Sunday, October 31, 2021

The True Witness

Eleven apostles could scarcely believe their eyes. They'd walked all the way back to Galilee to keep a strange appointment with Jesus, who'd been crucified the other week. And here he was again. No matter how many times they saw him, they still couldn't shake the “Pinch me, I must be dreaming” of it all. But now here he was, strolling down a mountain to where they were bowed to the earth. Laughing, he raised them up. He told them that he'd been given complete authority in heaven above, and complete authority in earth below. And out of that authority, he had a charge to give them. “Going, therefore, disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20). A very great commission indeed.

We've heard these words many times. Out of all the passages in the Gospels, they're maybe one of the pieces we stand the best chance of reciting by heart. But let's slow down. Let's rob ourselves of that familiarity, lest it breed contempt or presumption. To whom is Jesus speaking? And what, exactly, is he telling them?

First, Jesus presumes that the apostles are going to be 'going.' And how could he not? They're his apostles! He used that word for a reason. 'Apostle' is somebody you send out, somebody you propel into motion, somebody you dispatch on a mission from one place to another. 'Going' is baked into the concept. Jesus doesn't expect them to stay cooped up in Jerusalem or in Galilee forever. Theirs is, fundamentally, an itinerant ministry, a get-out-and-spread-out ministry. These eleven men, and the one soon to be added to their number, have plenty of mileage to rack up. Not everybody who comes after, who succeeds to them by the laying on of their hands, is going to be 'going' quite that far. When the apostles go out, they'll pass on authority to people usually stationed in different areas. But even those people will be 'going,' even if just from street to street in their city.

Second, the apostles are 'going' with a purpose – and that's to “disciple all the nations.” Now, we've managed to build up a lot of mystique about these words. So let's take stock of their sense. What is a 'disciple,' in Greek? It comes from the same root that gives us 'math.' To be a disciple is to be a student, ready with a listening ear for instruction. It's to be an apprentice, carefully watching the master at work. It's not Christianese. It's a word with a common meaning and common use. But the verb is rarer. And you'd fairly paraphrase it as 'enroll somebody in school.' It means to treat somebody as a student, as an apprentice. That's why, when early Christians translated this verse, they usually quoted it as “Go and teach.” No special fancy word – just 'teach.'

So who are the apostles going to teach, going to enroll and enlist in this Jesus school? “All the nations.” Note: it's not “make disciples from all nations,” as if the job's done when you get five Italians, six Canadians, and so on. The nations themselves – whole organized communities – are the ultimate objects. It might have to begin person by person, or proceed person by person, but the goal is for communities to be collectively taught, to be transformed as a group, as a society, as a culture. The apostles are to “spread [Christ's] peace throughout the nations with holy instruction and rid the world of its ills,” as one paraphrase of this verse read.1

So how's it to happen? Discipleship starts, Jesus says, with baptism. The apostles are to go to the various tribes and nations of their world and start baptizing people, giving them the new birth into the church. Of course, for somebody to get baptized, under ordinary circumstances, they need to know it's an entrance into life with God. And they need to have that God accurately announced to them: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There's got to be a basic acceptance that this God is worth trusting, worth being marked by, worth siding with.2 So the commission to baptize presupposes evangelism. The apostles are going to stand up and cast this new vision of God revealed in the Jesus who was nailed to a cross and executed and buried and came alive and went to God's realm and is pouring down his Spirit and is appointed to some day return and judge the world that once tried to condemn him. Read Acts, and that's the gist of what the apostles go around saying. That's the gospel they're preaching.

Then, when somebody begins to latch onto that good news, the apostles baptize, or they appoint somebody to baptize. Baptism's essential – it's the beginning of Christian life, it's what Jesus called being 'born again,' it's how sin gets washed away and identity gets reforged. It's rebirth into the church, into union with Christ. Of course, the early church knew there were exceptional cases. Some people still learning the faith got caught in persecutions and killed before their scheduled baptism day – so the church decided they were baptized by their blood. Others still learning the faith got sick or had an accident before their scheduled baptism day – so the church expressed hope that, under the right conditions, those people were as if baptized by their expressed desire for it. But those only highlight how foundational baptism is for discipleship. It all grows out of that baptismal faith in Father and Son and Spirit.

So what then? Then, discipleship continues with the apostles “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you.” Baptism was birth; now it's time to grow, and grow by being informed of the better way to think and see and live, and then be disciplined to understand it and keep it. As one early Christian summed up the Great Commission: “Our mortal birth is changed by the rebirth of baptism, and the teaching of godliness shuts out the teaching of godlessness.”3 What the apostles are hearing is that they've got to take people deeper than the basics. They have to rule on how life in the kingdom looks, and then train their students to flesh it out in their lives. That's a job for the apostles and those they appoint: it calls for Christ's delegated authority over minds and hearts. They won't just pass on the teachings of Jesus but interpret and apply the teachings of Jesus. They'll strengthen their students in faith and hope and love. They'll rule what's in bounds or out of bounds, helpful or unhelpful. They'll teach doctrine, direct in commandments, nurture Christian life, encourage, correct. It's like the Apostle Paul told Bishop Timothy: “Preach the word..., reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). That's what Jesus authorizes the apostles here to do.4

You can read in the New Testament how they lived this out. Acts focuses on the first half of Peter's career, then switches to Paul's, as the pair of them ultimately converge on Rome, capital of the empire. Along the way, they preach, they baptize, they found churches, they teach people to observe the whole counsel of God. Some of those they teach, they appoint to offices in the church. A bishop, filling an apostle's shoes in a place, must “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Others whom the apostles teach, they don't appoint, but do encourage to live the gospel fully and to collaborate in the work.

The apostles pressed on to the death. Peter and Paul died at Rome. John ended up in Turkey. Tradition adds that Thomas went to southern India, Andrew went to the Scythians beneath Russia, Matthew might have gone to Persia. Wherever they went, all but one are thought to have been killed for their gospel. So, for that matter, did many who believed them. On and off for centuries, early Christians faced waves of persecution – sometimes one place, sometimes all over. When that happened, some Christians bowed to pressure, but others embraced an opportunity. As one early Christian said while being led to execution: “Now I am beginning to be a disciple!”5 Believers like him boldly confessed their faith in public, declaring Christ as a Savior worth running to and King worth dying for. Their tenacious deaths became a testimony to the worthiness of Christ. Their deaths preached the gospel. So they became known as 'witnesses' – in Greek, 'martyrs.' And the church defied their persecutors, saying: “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us … They are an enticement to our school. We become more numerous every time we're harvested by you! The blood of Christians is seed. For who isn't stirred, by contemplating it, to inquire what's really beneath the surface? And who, when he's inquired, doesn't approach us?”6 Through the witness of martyrs, the church multiplied, the gospel spread, even emperors slowly listened.

