There is an old story told about six blind men who are asked to describe an elephant. Having never seen an elephant, the blind men are brought to stand beside the elephant, and asked to describe, as accurately as they can, the nature of an elephant.
The narrative contains different details, in different ancient texts, but the essential story is always the same. In it, the first blind man touched a portion of the elephant’s long trunk, and declares, with confidence, that the elephant can best be described as being like a thick snake. The second man touches the elephant’s ear, and concludes that the elephant is like a large fan. The third touches the elephant’s leg, and states that the elephant is best described as a large tree trunk. The fourth touches the elephant’s side, and decides that the elephant most closely resembles a wall. The fifth feels the elephant’s tail, and states that the elephant was a long rope. And the sixth blind man feels the elephant’s ivory tusk, and stated that the elephant is hard, smooth and pointed at one – clearly, therefore, elephants are much like spears.
Finally, the Rajah, or king appears. He looks down from his palace balcony, observes the dispute that has begun between the blind men because of their differing experiences and perspectives, and clarifies that the elephant is, in fact, a large animal. The monarch was able to see the elephant, in its entirety, and to help the blind men to understand what an elephant is actually like.
The story is an ancient one, and offers an intriguing exploration of the nature of truth. On one hand, each of the blind men are speaking honestly about their experience. And yet, on the other hand, it was not until the king speaks that these various parts of the elephant are “put together” to form a more accurate and complete description of the actual nature of an elephant.
But more about that in a moment.
For those who pay attention to such things, this coming Thursday is often known as “Ascension Day” in the regular rhythm of the church year. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, since it is marked on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday. As we read in today’s suggested reading from the Book of Acts, “after his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
The four Gospel texts offer slightly different details in their accounts of Jesus’ departure, if they mention it at all, but the point is generally the same – after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he appeared to a number of his friends and followers, but after a time, he was no longer physically with them. He was gone. He had accomplished what he had come to do. He had prepared his followers to continue in his absence.
And they still had work to do.
Our reading from the concluding verses of the Gospel of Luke outlines some of the responsibilities and tasks that he was leaving them to fulfill. In verse 45, some of those tasks are articulated – “then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
It is that very phrase that I would invite us to pause and to ponder for a moment. “You are witnesses of these things.”
You are witnesses of these things.
But what does it mean to be a witness?
The answer is fairly straightforward. A witness is a person who seeks to offer an accurate recounting of what they have seen, experienced or observed. A witness is not called upon to embellish their words with unnecessary details, with speculations, or with their own elaborate interpretations about what what they saw. The responsibility of a witness is “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God.”
In some ways, this call to be a witness offers parallels with the experience of the blind men in the presence of the elephant. That is, each of them were asked to tell what their experience of the elephant was, to describe what they had touched and experienced. Their understanding of the nature of an elephant was informed by their personal experience, and they were relaying that information, bearing witness to what they had touched.
But the story is equally interesting in light of the fact that none of the blind men had all of the truth. For this reason, the story of the elephant has often been used as a parable about the nature of spiritual or religious understanding. Everyone, it is suggested, gropes toward an understanding of the nature of God, and different people’s experience can be quite different, even though each person is speaking honestly out of their own experience. Like the blind men, each one is bearing witness, accurately, yet their experiences, observations and conclusions can be very different.
But a question then arises. If each of our truths is only partial, and – like the accounts of the blind men – if each assertion is equally true, then how can we truly be witnesses, as Christ has commanded us to do? How can we tell the truth, how can we make any definitive truth claim about what we believe about God, about Christ, about faith, about life, if our truth is only one of many, none of which are any more accurate or complete than anyone else’s?
In this, there is a great challenge in this modern age. That is, one of the great questions at the heart of contemporary culture relates to questions about the absolute or relative nature of any truth claim. We wonder if there actually is any such a thing as absolute or objective truth, or is all truth a matter of personal interpretation?
As such, how can we be witnesses to what we believe to be true if all claims about truth are merely a matter of personal opinion or personal interpretation? How can we fulfill Christ’s words to be ‘witnesses of these things” if all that we have is our own personal, individual experience to go on?
One way to respond to such a question is to ponder the role of the Rajah in the story of the blind men and the elephant. That is, when the king – who sees the whole scene – speaks, suddenly all of the claims to truth that the blind men are making are put into context. Suddenly, if they listen to the king, their individual understandings, their personal observations and experiences of the elephant, while still completely true to their own experience, are nonetheless placed into the wider perspective which presents the whole picture of the nature of an elephant.
In light of the Rajah’s role in the story, consider the words immediately preceding Jesus’ mandate to his followers that they were to go out and be “witnesses of these things”. We read, “then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
In other words, before he sent them out to go and be witnesses of these things, he gave them the whole picture. As the text states, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and he explained to them, in the fullest sense, who the Messiah was, and what he had come to do. Like the blind men, his disciples had known him in certain ways – as a friend, as a teacher, as a healer, as a storyteller, as a visionary, as a persecuted and crucified man – but now, he was – as the text states – “opening their minds” so that they could understand him fully, and realize that what he had come to be and to do was all of what they had experienced, and more. He had come to die, to rise from the dead, and to call the world to repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins. He had come to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
Today’s suggested reading from Ephesians echoes this invitation to catch the bigger vision, to see the big picture of who Christ was and what he had come to do when it states, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
And later in that same letter, the writer articulates the transformed identity of those who catch this vision, who embrace the truth of who the Messiah is and what he had accomplished, when he wrote, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spirituallyinto a dwelling-place for God.”
To be witnesses to this great truth, to this expansive vision, to this transforming reality, is our calling as Christians, and as citizens of the kingdom of God. We proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the One who has died and risen and in whom is found forgiveness and life. We do not do so in arrogance, suggesting or implying that our own personal experience of this great truth is ever complete, any more than the personal experience of any of the blind men was complete – and yet, we nonetheless try to pass on the word and the vision of the One who is our king, in a way that might help others to come experience the fact that this good news is meant for this world that God so dearly and deeply loves.
Today, we come to the great king’s table, bringing to this table our own lives, our own experiences, our own partial understanding of truth, and seeking to be fed and enlightened, at this table, that we might go from this place to be witnesses to that great truth, and to be renewed as citizens of that great kingdom of love, of justice, of peace and of wonder, that kingdom that shall have no end.
So come to this table in joy, in humility and in faith – for the One who is truth calls you to meet him here.
Thanks be to God.