Sermon preached August 25, 2013
Texts: II Peter 2:15-22; Romans 2:12-16
I think I have told you that I am sometimes reticent to tell people with whom I am flying that I am a pastor. The reactions can be fascinating. “Oh, you’re a pastor! What do you think about what our pastor did recently?” “You know, I haven’t been to church in twenty years and let me tell you why.” Maybe you can give me some advice?” “Do you think we are living in the end times?” Uncomfortable silence – as if this person cannot wait until this flight is over and hopefully he’ll have someone more fun to sit with on the next leg of the journey.
The most awkward conversation I ever had on an airplane, though, had nothing to do with my being a clergy person. I was seated next to a woman on a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix who was just getting away from it all. She had been going through a rough time, most recently a sinus surgery. She shared some of her woes, and went into some detail about her sinus surgery, how stuff can just get hard in there and needs to be chiseled out. It is about such conversations that the three-letter acronym TMI is intended – “too much information.”
When we were expecting Sarah, our son David was 8 and our daughter Beth was six – old enough to notice the changes in their mother’s body. So how are babies born? Wanting to be good parents, and wanting to share accurate information appropriately, we went to the local library, the educational videos section, and found an animated feature that was supposed to help parents explain to their children where babies come from. We sat down to watch it together, and it gave accurate information. After the movie, we asked David and Beth if they had any questions. They were completely silent, speechless might be better. They never asked about this again. They may very well have responded TMI. I wonder if the roots of Beth’s career as an OB/GYN can be traced to that night?
Too much information. We know the phenomenon, but do we follow that and argue that ignorance is bliss? This morning’s Scripture reading from Second Peter, the final “sticky Scripture’ in this summer’s sermon series, suggests as much. “It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” To make his point as sharp as possible, the writer adds: It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”
Is there such a thing as spiritual TMI? Is spiritual ignorance bliss? It might be helpful recall that II Peter was written sometime late in the First Century or even the early Second Century. As is true of other New Testament letters, there is some dispute going on in the Christian Community about what it means to follow Jesus. Seems we Christians have been discussing issues about the meaning of following Jesus since the beginning. The writer resorts to some pretty strong language in describing his opponents. They are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm…. They speak bombastic nonsense. As already noted, the opponents of the author are like dogs returning to their vomit or pigs wallowing in the mud just after being cleaned.
The writer argues against teachers who “secretly bring in destructive opinions.” Just what these opinions are is unclear, but what is important is that they are destructive – destructive of the Jesus way of life, of the Jesus community, and destructive for the person herself or himself. The ideas are less the problem, whatever they may have been, than their destructive import, and their self-destructive consequences.
For the writer, these destructive teachers had begun in a good place, but now they have wondered off. Better had they never known. Can we have too much spiritual information? Is ignorance bliss? Should our church services come with warning labels – you might hear something here today that you wish you never knew?
I don’t think the point of the writer of II Peter is that it is better not to know. He is not really arguing that spiritual ignorance is bliss. Instead he is arguing that we need to take responsibility for our spiritual insights and our growth in the Spirit. We need to integrate knowledge and love. Knowledge and love together are wisdom. Wisdom is our goal – loving wisely.
Theologian Daniel Day Williams: Whatever opens the person to the richness of the world beyond himself, whatever encourages the mind to give itself to the search for what is there to be known, whatever releases the person from defensiveness about his present structure of thought, and whatever overcomes distraction and triviality is the search for truth, contributes to the work of reason. And here surely we are not far from a definition of love. (The Spirit and Forms of Love, 287-288). Love. Wisdom.
Pondering II Peter and the issue of spiritual TMI, thinking about knowing and love and wisdom, I want to share three important thoughts.