A few years after the persecutions ended, a pair of Phoenician Christian boys named Frumentius and Edesius joined their uncle on a long boat trip. But when they stopped at a Red Sea harbor, locals killed all grown-ups aboard and took the boys as slaves to the Ethiopian king. He found them impressive, trusted them, and when he died, he set them free. But he left behind boys of his own, and the queen asked these two young Christians to stick around as royal tutors. Once Prince Ezana was old enough to take the throne, the brothers left. Edesius went home to Tyre. But Frumentius went to Alexandria, begging for a bishop and priests to be sent to Ethiopia. The patriarch decided Frumentius was just the man to lead the mission. He ordained him bishop and sent him. So Frumentius returned to King Ezana, whom he'd helped raised, and baptized him.7 Ezana testifies in his own words how God “made me the guide of all my kingdom because of faith in Christ..., and I believe in him, and he has become my Guide.”8 Frumentius, for his part, spent the rest of his days spreading the gospel in Ethiopia, where we're told that “a countless number of barbarians were converted to the faith.”9

Meanwhile, Christianity worked its way through the Roman world, even to Roman-occupied Britain. Just a couple years after Frumentius died, a Christian family in western Britain welcomed a newborn son: Patrick. In his teen years, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave, who was bought and put to work as a shepherd.10 The trauma awakened his dormant faith, he pledged his life to Christ, and six years later, he escaped. He went home to Britain, then to France to study. Ordained a priest, he eventually achieved his dream of being appointed missionary bishop to the Irish.11 “I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel... to the very ends of the earth,” he said.12 Returning to the land of his former captivity, Bishop Patrick fearlessly preached the word of God. He “baptized so many thousands of people,”13 “innocent Christians whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.”14 He gathered sons of chieftains as disciples, organized churches and monasteries. “I live for my God to teach these peoples,” he'd say.15 “I cannot be silent... about such great blessings. … This is how we can repay such blessings: … to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”16 “Therefore, it is very right that we should cast our nets so that a great multitude and crowd will be taken for God; also, that there should be clerics to baptize and encourage a people in need and want.”17 Patrick believed it. Patrick lived it.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Roman presence in Britain led to the land filling up with pagan tribes. A century after Patrick's death, Pope Gregory decided things needed to change. He enlisted a missions team, and at the head of the team he put a well-trained Italian monk named Augustine. Gregory sent Augustine and forty other monks to France to enlist priests as translators.18 In 597, they landed in Kent, a kingdom in southeast England whose pagan king was respectful of his French Christian wife. And they began preaching in the Kentish capital Canterbury.19 In the first year, they baptized the king. It didn't take long for their gospel to start sweeping the kingdom. “Every day,” we read, “more and more began to flock to hear the word, to forsake their heathen worship, and – through faith – to join the unity of Christ's holy church.”20 Once these new believers numbered in the thousands, Augustine wrote back to Gregory for advice on how best to instruct and discipline and guide the new believers – how to teach them to observe all that Christ wanted of them. And Augustine got answers.21

He got even more than that. The same year he died, another team of missionaries arrived from Rome to fortify the work. One was a monk named Paulinus. After two decades of ministering in Kent, the Kentish king's sister married the pagan king of Northumbria, so Paulinus was ordained a bishop and sent to the Northumbrians, to York.22 He preached evangelistically, but had little success. But the next year, after surviving an assassination attempt, the Northumbrian king started listening “to learn the faith systematically” from Paulinus.23 Even the pope wrote to the king, urging him to “accept the teaching of the preachers and the gospel of God which they proclaim to you,” and be “born again by water and the Holy Spirit.”24 Within two years, after plenty prayerful and patient witness by Paulinus, King Edwin was convinced. He “renounced idolatry and confessed his faith in Christ.” He was baptized. Suddenly, many others followed Edwin's example.25 Paulinus traveled the kingdom, announcing the gospel, baptizing crowds, building churches. Edwin even helped other kings come to faith.26 Alas, not all their hard work stuck for the long haul. Later, Irish missionaries would come revive the mission.

Around the time the Northumbrian mission was collapsing, a boy named Wilfrid was born there. As a teenager, he ran away from home and was sent for education by an Irish missionary. Years later, Wilfrid took Paulinus' chair as bishop of York.27 But one day, he was stripped of his position. He set sail for Rome to get it settled. His ship landed in pagan territory: Frisia, the Netherlands. There, Wilfrid “preached the word of God daily to the people, telling them of the true God, the Almighty Father, and Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit co-eternal with them, and of one baptism for the remission of sins; he also taught them clearly about life everlasting after death in the resurrection.” During his time in Frisia, thousands “accepted his teaching” and “were baptized by him in the name of the Lord.”28 Once Wilfrid finished his trip to Rome and returned to England, he spent five years in pagan Sussex. For months he preached, seemingly fruitlessly, until at last the scales fell from their eyes, “and a great door of faith was opened to him, and many thousands of pagans of both sexes were baptized in one day … They deserted idolatry and made confession of faith in Almighty God.”29

Meanwhile, Wilfrid had been a mentor to a Northumbrian boy named Willibrord, who then went to Ireland to be discipled by a holy man named Ecgberht.30 Ever since his twenties, Ecgberht had a passionate vision for evangelism, with his eyes set on the Frisians. In time, Ecgberht formed a team of twelve, including Willibrord, and sent them. But Frisia wasn't ripe yet. Willibrord retreated to France, where he “carried out the task of evangelization, and... the seed of life, watered by the dews of heavenly grace, had, through his preaching, borne abundant fruit in many hearts.”31 Willibrord went to Rome to get commissioned. In 695, Pope Sergius ordained him and assigned him jurisdiction as bishop of the Frisians.32 He went to Frisia, visited the Danes, confronted villagers and kings, declaring to them, “There is no God but one, who created heaven and earth...; and those who worship him in true faith will possess eternal life. As his servant, I call upon you this day to renounce empty and inveterate errors... and to believe in the one Almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice, and holiness.”33 As Willibrord later retraced his steps, he “exhorted the people in cities, villages, and forts where he'd previously preached the gospel to remain loyal to the faith and to their good resolutions, and... the number of the faithful increased day by day.”34

Two decades later, an English monk named Wynfryth took it on himself to go to Frisia to join Willibrord. He came at a bad time: a changing political landscape let Frisia's pagan king persecute the church. Both Willibrord and Wynfryth fled.35 Wynfryth made his way to Rome, where the pope renamed him 'Boniface' and assigned him to preach to the German tribes.36 He spread the gospel in Bavaria and Thuringia, and even rejoined Willibrord in Frisia for a couple years. Parting ways with Willibrord, Boniface began evangelizing in Hessia – preaching, baptizing, building churches – and nudging his way toward the Saxon frontier. In 722, he went to Rome to be ordained bishop, and was sent back “for the enlightenment of the people of Germany sitting in the shadow of death.”37 But when he got back to Hessia, he found many of his converts had fallen away amidst a harsh winter war. So he gathered his supporters, went straight to an oak tree sacred to Thor, chopped it to the ground, and built a church from its wood. And we read then how, “little by little, the number of believers increased, the preachers grew more numerous, church buildings were restored, and the word of God was published far and wide.”38 To Boniface, it was as important to confirm and teach as it was to baptize; baptism wasn't the end but the beginning of a life of becoming a Christian in practice.39

