Driving south out of Grand Rapids, there’s a billboard the proselytizes a product in bold letters:
Church Cannabis Company: Baptism by Fire!
So, I’m confused. Take the word cannabis out and I get it. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing to those who are alienated from each other. The Holy Spirit has power lead us in directions that we never would choose on our own. The Holy Spirit can bring life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion. But what does cannabis have to do with the church?? Can a newly legalized substance bring the same kind of Holy Spirit power as baptism in the church can provide? What is truth in this highway advertisement?
I think of Pilate interviewing Jesus and sneering at him, “What is truth?“ How ironic that he would say that to the One who identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” We continually have to sift through the elements of our culture and our world to understand what is truth and what will fail us.
As Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb, in the dark of morning, she thought she knew the truth about Jesus. She had kept a vigil at the foot of the cross. Most of the disciples were unable to do this. She had seen her Savior die a horrific death. His body had been claimed by two converts to the faith even though it could have cost them their political careers. He was dead and buried and she went to anoint his body to honor Jewish customs. When she saw that the stone was rolled away, suddenly she questioned what the truth was. The disciples, at her beckoning, ran to the tomb to investigate. It says that John saw the emptiness and believed yet we don’t know exactly what it was that he understood as truth. Mary remained and, looking into the tomb, she saw two angels. She gave no indication of being alarmed. She was caught up in the grief of losing her Savior. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that her clouded vision became crystal clear and she could see Jesus. Within the confines of a dark grave, resurrection triumphed over crucifixion. Since that time, generations across the globe have had to determine what is truth about that morning. We are called to consider what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.
We have this wonderful story from the Book of Acts about Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was on the court of the queen of Ethiopia. He had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He was a convert to the Jewish faith and had embarked on a lengthy journey to worship in the Temple. On his way back, being pulled in a chariot, the Rolls-Royce of his day, he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The man was educated. He had access to a library, which was rare indeed. He was trying to understand the truth of the Scripture that he was reading.
Phillip was minding his own business when the Holy Spirit prompted him to approach the chariot. He was the answer to the Ethiopian’s prayers. When the convert to the faith was asking about the suffering servant in Isaiah, Phillip was ready to give his sermon. He preached about Jesus as the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. Jesus was the lamb that was slain and who now reigned over an eternal kingdom. Even the one who served on a royal court with high honors would not be able to imagine the immensity of that kingdom. He wondered what was the truth of that scripture. Phillip dropped everything to give interpretation that would answer the foreigner’s questions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected Savior. The man from the royal court asked to be baptized in a body of water they were passing. Phillip obliged and one of the most unlikely candidates for membership in the Early Church was welcomed into the fold of the Messiah who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.
When I was leading a group discussion on a psychiatric unit recently, there was a man who stormed out, angry at something another class member had said that he perceived to be false. I sought him out afterwards to apologize for any hard feelings. He immediately said he was sorry , admitting that he should have not been so explosive. Then he cried out to me, the chaplain who stopped by his room, “Who will tell me about Jesus?“
The question caught me by surprise. I had gone in to placate someone who was angry about the group dynamics of the class I had led. Now he was asking for a Sunday school lesson. My job is not to convert but to invite patients into their own understanding of the deepest convictions in their lives. So I spent time with him, getting to know his circumstances. I learned that his mental illness and struggle with addiction had cost him his marriage and custody of his children. He was deeply grieved as a young father. He was hopeless about triumphing over a mental illness diagnosis that had put his life on a downward spiral. He was raised in a home where he was told that everything was his fault. There was no appreciation for spiritual matters. He spoke to me of the ways that God has been present to him throughout his life. Years earlier, God protected him during a home invasion when he cried out for help. His addiction had brought him near death several times but God had revived him. He wondered why? What was this purpose for which he was being saved? He named these moments of grace when he could hear a directive from God that led him down right paths. He carried with him a worldview shaped by being demeaned in his childhood home and losing his own family because of an illness that he could not control.
The question he cried out to me became clear when he said that, recently, the Holy Spirit was prompting him to look into the person of Jesus. I was stunned to think that God moved in such a specific manner so as to proselytize this man who was despairing of hope and bereft of joy. Forty-five minutes into our time together, I began to talk about Jesus at his repeated request: “Who will tell me about Jesus?“
What would you say to someone who has no background in the faith and is crying out for understanding about Jesus? As I started offering Sunday School Lesson 101, I was aware of how unlikely some of our beliefs are about this man called Jesus. Born of a virgin, hailing from a backwoods town in an insignificant part of the world, being born a Jew (historically a persecuted race), crucified as a despised criminal and dying a public death to intimidate others into obeying the rules in the mighty Roman Empire.
But wait! Death is not the end of the story! Even though he was laid in a tomb with a boulder in front of it, the Holy Spirit (through baptism fire!) brought him back to life. Truth! Resurrection out of death. Can you believe it? We are incredulous even though we have been going to church for years.
There are people in our world who want to know about truth. In our own city there’s an investigation into the truth of the death of a young African man. During Holy Week, video footage was released and, once again, we recoiled in horror and were filled with grief. Local and national news look in on this senseless death with a question of “What is truth?” A review board investigates the death, but nothing will bring solace to a family who grieves a son.
We are seekers of truth on a daily basis, and we sometimes forget where to turn. We forget our spiritual mooring. This young in-patient’s question, that came from the gut, awakens me to the need to preach my faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I am sensitive to delivering the sermon in the manner that is most likely to be heard. Many times, that will not be through words but by example. When I have an opportunity and an invitation to share what I believe, I had better have a response ready. I am called to have my spiritual antennas up to notice the hunger of those around me who are struggling to believe. There are people at every crossroad in our daily life who are searching for truth. Some are sitting in the pews here every Sunday morning. Some are in our neighborhood or serving on community boards with us. Some are the folks who badmouth religion most loudly. Inwardly they are asking, “What is the truth? Who will teach me about Jesus?”
The truth is, we are all continually learning about Jesus. We meet Him in unlikely corners of our world. We see Him at the intersection when a red light gives us ample opportunity to look into the eyes of the man holding the sign. We meet Jesus when our child or grandchild asks to read stories together from their Children’s Bible. We meet Jesus when one family member finally reaches out to another to invite them for Easter supper after a lengthy stalemate in relationship. We meet Jesus on our knees and at the wheel; in our office and walking a dirt road. We meet Jesus in an African father who asks for peaceful protests after his son is gunned down during Holy Week. We meet Jesus when an American friend crosses the border into the Ukraine to fight for the citizens of another country. We meet Jesus when we whisper a prayer for mercy in the depths of a depression. We meet Jesus when we pack our bags to go where we feel led to go. The Truth of Jesus is that endings are often times beginnings and new life begins when we dare to walk into the unknown.
Who will teach others about Jesus? We need to be ready!