A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 31, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 8: 12-20
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 The Pharisees then said to him, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going, but you do not know whence I come or whither I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me. 17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two men is true; 18 I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. 
Each time we read scripture we pray for Illumination, we pray for light, we for knowledge, we pray for the Holy Spirit to bring to light what is in the text, to help us to see what we haven't seen before, for it to speak to us anew today. How interesting that the metaphor we use for knowledge is light. It is one of the oldest standard metaphorical symbols there is. Ancient religions looked to the sun as a source of wisdom. If you look at the Sun gods, the sun idols, like Ra in Egypt or Apollo for the Ancient Greeks, they were not just gods symbolic of the sun, but also of wisdom, as if knowledge is gained when the sun comes shining. . . it brings things to light. When you think about it, it's pretty basic. . . we can't see in the dark, but once there is light we can see. . . and seeing is a major gateway towards what we know. . . right, seeing is believing. . . isn't all scientific knowledge based on such things. I talk to my students about what science is built on, and we come to the conclusion that all science stems from, or is supposed to stem from sensory observations, what you can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear, and our most dominant sense has always been sight. . . and so it stands to reason, logically, that there would be a connection between light and knowledge. Ironically the blind Helen Keller is quoted as having said, "Knowledge is love and light and vision." Notice there the set of three she uses.
Today is Trinity Sunday, where we take a day to commemorate one of the most basic, troubling, and difficult to understand doctrines of the Church. It is basic because it has come to be the basis for what Orthodox is, being one of the oldest uniting and dividing principles within the church, since way back at the Council of Nicaea in the 5th century. It is troubling because we end up splitting God into three persons, while testifying to at the same time the oneness of the three. It is difficult because it seems so mystical and otherwordly and hard to comprehend and wrap our minds around. Sometimes it is even considered part of the Hocus Pocus superstition, a remnant of the old church of an old and long gone time. But when I was in seminary, there was one class discussion that I always thought was the most interesting, and it was where we looked in the old and the new testaments for textual evidence of the Trinity, and it was really cool to think about it in that way, that it isn't just a New Testament concept, but could be found in the old, and then you can find that it can be expanded out to different aspects of all life and creation that seems to be rooted in sets of three. If you think about things in threes, there is something very real, final, complete about seeing things wrapped up in three, as if three completes it.
This morning I want to talk about knowledge and light and the trinity because I've found a really neat and interesting way of looking at an aspect of the trinity in our lives around us, and it is all connected to how we think, how we come to know, how we come to believe, and how we process the information that comes our way. At the end I hope to show you how even something so simple as coming to knowledge is surrounded in trinitarian symbolism.
Now we've already talked about how light is a symbol for knowledge. Any time we think of someone having an idea, and the lightbulb shines above their head, we get this picture, and when we say someone is brilliant, we get the same, but it's rooted beyond and much deeper than that. And here in John 8, Jesus says I am the Light of the World, and the entire passage is about coming to know. . . how do we know? how do we come to know? what verifies things for us? how do we determine what is true and what is false. Here the Pharisees say to Jesus that he cannot be a trustworthy source, simply because he is testifying on his own behalf. Jesus, of course, says, I come from the Father, and if you knew the Father, you would know me, so obviously you don't. You don't know me and you don't know my Father. Strong words from Jesus to these Pharisees, these teachers of "the Father" but they don't know him, nor do they know Jesus. Why not? Again, how do we come to know things?
I ask my students this very question at different points during the year, at the beginning, when they haven't learned to think and question much, and then further in when they've learned to challenge themselves more, and I want to come up with a list, not just of what each one of us uses, but more of a full list of what people everywhere, all possible sources for finding and discerning truth, and then we do what academics is all about, we make up categories to put the ideas in, to organize them. So I want to lead you through that a little bit now, but think about it for yourself as we go, and see if we had forgotten anything in class. They usually start pretty basic, and remember they are in school, thinking about teachers and parents and books, stuff like that. They make up the voices that we listen to in our lives to get at truth. . . and I pushed them further to think about not just those voices of authority, but all other voices, ones that you agree with and ones that you don't, they all seem to shape what we think and know in some way. . . so those voices may be, the news, politicians, newspaper articles, friends voices, all of these things influence our thoughts in some way. Different people of course put emphasis on different areas, they trust different things, but all these pieces are outside influences. . . so that becomes our first category. The outside, or external influences to truth. Again, including other people, books, and maybe that major sometimes silent influence, but which is very external is tradition. . . the voices of those who have come and gone before us, their voices not silenced by the grave. Chesterton says of tradition
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
I don't know why I included that quote, other than I've always liked it, and it seems a good way to sum up the external part, making sure we've expanded the idea to include all parts.