Boniface built up monasteries, places where intentional communities could take in and disciple local children to be native evangelists carrying on the work. Others now came from England to work under Boniface, and, we're told, “working in widely scattered groups among the people of Hessia and Thuringia, they preached the word of God in the country districts and villages” so that “many thousands of them were baptized.”40 Boniface finally began breaking into pagan Saxony. In October 739, the pope wrote Boniface a letter of congratulations on hearing of Boniface's hundred-thousandth German convert.41 Meanwhile, Boniface wrote back to England, asking people to double-down on their prayers for the conversion of the Saxons.42

In his late seventies, Boniface realized he didn't have much time left. So he gathered some helpers and set out one last time to Frisia. He managed to evangelize and baptize thousands of Frisians before finally his enemies surrounded him and cut him down as a martyr.43 With his blood, he sealed the Christian future of Frisia – one of his German disciples Gregory took charge of the work there. Later, Boniface's Bavarian disciple Sturm and Gregory's Frisian disciple Ludger kept up the evangelization of Saxony.

Had I limitless time, I'd go on. I'd tell you of the Frankish monk Ansgar, who heard in prayer the word to “declare the word of God to the nations,” and so gladly accepted when he was sent to Denmark and Sweden to preach and baptize and nurture the church.44 I'd tell you of Cyril and Methodius, brothers from Thessalonica who were called to the already evangelized Moravians to instruct more thoroughly, and how they invented an alphabet and translated the Bible,45 and laid the groundwork not just for the gospel to reach all the Slavic peoples but for doors to soon open in Bulgaria, and one day even in Russia. I'd tell you of Adalbert, a Bohemian who evangelized Hungarians and Poles and Prussians and died a martyr. And I could go on, and on...

It was from the work of people like them that your ancestors and my ancestors first heard the gospel. Trace your family tree far enough back, and maybe the first Christian you find there was discipled by Ansgar or Boniface or Wilfrid or Augustine. Our having heard the good news, our being baptized into Christ, our having been shaped to live as Christ commanded, depends on the work they did. Which brings us to today. Today is a day you know: Halloween. And Halloween, for all its medieval pageantry and modern secularization, is a Christian holiday. 'Halloween' is short for 'All Hallows Evening,' 'All Saints Eve' – the vigil night before All Saints Day tomorrow. And on All Saints Day, we celebrate all the great saints who over the years have given examples of heroic holiness – such as the missionary bishops and their co-workers – as we try to learn from them how to live into fuller saintliness here and now ourselves.

From examples like those, you could believe evangelism was just for the apostles and bishops. But that was never true. The missionaries and martyrs made the headlines, but we know some more intimate stories – like the case in the second century of a Roman noblewoman becoming Christian, being taught to change her life around, and trying to “persuade her husband” to likewise heed “the teachings of Christ.”46 Stories like that must have filled in all the gaps between the large missionary triumphs: a believer trying to get through to a loved one, or one believer trying to call back another from an ignorant path. In the early church, these words were said, not to bishops or priests, but to everyday believers: “You laypeople should be like wise doves, at peace with one another, striving to fill the church, converting and taming those who are wild, bringing them into her midst.”47

We celebrate by name the great missionary saints of ages past, for their witness was true, and they held it openly in heroic ways, in the face of great opposition, and thereby proved their holiness in Christ. But the best way we can honor them, the best way we can celebrate them, is to join them. It's to treat their work as work that's still worth doing, and their word as a word that's still worth saying, not just by the 'professionals,' but by all of us. The Great Commission is for the church together – not to all the same way, but to all in some way. For we, too, can convert and tame wild people, can bring them into the church's midst, can strive to fill the church.

And this true witness – sharing the gospel, telling people the good news that Jesus is Lord and Savior and Head of the Church – is the antidote to false witness. So often, we're led into false witness when we get off-track, to things we can't be sure of. But we can be sure of Jesus. We can be sure he's the Way, the Truth, the Life. We can be sure he's good and lovely. His name is the gospel-truth witness into which nations can be discipled, heart by heart. And each and every one of us can and must help. The mission isn't across the ocean. The mission is next door. Maybe even the next pew. You may not be able to hop a plane to the other side of the world, but you can go as far as your telephone or your neighbor's porch. You may not preach in the streets, but you can tell a stressed friend that there's hope thanks to Jesus. You may not know much to say, but you can listen long and speak a good gospel sentence from the heart. You may not have a well-crafted presentation, but you can recite the creed and answer questions. You may not go forth baptizing, but you can bring people here to be baptized. You may not meet many old-school pagans, but you can invite back a child or grandchild who's fallen away from the life of the church. You may not bind and loose with the authority of an apostle, but you can exhort any and all to holier living in Christ. You may not be able to do it all, but we can work together as the church to see the gospel bear fruit, each of us, according to our station and gifts, taking our share of the work.

Here where we are, let us publish glad tidings, let us tell our neighbors, let us bear the truest witness, for Jesus Christ is Truth, to the glory of God the Father and the salvation of a waiting world! Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Crimes of the Lips

Once again, I have two stories for you. The first will take us to early in the year 505, to the city of Arles in what you'd now know as southern France. And there and then, a man named Licinianus can't stand his boss. See, Licinianus was a notary who worked in the household of the city's new bishop, a young man in his mid-thirties – incredibly young, and already promoted to such a prominent role of authority, with plenty of ideas on reform. This bishop, Caesarius, had been promoted past plenty priests with greater age and experience, in part because Caesarius was a favorite of – for that matter, a relative of – the last bishop, Aeonius. Licinianus figured that was the reason, anyway. And he didn't like it. He was mighty jealous.

Well, Licinianus thought up a plan. These days, Arles was under the rule of the barbarian Visigoths. And their king, Alaric, was feeling cornered. Two other barbarian tribes, the Burgundians and Franks, were on the move, and in situations like these, Alaric was a paranoid man prone to caution. Alaric had already exiled the bishop of another city under suspicion of conspiring with foreign powers. And, lucky for Licinianus, Caesarius happened to be a native of the Burgundian kingdom. Luckier yet, Licinianus, as the bishop's notary, was in the ideal position to claim insider knowledge into what Caesarius was up to. So he declared an accusation before Alaric – it wasn't true, but (he figured) who cares? – that Caesarius was conspiring to help his Burgundian relatives seize control of the valuable port city of Arles. Alaric was worried enough to act without investigation. Better safe than sorry! So he exiled Caesarius from Arles to Bordeaux, further from the Burgundian border.