In writing about one of his plays, and its protagonist, the playwright Arthur Miller penned these words. “The Man cannot bear to accept living without the truth whatever it may cost his self-esteem” (Collected Plays, 1964-1982, 782). There is something about this character that is deeply human. There is something inside of us that wants to know, that drives us to open up to the richness of the world. The theologian Daniel Day Williams in the same book already quoted writes, the search for the vision of God, the eros for truth, is one manifestation of that will to belong which, we have seen, is the image of God in [the human] (300-301). “To love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth,” Williams says (300).
Ignorance really cannot be bliss, ultimately, spiritually, because the very Spirit of God in us drives us toward deeper knowledge, opens us to the richness of the world. To love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth.
That does not mean knowledge is comfortable, or that our discoveries about the world are easy to deal with. That’s my second thought. On our vacation we visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. What an utterly enthralling place. Ford was fascinated by discoveries and innovation, so there was a lot there about the development of the automobile and the airplane. The museum also had sections devoted to the human quest for liberty and justice in the U.S. The bus Rosa Parks refused to move seats in is in the Henry Ford. The struggle for women’s equality was traced. To know some of that history is not easy. Sometimes I pine for simpler times, better times, but better for whom. The early 1950s seemed ideal in many ways, though I was not alive then, but African-Americans could not drink from the same fountains, sit at the same lunch counters, attend the same schools as European-Americans. We also saw “The Butler” while on vacation. In the mid 1800s, women had fewer rights than men who were in insane asylums. Legacies of slavery and discrimination remain – and that is uncomfortable knowledge.
There is a memorable episode of the television show MASH, where a pilot comes to the 4077th MASH, slightly injured. He discusses how nice the war has been for him – several times a week he flies missions, drops his load of bombs, and heads back to the base for dinner at the officer’s club and perhaps drinks and dancing. He has to hang around the MASH unit for a few days, and Hawkeye wants him to see something else. A Korean child has been brought in, wounded by a bombing. The pilot asks, “Was it one of ours or one of theirs?” Hawkeye, “What difference does it make?” “It makes a difference, a lot of difference.” “Not to her.” Later Hawkeye tell the pilot, “You seem like a decent guy, too decent to think this could be anything like a clean war.”
Opening up to the world, we can discover difficult truths among the richness of the world. We have to learn to live with these truths, but living with them is part of spiritual maturity. Even when the truth is difficult, ignorance is not bliss. One problem with the false teachers in II Peter was that they wanted people to believe that truth is easy, that one does not have to struggle sometimes. But we have to struggle in the spiritual life sometimes.
Third thought. We are driven to know, to open to the richness of life. Sometimes what we discover is wonderful and beautiful, and sometimes it is difficult. What we need to do is to take our knowledge, integrate it with love and act on it. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Truth does not free us from difficulty. Truth does not free us from complexity. Truth does not free us from the obligation to think. Truth frees us for wise loving, and to act wisely and lovingly. I love the song we sometimes sing – “Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness.” The point of the passages in II Peter is not that we should not know. The point the writer is conveying is that followers of Jesus should know better, and live better because they know.
Paul makes a similar point in Romans 2. Writing of persons who did not have the Jewish Scriptures, he says, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness.” What matters, Paul is saying, is that we put our knowledge into action. Earlier in his writing, the author of II Peter says something similar, and says it rather beautifully. You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. (1:5-7)
Is there such a thing as spiritual TMI? Is ignorance bliss in the spiritual life? No. The bottom line is that there is something inside of us that drives us to know, to open up to the richness of the world. It is part of the image of God in us as human beings. We ignore this to our diminishment. We are, however, responsible for our knowing, for putting our knowledge to work through love.
This is the spiritual journey. It is a journey toward maturity. “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up” (Ephesians 4:15. Also James 1:4) Would it be better not to have begun? No.
And here’s another bottom line, we are not on this journey alone. We have each other. We have the love of God. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us” (I John 4:10). Because we are loved, we love, and to love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth. To mature spiritually is to live richly and truthfully, and in God’s grace. It is good that we are on this journey. Amen.