And that brings up the next piece of the puzzle that the students eventually get to, which is our own personal experience. All of us bring to each day, every day we've spent on this Earth, or at least those we can remember, and it would seem that our remembering goes beyond just mental recall, but our muscles tend to remember action, and our bodies seem to sense and acclimate to things over time, but all of the factors that we experience through life goes into our understanding of the way the world works, and what we know and believe. It all fits in, and one thing that is true is that our experiences are completely unique to us, two people even experience the same thing in different ways, but all of it leads to what we know. Someone who has experienced trauma in life may see the world one way, someone who has experienced loss, heartbreak, love, connection, known the death of someone close to them, known births, known poverty, or great wealth, or oppression, or had experienced war, or fear, or betrayal. . . all of those things can affect the way we see the world and its truth. I think of Harry Potter and the threstrals from Book V. . . since the first book there are these carriages that bring the students of Hogwarts from the train to the school, and they appear to be magical carriage that propel themselves, but they are actually drawn by these creatures known as threstrals. And the interesting thing about Threstrals, is that they can only be seen by humans who have witnessed the death of someone firsthand. Harry does at the end of Book IV, so he can see them in Book V, and what a great symbol of how experience can affect what we see and what we know. It's a troubling truth as well, because many times, at least my students want to think that their experience teaches all, and that they can build their lives on what they have seen and experienced, but sometimes our experience can shape what we see, and if that is the case how real is it, how trustworthy is it? There is that great anecdote about the missing axe. . . where there is this man who loses his axe, and he sees a boy, and the boy, looks, walks, and talks like a thief, but then the man finds his axe and the boy looks normal again. . . sometimes what we think determines what we see, and what we see determines what we think, so even then we can be led away from actual truth.
And that leads us to the third category I try to push them on, and that has to do with what we are before we learn, before we experience, just us from the inside, that voice within that may be how we are wired, it may be our conscience, it may be chemical, it may be spiritual, it may even be ancestral, a kind of ancestral muscle memory where our ancestors experiences are somehow written into our DNA. It's always hard to explain exactly what it is, but all of my students admit that there is something to it, there is something there beyond what we are taught, what we've heard, and beyond what we have experienced.
So we all have three categories of information coming in, and we compute it, process it, prioritize it, organize it, and learn from it all in different ways, in different aspect, in different orders, but all of it is connected in this idea of discerning truth, what is true, what we believe, what we know. . . and the differences and disparities and changes in point of view, the fact that we all have different ideas of the truth, lead many to believe that the truth does not exist, and that it is all relative, but this takes, as unquestionable fact, the ignorant, though popular notion that truth must be known to exist, that just because no one's got it all, or that there is disagreement on what it is, means that truth is relative therefore that there is no such thing.
Christ faces such notions, but in his day, such cynicism was wielded and owned, people claimed to have the total knowledge of truth, such as these Pharisees, and so cannot see a new light standing in front of them. If you have it all figured out then there is no room for new knowledge or new experience. They were sure that the Father could be encapsulated in the Torah and the Prophets that they had already read, but their new experiences had nothing to add to the picture, and so with Jesus, the light of the world standing in front of them they missed the light. . . one could wonder whether they too would have missed the light shining from the bush that didn't burn, or the pillar of fire leading through the night. Paul, Saul at the time, and a Pharisee, himself, was so struck by the light on the road to Damascus that he was blinded and then changed forever.
So what is our mixture, of discernment, how much do we listen to the external? How much to our inner voice? How much to what we have experienced in our own lives? Do we trust some sources more than others? Do we hold up one as perfection, completeness, or monopoly? What is the danger in doing so?
Here is why I like this set of three, and why I think a fluid balancing of the three is important, and a good way at ever seeking the truth. If we think about it there is much to be said for The Father to be an example of external truth. . . creating the world, revealing truth at times, leaving his craftsmanship and poetry on the world, even being a Father, like one who provides wisdom, knowledge, and tradition, all from the outside for us to take in. . . Then the Spirit, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Parclete, the sustainer, is there represented in the internal, hard to nail down and understand, but as present as the air we breathe, and as crucial to life. . . and then finally, knowing how much experience plays into our psyche, the Son was sent, for us to be able to experience God's love ourselves, flesh to flesh, human to human, humbling himself to come and be with us on our level.
In this way God, the three persons of God, infuse all parts of our discernment, in perfect completeness, complete, but never finished because life, love, and God are constantly moving, and moving us. The light of the world meets us where ever we are, and in it there is no darkness at all, it shines and we can know it, experience it, and internalize it. It fills us completely.