Now, Caesarius was guilty of no such treason. Caesarius didn't much care whose rule he lived under, just so long as they let the church do its work and they treated people with dignity. Caesarius got on his knees every night and every day to pray for peace between nations and for the welfare of his city. He did that in Arles. And he kept it up in Bordeaux. Over the course of the next year, as Alaric waited out the crisis, it became obvious Caesarius was no subversive. Caesarius seemed content to preach in Bordeaux about the obligation to obey King Alaric in every just order. And as Alaric realized he might need Caesarius' help promoting a legal project, he started to think more clearly about the charges. And it became increasingly obvious that Licinianus was nothing but a liar.

The day came when Licinianus the liar stood before angry neighbors hefting stones in hand to hurl. But when Caesarius found out, he rushed to action – to beg for Licinianus' life, that he might yet repent and save his soul. Licinianus was spared, and Caesarius was welcomed back home with fanfare. Over the years to come, political powers would come and go. The holy bishop Caesarius would deal patiently with church gossip, with more accusations, with more seasons of imprisonment or exile, until at last, in August 542, he flew to his glorious reward.1

But fast-forward another six centuries, to March 1144. The scene: Southeast England, the rapidly changing city of Norwich. And in the church-owned Thorpe Wood outside town, on the day before Easter, a peasant led the forester to an unpleasant discovery: the strung-up body of a 12-year-old boy. An investigation identified the body as the child of a high-status Anglo-Saxon family from the countryside, the son of Elviva and her late husband Wenstan. Their William had come to the big city as an apprentice in the leather trade. What a tragic loss he was – educated, ambitious, bilingual, from a family well-connected in the church.

In the midst of a brutal civil war when soldiers were routinely torturing and killing anyone they caught who seemed well-to-do, young William's death initially aroused little public fuss. The investigation was brief and inconclusive. But William's uncle Godwin, a priest, approached church leaders and grumbled his suspicions of Norwich's Jews, relative newcomers to town. Nothing much was made of it until several years later, after the crushing failure of the Second Crusade. Crusader knights often had to borrow large sums of money to afford to fight overseas, and so when one Anglo-Norman knight, inflamed and demoralized from his crusade, came home to Norwich and found he was hopelessly in debt to a local Jewish banker, he simply arranged for his creditor to be ambushed and stabbed in the woods. When this knight was put on trial before the king, his defense team had a striking strategy. They alleged that another investigation needed to take precedence. They alleged that the knight's victim, the banker – and, with him, the whole Jewish community – were guilty of a grand conspiracy to have crucified that boy William as a human sacrifice for Passover six years earlier!

The charge was utterly untrue. But it got the knight's trial adjourned indefinitely. Local monks hailed William as a martyr. And this 'blood libel' against the Jews of Norwich spread. First in England, then in France, then all over, it proved a convenient tale for many. From then on, down through history, it became easier for unsolved murders of children in Europe to be pinned on Jewish communities. In the centuries to come, accusations like those led to exiles, tortures, burnings, and worse for the Jewish people.2

Now, what do these stories have in common? False witness, that's what. Licinianus bore false witness against Caesarius in accusing him of a treasonous conspiracy. The knight's defense bore false witness against the Jews in accusing them of a murderous one. And today, we're going to be looking at three types of false witness.

The first kind of false witness, you might call 'defamation.' That's a fancy word from a Latin root for 'spreading a bad report.' You might also call it 'calumny,' from a Latin root for 'accuse falsely,' or 'slander,' from the Greek word for 'scandal.' And whatever you call it, this involves making false negative claims about a person. As we talked about last Sunday, Jesus is the Truth, and so God calls people to be truthful. Lies – knowingly false words – are already ruled out. So it's obvious why knowingly false or knowingly exaggerated negative claims about a person, aiming to diminish his or her reputation, are worse still.

Nor is God shy in telling us just what he thinks of slander. “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD!” (Leviticus 19:16). The psalmists aren't shy either: “Let not the slanderer be established in the land – let disaster hunt down the violent man speedily!” (Psalm 140:11). “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly, I will destroy” (Psalm 101:5). But a righteous person “does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to a neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend” (Psalm 15:3). Jesus lists 'slander' and 'false witness' among things that 'defile' the one who speaks or writes them (Matthew 15:19-20). Peter urges: “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander (1 Peter 2:1). And Paul agrees with Peter: “Put... away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Colossians 3:8; cf. Ephesians 4:31).

The prophet tells us that it's a sad state of society when you can say, as he could, “Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer” (Jeremiah 9:4). But here we are today, and slander – to one degree or another – is a mighty common sin. You see it in our partisan divides, with terrible results. I've listened to some of my left-leaning friends slander everyone who votes the other way as being white supremacist, as irrational, as hateful, as backward. I've listened to some of my right-leaning friends slander everyone who votes the other way as America-hating, as stupid and senseless, as perverts, as sell-outs. Both are slanders, because most voters on either side want to better the country, according to their vision (right or wrong) of what a healthy society would look like. But I've had to give up friendships with some people because they just wouldn't stop slandering their political enemies.

Over a century ago, one Scottish preacher covering this commandment put it better than I can. He said, “The ordinary method of many politicians consists simply in blackening the character of their opponents. The public are invited to regard the leaders of one of the great parties as monsters who can never be guided by reasonable or patriotic motives, to attach to their utterances the worst possible meaning, and to see in their policy nothing but a tissue of personal ambition, jealousy, and cunning. It will be well if God grant us not to give ear to such bearing of false witness against public men as is plentifully practiced among us.”3 And isn't that true today, with how modern American politics goes? The politicians and pundits of one side want you to look at the politicians on the other side as monsters, to impute them bad motives, and to filter everything they say through the worst possible lens. And to accomplish that, they slander. They bear false witness. Too often, we parrot such slander.

But, of course, we encounter slander just as commonly in our personal life. That's hardly new, as our county newspapers bear out. A century and a half ago, the Lancaster paper remarked, “Deprive some of us of that great staple of conversation, slander, and some of us would be at a loss what to talk about. … There are people to whom slander is the very breath of their life: social spiders, hideous and venomous in secret, and in darkness they weave their webs of destruction.”4 And over the next decades, our county courts heard their fair share of slander cases. In the 1870s, I read of one fellow suing another in Manheim for passing along a made-up story claiming he'd been arrested for forgery.5 In the 1880s, one man sued another in Bart Township for “circulating reports that he was dishonest.”6 In the 1890s, one county doctor sued another doctor for publicly accusing him of perjury about a local ball player's injury.7 In the 1900s, a man sued his former Salisbury Township neighbor for postcard harassment accusing him of being a horse thief.8 In the 1910s, a fellow in Brecknock Township sued his neighbor for spreading rumors that he'd hired an arsonist.9 In the 1920s, one woman sued another in Christiana for “circulating reports affecting her reputation for chastity.”10 And on it goes.

