). The difference that he discovered was that the businesses that became great valued the truth more than the good businesses did.
He called it the stockdale principle – he says that to make the jump from good to great we need to be prepared to face the brutal facts about ourselves, without losing optimism. We need to face the brutal facts – that is, we need to tell the honest truth, no matter how unflattering, without losing optimism. According to Jim Collins that's not just true for businesses, but true for all of us in our lives. We can't go from good to great, we can't excel if we don't acknowledge the truth about ourselves, however brutal or frightening that truth might be. The truth will set you free.
And it's not just movies, sports men and business books that tell us the truth is important – actually they're all drawing on something Jesus said 2000 years ago. It's there in the bible passage that was read to us earlier - John chapter 8 verse 32 – page 755 in the blue bibles from the seats. Why don't you open that up so you can look at it with me?
Look at the second half of that verse – there's that familiar phrase 'the truth will set you free'
Jesus said it first – the truth is liberating. But is that all Jesus meant? This expression has been repeated so often through the years that it's been taken up as a sort of slogan, an aphorism, a clever saying. But was he making a general statement about the liberating effect of telling the truth, or did he have something specific and perhaps more meaningful in mind?
And to answer that question we need to take a couple of steps back and look at the context. So let's have a second look at John 8 and this time we'll start at verse 30.
Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him. 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
Jesus isn't speaking in aphorisms, he's making a point about himself and his teaching. He's not talking about the freedom we find in speaking the truth, he's claiming something about himself, about his words. He's claiming that he knows and speaks a truth that will liberate people.
Clearly Jesus thought a lot of himself – he spoke the truth, his teaching revealed the truth.
What do we do with that? To start with it's a startling claim for honesty. Who can say that they've never told a lie? That in itself would be a startling claim – because in truth we all lie all the time. Even the most scrupulously honest people feel the urge to hide the truth sometimes … little 'white' lies come easy to most of us, even to those committed to honesty. Just to claim never to have lied would be extraordinary enough. But this is more than just a claim to honesty isn't it?
Looking at it again it's a startling claim to knowledge – Jesus says 'If you hold to my teaching then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free'. This is a claim to understanding that others lack, effectively a claim to know the secret to life. Jesus is claiming to have taught the truth so clearly that if we do what he said then we can know the secret of life too.
Essentially he's claiming greater insight than the great gurus; deeper knowledge than the wisest philosophers. Socrates was on a search for truth – but Jesus dispenses it. His teaching is so insightful that to live by it is to discover truth, absolute truth.
So when Jesus says 'the truth will set you free' the truth he's is talking about isn't simple honesty, but a revelation about the world, about us as people and ultimately about God. In his teaching Jesus revealed the truth about us, about the world and about God, and through following that teaching we can be set free.
Bold claims. Massive claims.
But we still haven't got to the bottom of Jesus' statement yet – because 'the truth will set you free' presumes that we're not free without it, that we're somehow captive until we come to know this truth. So in what sense are we captive?
Look with me at the passage again. We'll pick it up from verse 32:
8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33 They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" 34 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it for ever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
The people Jesus was speaking to could see the implications straight away. 'What are you talking about Jesus – are you saying we're slaves, are you saying we're captives – how dare you! How can you say that? We're free, we've never been slaves to anyone.'
You can see why they might be upset, but that was actually a pretty stupid thing to say, since they were at the time a captive people, effectively slaves of the Roman Empire. These descendants of Abraham who'd never been slaves to anyone had in fact historically been slaves to Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece and they were at that time slaves to Rome. They're completely out of touch with reality.
But that's not the captivity that Jesus is talking about. So it's convenient for us that they give him the chance to clarify. Look at verse 34 again:
I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
What's he mean by that? Jesus presents sin as something bigger than just wrong actions. Sin is a kind of rebellion against God, a rebellion against his authority, his rule. Sin might be active and deliberate – we can rile against authority; or it could be passive disinterest – we just don't ever bother checking out what God wants. Either way sin is rebellion against God's rule, rejecting his authority and choosing to go our own way.
But there's a serious problem with rejecting God's authority – because rejecting God's authority means rejecting reality – God's reign is real, ultimate, undeniable – and the only other option for us is to live in a made up world, a false reality. That's why Jesus says the truth can free us from slavery to sin.
At the heart of sin is a powerful deception, a lie, actually a series of lies: The lie that God can't be trusted, that God isn't good, that he only wants to keep good things from us; and the lie that God isn't powerful, that he lacks the power to enforce his will; and the lie that God won't punish, we can really do whatever we want and it won't matter in the end. Jesus teaches that none of these things is true, but we live as if they are, we live according to the lie instead of the reality.
