HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the SEVENTH SUNDAY of EASTER (B) 2018
Today, in these days when we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit the communicator of truth, today – in part of the Church at least – is Communications Sunday. The initiative for this came from the Roman Catholic Church during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, and eventually it was adopted by the Anglican Communion back in 2003. It was still officially being observed by Anglicans in 2013, but since then it seems we officially have no interest in such matters – and I cannot find any reference to this observance at all since that date. Pope Francis, however, issued a statement for this Sunday (some time ago in fact) which is a warning to Christian people about the spiritual dangers of Fake News.
Good communications are important for everyone. As it happened, yesterday morning early on the BBC news channel I saw a couple of horrendous fake news stories, which had been cleverly disguised to look as if they were genuine BBC news stories. Given the international reputation of the BBC, this was seen as a very serious matter – and whilst it is often relatively easy to spot counterfeit e-mails, these pieces looked to be perfectly genuine. Though extremely disturbing, as one of them had a couple of Russian destroyers opening fire on NATO warships off the coast of Scandinavia.
Why do people do this kind of thing? Well sometimes it is just for the purposes of mischief. An April Fools’ joke or something like that. But as Pope Francis points out, fake news can also be spread in order to deliberately deceive and mislead the reader for specific goals – like influencing macro-economics, or changing political opinion. In short the root of all this is a sinful desire for power over other people in some way or another.
Interestingly, Pope Francis traces the origins of fake news back to the Garden of Eden! And the tactics, he sees, are the same as those employed by the serpent. Start with a modicum of truth – Did God really say that you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? And then, when the dialogue is begun, the serpent continues – of course you will not die. God knows that the day that you eat it, your eyes will be opened.
There is just no such thing as harmless disinformation. On the other hand, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, the truth will set you free. Living a lie or living on the basis of lies, is profoundly disabling – it prevents us respecting one another or properly loving one another.
Today’s Gospel – part of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer – recognises this. Jesus prays for his followers, that we may be protected from the evil one, the father of lies. He prays that we may be sanctified in the truth of God’s word, the ultimate word of truth. He goes on to speak of his consecration of himself that his followers may be also consecrated in truth.
This prayer is also a prayer for unity – a unity with and in God and with one another that will be achieved through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in these days especially we pray for that gift as we move towards Pentecost Sunday next week. Being that Sunday of prayer for the Holy Spirit in the days between Ascension and Pentecost is the reason why it was chosen as Communications Sunday in the first place. Though not because the gift of the Holy Spirit is like some magical infusion that will unfailing lead us to truth. The gift of the Spirit will lead us to truth, but not magically.
The Holy Spirit for whom we pray is the nearness of God the Father and God the Son, the love that unites them, the power of self-offering given to the Son in obedience to the Father. An obedience which is never coerced from the Son by a dominating Father. This Spirit of mercy, truth and love is the One who leads us into all truth, for the Spirit leads us into the very heart of God. The Spirit brings us close in all things to the Risen Christ, brings us to an ever deeper union with God in Christ. And so into truth. Truthfulness in our relationships, one with another. Truthfulness in our relationships with the environment we share. Truthfulness in our relationship with God in Christ. But none of this happens by magic. To discern truth is to discern where the Spirit of God may be found. And it is found where communion is fostered, and that means in turn where isolation, division, and opposition between people is completely rejected. Where the crafty lies of Satan’s seductive voice remain unheard.
None of this is easy for us these days. Most of us value the internet – a ready source of information, and a great means of communication. Yet like all things human it is deeply flawed. Deeply flawed because as well as the positive benefits it brings, it is equally capable of being a tool by which humans are diminished and subjected by the powerful. So much of the world news media, digital or otherwise, is controlled by a handful of powerful men. We see all too often just how powerful they prove to be. And how so often that power is manipulated and used destructively.
Now to speak of truth these days is to invite from many the sceptical response of Pontius Pilate – Truth? What is that? The objectivity of truth itself is questioned and challenged – does it not, many argue, depend solely upon the viewpoint of the beholder? What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me. Certainly scientific thinking has insisted that we become less absolutist about what the truth of material things. The hidden-ness of being remains to some extent always hidden, always a bit beyond us, and what is unveiled of that hidden-ness is affected by the person observing it. We cannot be as absolute about the truth of material being as once we were. And from a theological standpoint that is not always a bad thing.
Yet as Christians, we always have to say more about truth. Jesus – earlier in that farewell discourse in John’s Gospel – speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Christ, we see truth – about humanity, the full potential of human living – about how we are to live in that humanity – about the God with whom we are to enter a life-giving relationship. We are pointed in the direction of Christ to discover that truth, though the full unveiling of it will take our own lifetimes and maybe longer. The gift of the Holy Spirit, for whom we pray at this time, opens our eyes and hearts to discern where we may find that truth.
This impacts upon the whole of life. Pope Francis’ message for this day concludes with a plea for a journalism of peace. One characterised by a profound respect for truth, and an opposition to falsehood, sensationalism, and populist rhetoric. One which is at the service of people rather than at the service of market forces. One that looks for the underlying truths in order to promote virtuous processes of healing, justice and peace.
We don’t have to be journalists to do this! As we pray for the gift of the Spirit, may that Spirit help us to discern truth, and grow in the virtues which will bring that healing, justice and peace to the areas of life where we do have influence. And above all truthfulness in all that we are and do.