But slander happens far more often than it gets brought to court. People insult each other, judge each other, misrepresent each other. People try to tear one another down. People spread nasty tales, impugn each other's motives, fire off accusations, say bad things about other people that aren't deserved. Bishop Caesarius warned against it, reminding us not to “speak ill of another,” not to “slander,” not to “bear false witness.”11 He said, “If you see obscene language, insults, curses, abuse, slander, or murmuring coming out of a man's mouth, you can clearly recognize who dwells within him” – the devil.12 But Caesarius also thought slander was a particularly challenging sin to avoid: “Who is there from whose mouth an evil word does not sometimes issue?”13 “Without effort, who can withdraw his tongue from slander?”14 And for that reason, he listed “refraining from slander and other evil speech” as a kind of “good work” on par with hospitality and visiting the sick.15

But there's another form of false witness we have to watch out for – and that's flattery, false positive claims for a person or a group. Israel's wise men used to say that “a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28), that “a man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5). The psalmists see flattery as another offense against truth: “They flattered him with their mouths, they lied to him with their tongues” (Psalm 78:36). They complain about how common it is: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor: with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:2). “For there is no truth in their mouth..., they flatter with their tongue” (Psalm 5:9). So they prayed, “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts!” (Psalm 12:3). That reminds us that, when flattery is applied to who you see in the mirror, it's called 'boasting.' To boast in anything under your control, or about yourself, is just self-flattery. The psalmists aren't fond of that, either: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes: you hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:5). Paul tells his churches that “we never came with words of flattery” (1 Thessalonians 2:15), unlike others out there who “by smooth talk and flattery... deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:18).

Once again, political flattery is every bit as common as political slander today. Just as we're always out to paint black the character of the folks on the other side of the political aisle, we're eager to whitewash the character of whoever's on our side. Things we'd furiously condemn if done by somebody in the other party? Put the other letter behind their name: we'll find some way of excusing it or changing the subject. We believe accusations easily when they're for somebody in the wrong party, but if the same accusations are made about somebody in our tribe, suddenly we insist on withholding judgment. That's flattery – we flatter the like-minded by insisting on their innocence and their virtue beyond what's merited. And when we wrap up our own identity in being a such-and-such voter or a so-and-so supporter, political flattery and political boasting have melded into one. No side of the aisle is immune. We've all heard people excuse their favored president for what they condemned the other guy for, be it sexual behavior, warmongering, cruelty of language, political record, you name it. Double standards abound. But if we aren't willing to call out bad ideas and bad conduct when they come from our political corner, but only when it's across the aisle, then we're flatterers. And that makes us false witnesses.

It gets personal, too. One major form of flattery is excusing somebody's sin, telling them either that it isn't sin at all, or that it's so minor they needn't worry about it. A common one in our day and age! We needn't rehearse what we've discussed under other commandments to be aware that there are massive movements pressing and seducing whole churches today into condoning this sin or that sin under the false name of 'tolerance.' And when they do so, when they excuse sin, that's flattery. But we mostly notice it only when it's flattery of sins that we here aren't already flattering. As we've learned these past few months, there are plenty of sins that Evangelical churches have been flattering so long that we no longer realize it's flattery. And of this, too, we need to repent. Caesarius compared it to medical malpractice: “Now if we are true spiritual physicians, brethren,” he said, “and attend carefully to the remedy of your souls, we should not flatter anyone, nor should you do so to us. Let us confess our sins, not excuse them.”16

But there are other types of flattery, too. There are compliments meant to manipulate: I say what I think will make you view me favorably so that I can get favors from you – or so I can put you at ease 'til I strike. There are praises meant to entrench you in a false self-image: I shield you from a realistic picture of yourself, thinking I'm helping but actually doing you a long-term disservice. Thanks to the 'triumph of the therapeutic,' that one's everywhere today. But even Caesarius had to call out “people who are in the habit of uttering sweet words with their lips in false flattery” – and he told them to “hold on to true charity and avoid everything false.”17

There's one more kind of offense we need to cover. Sometimes you'd call it rumor. Sometimes, innuendo. And other times, gossip. All are ways of dragging people down with negative claims or stories that might even be true or uncertain in their content, but are out of place. Israel's wise men connected slandering to the sin of “revealing secrets” (Proverbs 11:13; 20:19). Airing out somebody's dirty laundry in front of those who've got no justifying reason to take a peek – that's 'revealing secrets,' that's what gossip does. Paul worried he might return to a church and find it beset by sins like “contentions, slander, gossip, and conceit” (2 Corinthians 12:20) – and he was sharply critical of believers who “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they shouldn't” (1 Timothy 5:13). Paul – and God who inspired him – has a problem with babblers whose mouths are like a pot boiling over. And he's got an issue with the snake-charming whisperers who always hiss, “Pssssst, did you hear...?” But the wise know that “he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Proverbs 11:13) – not engaging in a cover-up (that would be a kind of flattery), but letting people keep their privacy and honor except when necessity demands otherwise.

And do we really need examples of gossip today? It's the magazines at the check-out line, offering you the 'real' scoop about celebrities' personal lives. It's the whispers around the neighborhood about your neighbor's private business. It's the deep-dive into somebody's personal struggles, disguised as a third-party prayer request. It's the complaint about somebody else that's aimed to bring down their esteem in the eyes of others. It's relishing aloud someone else's sins, especially when they offer such a convenient distraction from seeing our own. The Christian tradition warns that speaking gossip is a sin. And so does it warn against willingly listening to gossip, against being too eager for a glimpse at the dirty laundry of others when you've got no need to know.

We'd be wise to listen to Caesarius: “Let us strive to put an end to all idle gossip, calumnies, and buffoonery as much as we can.”18 Caesarius said that sharing “common gossip” was like spiritual bad breath, “exhaling an exceedingly foul odor.”19 “A person who is willing to be occupied with idle gossip incurs guilt for himself and others.”20 So “in conversation, at an assembly, on the road, or wherever we are,” he tells us, “let us hasten to reject idle gossip and biting jokes, and to speak the word of the Lord to the hearts of the faithful.”21

We could go on with kinds of false witness. Paul says that things like deceit, gossip, slander, and boastfulness flow out of “a debased mind” and are clearly things that “ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28-30). And Jesus warns us that “on the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Lies, slanders, flatteries, boasts, gossip, rumors – aren't those just some of the careless words we speak? And there are others. In one Anglo-Norman confessional manual from the Middle Ages, the commandment to not bear false witness was said to cover a whole lot of sins: “all forms of lie, perjury, hypocrisy, idle words, frivolous words, words that could cause shame to your neighbor, words full of malice, words full of blasphemy, unreasonable words, words where the devil is named, prideful and contemptuous words, words that spread discord, words of lechery, and foolish songs.”22 That's a long list!

