Faith seeking understanding #023: Tradition or the Spirit as our source of truth?

Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash.

Tonight, the gospel from the daily office came from John 7:37-52, in which Jesus causes a stir by prophesying that streams of living water will pour forth from the hearts of believers. This truth resonated with many in the crowd, some identifying him as “the prophet” and some identifying him as the Messiah. Others, however, disputed whether he could be either a prophet or the Messiah, maintaining that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, not Galilee (As they supposed was Jesus’ origin). Of course, the Pharisees got involved with the debate, calling the people cursed because they believed in Jesus’ significance as either a prophet or Messiah. They maintained that if the people knew the law, they would know that no prophet could come from Galilee. (I’m not sure, exactly, where in the Torah or elsewhere this was written, but the Pharisees were quite certain this was true.)

At first, I found the whole debate to be beside the point: who cares where truth comes from if it is actually truth? The naysayers and the Pharisees were challenging Jesus’ authority on the basis of where he came from, not necessarily what he was saying (although they would often take issue with the content of his proclamations as well). Their notions of authority (And, thus, the validity of Jesus’ statements) were based on their own reading of the law, not necessarily on whether what Jesus was saying made any sense to them or not. Someone, somewhere, they said, had written that the prophet or the Messiah had to come from a particular place, and they felt bound by this pronouncement.

But then I realized I was about to miss the entire point of what Jesus was prophesying. I was about to miss the whole point of his teaching. I would have been quick to challenge the judgment of the Pharisees and the naysayers on the basis of their criteria of what is true and what could not be true. I might have challenged them to show me in the scriptures where it was said that a prophet could not come from anywhere God chose to call a prophet. I would have tried to fight the battle on their own turf. And I would have probably lost.

Even if I had won a debate on those grounds, I would have lost something.

Because the whole point of Jesus’ teaching was that those who believed, who trusted Jesus would have streams of living water flowing out of them, given by the Holy Spirit. Here’s what the writer of the gospel had to say about it:

On the last day of the festival of Booths, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

—John 7:37-39, NRSV

What I gather from this is that the source of the living waters and he source of truth are the same: the source is (or will be, shortly) the Holy Spirit. The locus of this source will be inside the believers. The locus of authority, therefore, shifts from the Pharisees’ reading of the law to the heart of the believer, acted on by the direct influence of God.

This brings to mind a writing from the Pharisees’ own tradition which they carefully chose to ignore:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

—Joel 2:28-29, NRSV

Jesus, the true prophet, was announcing that this time was at hand. John is careful to note that the Spirit could not come until Jesus was “glorified” or crucified, but this event was not far off.

Jesus’ teaching, ironically, resonated with the Pharisees’ own tradition more powerfully than their interpretation of their tradition. The origin of Jesus aside (and it turns out that he was from Bethlehem) his truth resonated with ancient truth which in turn resonated powerfully with those who believed in the crowd.

This story made me wonder how to apply the lessons from this situation to our life today in the body of Christ. It occurred to me that we are living in the age of the Spirit. We are living in the age where the Spirit moves directly and powerfully in the hearts of believers—those who trust in Jesus’ teachings. The Spirit may—and probably will—resonate with the deep themes contained in our traditions, much as Jesus’ words resonated with those of the prophets who came before him, but the locus of authority is now the Holy Spirit.

We must be careful that our readings of our own tradition are consistent with the movement of the Spirit in the hearts of those who trust in God today. Perhaps, this spirit is best discerned in community. But the locus of authority is no longer the tradition alone. The truth is now pouring forth from the hearts of people transformed by the glorification—the death and resurrection—of Jesus Christ.

Which makes me wonder… we who have been so focused on our readings of the tradition, are we prepared to open our hearts to the wisdom pouring forth from our fellow believers? Are we willing to trust a little more the wisdom pouring forth from our own hearts?

In light of the teachings of Jesus as found in our traditions, I would suggest that we pray and trust the Spirit to bring us to an awareness of whatever truth the Spirit is willing to speak into our hearts today.

Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at joncarllewis@gmail.com.
May God richly bless you on your journey.

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Faith seeking understanding #023: Tradition or the Spirit as our source of truth?

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