But we know how lies entangle us don't we. Like the poet said 'what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive'. Once a lie's out there, you've got to either cover your tracks to keep it hidden, or come out with the truth and admit you've been lying.
I've been watching Glee on channel four (because my wife likes it! – it's wrong on so many levels but strangely compelling!) and there was a great, if fairly trivial, example this week. One of the main characters admitted that she's been faking a stutter. She put it on in the sixth grade to get out public speaking, but then she had to keep it up to cover her lie. Now a stutter isn't all that significant, but then again, what a pain to have put one on all the time - how inconvenient, what a burden to have to keep putting something like that on.
In fact there's quite a few plot lines involving lies and covering up – the wife who's pretending to have a baby, and the cheer leader who is actually having a baby, but who's trying to keep it from her parents, while at the same time pretending her boyfriend is the father even though she knows full well it's really his best mate… and that's the just the tip of the ice burg.
Lies make for brilliant plots because they're so powerful at tying us up in knots: Affairs, secrets, betrayl… they're the stable of the soaps, and the Shakespeare's and the like. I recon just about every Seinfeld episode revolved around one of the characters telling a lie about themselves and then having to develop ever more convoluted schemes to keep the truth hidden – like the time George tried to hit on women by wearing a wedding ring – and then had to try maintain an imaginary marriage while trying to date the woman he met. Or the time George pretended to be a marine biologist and ended up having to try and save a stranded whale. Lies ensnare us in a nightmare of covering up, and the bigger the lie, the more painful the cover up.
And lies don't just affect the one who tells them – if we believe a lie we're just as trapped as the one who told it to us. We live in a false reality. Like the footballers wives who get a shock when their husband's affairs are splashed across the papers.
So it's not surprising that if we've been sold a lie, or a series of lies, then we get caught up in the consequences of those lies.
Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
We get snared in that tangled web, deceived and deceiving others. We're deceived believing that we can do as we like without concern for God; We're self deceived – because once we begin telling lies to ourselves we need to keep covering up the truth so that our lies won't be exposed. And we deceive each other – if we're lying to ourselves then we're hardly going to be honest to each other aren't we? And we're trapped in that tangle of lies so deep we don't know how to get out.
Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
But remember Jesus words
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
Sin ensnares us in lies and deceit; Jesus brings us the truth that sets us free.
This is a major claim from Jesus. If it's true then it would make church not just relevant, but essential, liberating even. A church is a community of people who together hold to Jesus' teaching. Church helps us to be his disciples. So if Jesus' claim is true, if it's true that holding to Jesus' teaching, that being his disciples enables us to know the truth that sets us free, then church suddenly begins to look very relevant indeed.
But how can we know if Jesus' truth is better than other truths?
There's one thing that Jesus has up his sleeve, a rather impressive party trick, well a lot more than that really. He did more than his share of impressive party tricks when he wondered around ancient Palestine – he healed the sick, cast out demons, walked on water, calmed the storm, he even raised the dead. He backed up his words with actions that are simply too impressive to be argued away.
But over and above even those things Jesus came back from the dead. Christians say that so often we can begin to take it for granted, but let me run that by you again – Jesus came back from the dead. And he wasn't just resuscitated; he conquered, death, overcame it – he rose again, never to die.
Jesus came back from the dead, physically, in his body – leaving an empty tomb – but he wasn't the same as he was before his death. His body was transformed to be suitable for the next life – he passed through walls, but he wasn't a ghost, he could eat and drink and the disciples touched him and saw that he was real. After a period of showing them that he was really alive he went up to heaven. And he sits there now, ruler of all things.
I know that sounds like hokum or fairy tales, but there were credible witnesses, and this is simply the most believable of all the possible explanations. It's true. It actually happened in time and space, in our history.
And the resurrection is very good news. It didn't just restore Jesus to his friends – he didn't stay with them long in any case. What it did was to demonstrate that Jesus has provided a way for us to be free, to be free indeed, just as he said. He was telling the truth, he was the truth, he does have the power to untangle the tangled web of lies and deceit. He has conquered sin and undone it's power.
He has overcome death itself and so he is able to give us life like this life – life after death, life without sin, without deception, without self deception and without fear.
That's why Jesus could say that to follow his teaching was to find the truth, and to be set free, free indeed. That's why Christians can face the brutal truth about ourselves, and face it with optimism. Because we're all slaves to sin, but we can be set free from the power and the consequences of sin by Jesus. We can be set free by the one who died to overcome sin and who rose to life again as sin and death's conqueror.
When we say church is relevant because church has a truth to tell, Jesus is that truth. He is the truth that set's us free. Won't you join us here as we explain and teach this truth that can set you free?