But for just that reason, Caesarius thought it posed an opportunity to be truly heroic. See, in his time and place, the old Roman forms of persecution were over. Unless you went elsewhere as a missionary, you weren't at risk of dying for the faith, didn't seem to have the opportunity for heroic Christian life. But he preached, “There are martyrs even in our day! If a man reproves evildoers with justice and charity, or warns against... perjury, calumny, and slander, he will be Christ's martyr by giving testimony to the things which please God.”23 There's something about resisting false witness – resisting lies, slander, flattery, and gossip – that can put you on the line for Christ.

And that's because Christ so lived. Jesus was slandered often – accused of being in league with the devil, or of being a party hound, or of improper friendships with sinners. False witnesses perjured themselves to put him on the cross. But Jesus never slandered back. His criticisms of the Pharisees were only voiced to those who needed to hear for their own spiritual health. Jesus never flattered anyone, never gossiped. And as he hung on the cross, being spoken against by all the world, he died for them. And he rose again to clear us from the Great Accuser. For Satan flatters us into sin and accuses us once we sin. But Jesus presents us with our sin, opens our eyes, and takes it away, vindicating us from the devil's slanders. So let us slander or flatter or gossip about no one – not a relative, not a politician, not a neighbor, not a people. But let us speak the praise of the Risen Truth! Far from all false witness, let's be Christ's witnesses in the world, testifying with our lives and speech to what most pleases God. Amen.


Lord God of Truth, to you be all glory and honor. You have created us, and you have made us social beings who depend on a good reputation in life and who need to see ourselves and others rightly. So set a guard, Lord, over our mouths; keep watch over the door of our lips, lest we slander or flatter or gossip, lest we lie or deceive or speak carelessly. Preserve us from all these sins. Cover us with your truth and mercy. Make our words and thoughts such as we will be unashamed to own before your throne of judgment on high. Let us so refuse rumor and gossip that it will never be uttered in our presence. Let us so refuse flattery and boasting that we will confess daily before you. Let us so refuse slander that we will be known for our fairness to all. For every careless word we have spoken, purge it with the blood of Christ. For every injury to our reputation, vindicate us with the love of Christ. For every uncharitable thought we harbor, correct us by the wisdom of Christ. To his name we appeal for the gift of heroic testimony to all that pleases you, God. By your Spirit of Truth, Father, make us true witnesses. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

To Tell the (Un)Truth

This morning, I'd like to tell you two stories. The first takes place in August 1767. The place is France. In fact, it's in the vicinity of Paris. I'd like you to meet a man named Johann Schobert. Estimates of his age vary, and today no one's quite sure which of the German territories he was born in, but he's a gifted composer and player of the harpsichord. He's been hired as the court musician of a local prince. And one of his biggest fans and imitators is a brilliant young boy named Wolfgang Mozart. Well, one afternoon, Johann Schobert, his wife, his child, his servant, and a few friends were taking a stroll in the woods, on a hike, when Schobert spotted some interesting mushrooms. Now, mushrooms were his favorite food. I very much can't relate, but far be it from me to second-guess a man's tastes. So he gathered those mushrooms. As the daylight started to dim, he and his friends left the woods, and in the neighborhood of Marly, they found a tavern. Going in, they approached the chef and asked him to prepare them a lovely meal using those mushrooms. The chef took a careful look at them – and the chef said no. The chef said he couldn't do it, because these were not food. These were poisonous.

Now, this aggravated Schobert. Wasn't he a good enough connoisseur of mushrooms to know the difference? But it made him doubt at least enough, on their way out the door, to turn to one of his friends. See, this friend was a medical doctor. The doctor had been on that hike, had watched Schobert pick the mushrooms, hadn't made a peep. Was there a problem with these mushrooms? 'No, no, no!' the doctor insisted. He was a professional, and he was certain these mushrooms were perfectly edible. So they kept walking. Throughout their walk, one or another person turned to the doctor and asked if he was really sure. He kept saying the same thing. When they found another tavern, Schobert went inside and asked the same thing. The second chef gave the same response as the first: he could never serve these poisonous mushrooms to his guests.

But the doctor stuck to his guns. And Schobert was a mighty stubborn man himself, a great mushroom lover. And by this point, they were a very hungry group. So they all went back to Schobert's house in Paris, and Schobert told his servant to cook them a nice, quick supper with the mushrooms. And they had a wonderful meal. Until about 11:00pm, that is, when all seven of them collapsed on the floor. Through the night, they were afflicted by convulsions. It wasn't until noon the next day, August 26, that they were found. And medical care could do nothing. Schobert's child, just four, maybe five years old, was the first fatality. Johann Schobert's great musical career was ended died a few days later, on a Friday. His wife made it through the weekend. One by one, over the ten days after supper, they all succumbed to poisoning – including the reassuring doctor. The only survivor was a tiny baby, just a few months old, suddenly left without a family.1

The other story takes us forward in time, to the twentieth century, and I'd like you to meet a man named Trofim Lysenko. He's an up-and-coming scientist in the Soviet Union, born to a Ukrainian peasant family, and aside from his firm belief that acquired characteristics can be inherited by offspring, he's spent years working on ideas to turn winter wheat into spring wheat, and other thoughts on how to improve crop yields – important work, after the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. Lysenko had a penchant for sloppy reasoning and calculations, and didn't much care to be criticized. But his passion for agricultural progress earned him a fan in Joseph Stalin – and thanks to Lysenko's influence, many other scientists were run out of their careers or even put to death.2

Lysenko and his friends had very clear ideas about how to grow crops. He believed that tight-knit groups of the same species would treat each other as comrades, helping each other grow, and so you should plant seeds of the same kind as close together as possible. Stalin took massive areas of land and let Lysenko plant fruit trees there like that, practically atop each other. Sadly, it ruined all that land. Things just didn't grow.3 Lysenko's friend had a complementary idea. They said the good dirt is much deeper down, so if you want things to really grow, you have to plant the seeds a few feet deep, not just the usual six or eight inches.

