Sermons That Work

Today’s Gospel Recounts…, Epiphany 4 (B) – 2006

January 29, 2006

Today’s Gospel recounts an outstanding educational experience. The people of the Capernaum synagogue find that they have run right smack into the truth. Their encounter with Jesus leaves them awestruck. In contrast to their usual teachers, he speaks and acts with an authority that is undeniable.

What do these people learn from hearing Jesus? What difference does it make for them that he expels an unclean spirit from one of their number?

Because of who Jesus is and what he does, they realize, perhaps for the only time in their lives, that truth is personal. Their teachers are always passing on to them the venerable opinions of past masters. They are accustomed to hearing what one great rabbi or another said about this issue or that, and they are accustomed to setting great store by these observations.

But that particular sabbath day Jesus appears in their synagogue, and they find that the truth is not a “what,” an inheritance left over from the past, something they must keep stored away, wrapped in tissue paper. They experience the truth as a “who,” a living, breathing man whose face they can recognize and whose actions they cannot control.

This means that something in them has to die. That something is their belief that they can control the truth. For if the truth is a “what,” there’s reason to expect that you or I or all of us together can somehow master the truth, that we can bend it to our purposes. But if truth is alive, if truth is personal, if truth stares back at us, then this expectation seems groundless.

Personal truth will not choose to be our slave. That truth is personal means that our desire for control must die. We must commit ourselves to a far different existence, one characterized by interaction, an existence where the presence of each can be a blessing to all.

Truth is personal, and what is personal bears witness to truth; it has ultimate significance. It is therefore wrong to treat any person as a thing. It is wrong to treat anyone as disposable, to see anyone only in terms of our plans and ambitions. The last hundred years have been filled with just such abuse in many places around the globe. Sometimes this degradation of the human person is brought about by a totalitarian state. Sometimes it is the work of terrorists who show no pity. Sometimes it occurs through economic and social systems that reject the least successful.

Truth is personal. We see truth in its absolute form in the person of Jesus Christ. Once he taught in the Capernaum synagogue. Now he reigns in glory. But this same Jesus appears in a host of other places also. Whether we are Christian or Communist, Muslim or Jew, when we hunger for truth, we hunger for Christ. Whether we are scientist or statesman, playwright or philosopher, when we discover truth, we discover Christ. Some know to call him Christ, others do not, but in each case his reality remains. We know Christ is present in the Eucharist, but that is not the only place to find him. Discover any truth, and you will find him, and when you do, listen to what he has to tell you.

If then we are to educate the rising generation in a way that is worthy of them, we must help them to see that truth is personal, that truth cannot be controlled, that truth is a “who” rather than a “what.” That is a Christian belief, but one need not be a Christian to accept it. It belongs to an even wider wisdom. This understanding is one way that Christ enlightens everyone born into this world.

The truth is personal. The truth is also communal. The truth never remains a private matter, something we keep to ourselves. We cannot have a private truth like we have a private toothbrush. Yes, each of us has a unique perspective on the truth, one that reflects our character and experience, yet by itself that perspective is not valid. Our different unique views of the truth find their validity when they are taken together.

Jesus encounters those people of Capernaum in their synagogue. This is a public place where study and discussion and worship regularly occur, a place where people sense that they are a community and sense that they are accountable to one another. It is within this network of relationships with all its strains and tangles that they encounter truth in Jesus. They experience him in company with one another. And once they have been shocked out of their wits, they seek one another’s help to make sense of what has happened. They do not keep silent, but start to talk among themselves. They wonder about it together.

If we are to provide the rising generation with the education they deserve, then we must help them to see that truth is communal. Children should know what it means to belong to a community of learners, a community that extends far enough to include their teachers and other adults. The classroom should not be a place where isolated individuals engage in senseless competition, but a place where each person contributes and receives because each has a unique perspective on the truth and none holds a monopoly.

In this way, children will discover that truth is personal and that truth dwells among them. They will not simply acquire knowledge, but they will experience wisdom. Their universe will not be void of great plans and purposes. Instead, a new health and a new sanity will be realized among them — and among us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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