Well, until Stalin's death in 1953, Lysenko ruled the roost in the Soviet sciences. And you know who were avid fans of Soviet science at the time? The Chinese. Lysenkoism was all the rage in Communist China until, with Stalin's death, he began to find critics again. In the late 1950s, Lysenkoism was on the retreat in China, except at Beijing Agricultural University.4 When the Chinese Communist Party collectivized the farms, they wanted to mandate set standards for how farming should be done. Lysenko's close planting made the cut, even though it was obvious it took massive amounts of seeds, which could be risky.5 Deep plowing was also on the list. The idea was that with these simple tricks, the farmland would double or triple its output. But in one province after another, local officials were seeing the opposite happen to the grain. Yields were dropping. But everyone was scared – an official who reported bad news about the official program might find himself arrested as an enemy of progress. So in province after province, the officials reported success. They overstated grain yields. Soon, the central government was in the sway of an 'illusion of superabundance.' Their estimate of the available grain throughout China was about four times more than they actually had. They allocated accordingly, beginning with urbanites and trusting the countryside to take care of itself. So began the Great Chinese Famine. Over the next couple of years, the low estimate of deaths is about 15 million people. Some say 55 million.6

Now, I want to ask you, what do these stories have in common? Where do they come together? It's in the value of truth – and the danger of missing its mark. Schobert's doctor friend sincerely told their group an untruth, and got him to ignore the truthful witness of the chefs. By acting on the untruth, seven people died. Just as that doc was wrong about mushrooms, Lysenko was wrong about agriculture. He spread his untrue ideas, with backing from the state. And by the time it filtered down to a China where officials were too scared to be honest about results, millions or tens of millions died. All for lack of the truth.

Two thousand years ago, a man posed an interesting question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). That courageous questioner's name? Pontius Pilate. Perhaps his asking wasn't very noble. But one of the important titles God lays claim to in the Bible is this one: “the God of Truth” (Isaiah 65:16) – literally, 'God of Amen.' Our word 'Amen' comes from the Hebrew word for 'truth,' which has the sense of something certain, something made firm, something reliable and faithful. It's the same reason why our English words 'true' and 'tree' are so much alike: they come down from related ancient roots for something that's well-established and sturdy. You could say that a statement is true to the extent that it's rooted deeply in the soil of the actual world – to the extent it's reliable, faithful to reality. And there's no higher reality than God, because God created everything that exists through his Word. Everything that exists gets its reliability from the Word of God. Creation is itself born into a covenant with God, and loyalty to that covenant is truth. So when God speaks, by definition what he says is the truth. “God... never lies” (Titus 1:2); indeed, it's “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). “I, the LORD, speak the truth,” he says (Isaiah 45:19). “The sum of your word is truth,” we reply (Psalm 119:160).

And Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, is identical to the same Word through whom all things were made (John 1:1-3), and in whom all things in creation hold together (Colossians 1:17). So when the Word entered the world he defined, he came to earth “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Because on the one hand, Jesus' entire being is flawlessly faithful to God, the Ultimate Reality. Jesus is the perfect Image of God (Colossians 1:15), showing God's reality and God's view of the world he made – which, by definition, is the faithful view, the realistic view, the right view. On the other hand, Jesus is the source and measure of all created things. Jesus is the reality to which creation is supposed to be faithful. That's why Jesus can honestly come down and tell us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Jesus is pure faithfulness incarnate. As God's Word, he faithfully defines all creation; but he wears our flesh, creation's flesh, so as creation to be perfectly faithful to who God is.7 That's why every word Jesus speaks is the truth. The whole reason Jesus came into the world, he said, was “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). And he unleashes a Holy Spirit who in fact is the Truth” (1 John 5:6). This Spirit of Truth is sent by Jesus to guide people toward the truth (John 16:13) – to teach us ever-greater faithfulness to reality as reality, in infinite ways, gives us glimpses of Jesus as its principle of coherence.

For just that reason, God charges us with being a people of truth. “O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth?” (Jeremiah 5:3). God “delights in truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6) and favors anyone who “speaks truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:2). God commands through his prophet, “Speak the truth to one another” (Zechariah 8:16). God commands through his apostle, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25). The very first part of God's armor we're invited to wear for life's battles is “the belt of truth” (Ephesians 6:14). And even love isn't really love unless it “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). The words we say, the lives we live, should be faithful, loyal to what is; and that's truth.

And so God told us this from the mountain: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That law was, first and foremost, for Israel's courts. It was given to protect God's people from being tarred with false testimony, anything that would “pervert justice” and ruin public trust (Exodus 23:1-3). But this command can't start and stop when people are under oath. You can bear false witness lots of ways and over lots of things. And that's no good. People have a right to pursue knowledge about the world. On that basis, people make their decisions. To bear false witness is to violate that right. And if Schobert and Lysenko taught us anything, it's that saying and doing what's false carries grave risks of being hurtful against our neighbors.

So what does God's commandment rule out? First of all, it rules out lying, it rules out deceiving, it rules out the intentional spread of falsehoods, intentional violations of creation's truth-covenant with God. This has always been pretty common. A psalmist worried, “All mankind are liars” (Psalm 116:11). A prophet complained, “Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies” (Jeremiah 9:5). The worst lies have always been idolatry and heresy: times when even whole nations have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” as Paul put it (Romans 1:25). But there are lots of lies out there, sometimes even on our lips. Maybe we lie about what we're up to. Maybe we lie about our motives. Maybe we lie about our age. We might lie on an employment application or time card. We might lie by getting forged papers to lie to the government and our neighbors. We might lie to a friend, lie to a child, lie to a spouse.

But God is clear: “You shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11). “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is for but a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). “No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes” (Psalm 101:7), for God “destroys those who speak lies” (Psalm 5:6). “As for... all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death,” the New Testament warns (Revelation 21:8). Don't lie.

God's commandment also rules out another thing, and that's hypocrisy.8 Jesus is always calling out the scribes and Pharisees as 'hypocrites' in the Gospels (Matthew 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:27). It's a Greek word that literally means 'answerers.' But ancient Greek plays had lots of questions and answers – the chorus would ask questions, and the actors on stage, wearing huge masks, would answer back. So these 'answerers' on stage became known for wearing these fake faces to conceal their real-life identities. They buried themselves in the role, for the sake of following the script. Over time, when the word leaked out of the theater, it became a dirty word to describe somebody who, in life off the stage, was putting on an act. A hypocrite is somebody who goes around with a fake face – putting on a show of goodness, but concealing the reality of himself.9 In other words, his or her very actions are deceitful. Inside and outside keep no faith. “You outwardly appear righteous to others,” Jesus said, “but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). Maybe your lips honor God, maybe your lips are drenched in his praises, but your heart might be a total mismatch (Mark 7:6). And that's lying.

It's written: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Catch that: If we pawn ourselves off to the world as better, if we try to sit on the judgment seat, if we claim exemption and immunity, if we refuse to look our sins in the eye first and admit them, then John reminds us we're self-deceived – we've tricked ourselves, detached ourselves willingly from reality. That makes us truthless liars. And such hypocrisy breaks the commandment. And it's written: “If anyone says 'I know God' and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Again, if we present ourselves as Christians, as followers of the Jesus who desires all to be saved and died for everyone, and yet we still nurture in our heart a division from somebody else who belongs to that same Jesus, then we have a problem – because while we say we're on Jesus' side, we're against his love for that person. That makes our Christian face toward the world a false face. We're only playing a role. Our professed knowledge of God is insincere. And that's another hypocrisy that breaks the commandment.

It's also written: “Whoever says 'I know him' but doesn't keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). If we call ourselves Christians, if we say we know Jesus and have a relationship with Jesus, and yet our lives don't bear the design of his word, if our actions answer to our whims instead of to God's loving authority, then our conduct undercuts our confession. Persisting in choosing sin while wrapping ourselves in Jesus' name – that makes us liars. Calling him Lord but plugging our ears when he starts talking – that makes us liars. Then the truth isn't in us. Hypocrisy like that? You guessed it: it breaks the commandment. So God tells us through the Apostle Peter: “Put away... all deceit and hypocrisy” (1 Peter 2:1).

There's a third thing ruled out by God's commandment, and this one might not have occurred to you. It's failure to verify information before we share it. Obviously, each of us goes through life being wrong about something – probably a lot of things. And many of them, we couldn't get right no matter how hard we tried. A thousand years ago, if you asked anybody on the street, they'd explain patiently to you how the sun goes around the earth, how disease comes from an imbalance in the body's temperature and moisture content, and so on. All wrong – but not blameworthy, just an accident, even when it caused hurt. On the other hand, plenty of us go through life being wrong about things we don't have to be wrong about – and even spreading our wrongness when just a bit more thought and work could've set us straight or at least humbled us into silence. And just as murder is worse but negligent homicide is still a crime, so lying may be worse but 'negligent truthicide' is still a crime.

Brothers and sisters, what I'm calling 'negligent truthicide' – choking off the truth by spreading misinformation negligently, when we could've known better if we'd just checked – is not what God wants. “You shall not spread a false report,” he says, not when you can help it (Exodus 23:1). But it happens all the time. One of the reasons I don't use the social media site Facebook any more is because, as political heat rose and social trust fell, so many family and friends seemed not just to have their own competing leanings but their own competing 'facts.' Over and over, people share 'shocking' stories or findings or arguments churned up by any number of faceless agitators or known agenda-pushers. People share these, not because they looked into them and found them true, but because they're pleasantly ear-tickling to the biases of your preferred political and cultural tribe. And yet, very often, those things you can share with a click are built on misinformation – falsehoods you can avoid. Maybe it's over a politician's voting record. Maybe it's about a medical treatment. Whatever the area, we have a God-given duty to avoid misinforming people, to avoid telling the untruth, anywhere we can help it.

Just yesterday, I saw the results of a brand-new poll. Guess how many Americans are apparently worried about the spread of misinformation in society today? Nineteen out of twenty – 95% of Americans. Four in five said they thought it was a major problem for American society. The survey found that about three in four Americans were somewhat or extremely concerned that they'd been exposed to misinformation – that some of what they'd personally been told was just junk. And almost half of Americans surveyed admitted being somewhat or very concerned that they themselves had been guilty of passing along something untrue.10 As Christians, how should we guard against that sin, whether by the click of a finger or the words of our lips? Take these five steps:

  1. First, before you pass along a contentious claim you see or hear, make sure you've heard and understood the other side. Don't forget what the Bible says: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). If you're uncritically listening to just one side and sharing whatever they say, and not letting the other side cross-examine it before you pass your verdict on, that's negligence. Let both make their honest case to you, or neither. Either way, be fair to all.

  2. Second, before you pass stuff along, make sure it's from somebody worth listening to about it in the first place. Israel's kingdom broke in half because King Rehoboam, even after getting sound advice from Solomon's seasoned policy experts, listened to his boyhood playmates instead – people with no qualifications, no expertise, no reason to credit them. So too, Schobert learned the hard way that neither he nor his doctor buddy knew mushrooms as well as a French chef. If the source of your information isn't qualified, doesn't have proven reliability or expertise, then don't give their opinion too much weight.

  3. Third, before you pass a claim along, make sure you've checked into the evidence behind it. The Apostle Paul repeats the Law: “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). One person's say-so doesn't cut it without corroboration. Check the work. Hunt for corroboration. See if the facts hold up to scrutiny. Beware of exaggerations and miscalculations like Lysenko's. More scrutiny would have done a lot of good there.

  4. Fourth, before you pass a claim along, make sure you know enough yourself to effectively weigh the evidence behind it. “Malicious witnesses... ask me of things that I do not know” (Psalm 35:11). Sometimes, it takes a lot of work and study to have an informed opinion about something. No one today is an expert on everything. It's prideful to think we can fairly judge every argument. We do well when we know our limits. If you can't pass a well-informed judgment, then don't pass it along as sure.

  5. And fifth, before you pass a claim along, make sure you're willing to be corrected. “Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32). When we're too convinced of ourselves to admit the possibility of our ignorance, when we're too bound up in ourselves to care about the facts, when we're too lazy to learn, God says it's as if we hate ourselves. And if that's so, then to risk spreading misinformation negligently or recklessly is an act of hating our neighbors. We'd be better off learning humility and gaining intelligence instead.

If any one of those is missing, danger is approaching. If we can't do those things, maybe passing that claim on isn't our place. Maybe there are better uses of our time and our voice. Maybe one of the ways Christians can work to heal our world's tattered social fabric is by reminding the world how to learn in humility and diligence. Maybe another way is by modeling for people how to admit we don't always have to have an opinion, and that it can be good to keep quiet about most things and to focus on what we're really about. Because if we go the other way – if we make a habit of passing claims along just because they fit what we want to hear, and we don't do our due diligence first to the truth – then we run a serious risk of negligent truthicide. And that's a sin.

Brothers and sisters, let none of this be us! We should prefer silence and humble learning over the prospect of negligently, recklessly, or intentionally being false, whether in word or in deed. We weren't sent into the world to save it by a falsehood. The Bible calls the Church “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). That is what we're about. Paul explains that our mission is to never work “against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8). Lies can't set the world free. Hypocrisy can't set the world free. Skating by our duty to verify before we assert something – that can't set us free either. Only the truth can set us free – the truth loved, welcomed, zealously pursued.. Because Truth in person said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my students, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

When we lie, when we deceive, when we play-act behind fake faces, when we treat the truth as an expendable option, or when we presume the truth is found wherever our hearts are tickled, then we might as well be crucifying the Truth. And that's been done before. For the story of our condition was summed up when the Truth was arrested by power, doubted by skeptics, beaten by the cruel, mocked by false teachers, abandoned by students, and yet still held all things together, and has since been brought to light and life again for good. And the Truth himself invites us to find our fire in him, and go forth as a people of truth again. True that. Amen.