March 11, 2018 Sermon
What is Truth?
First Scripture Reading: John 18:28-32
28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” 32 (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Second Scripture Reading: John 18:33-40
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
What is Truth?
This passage begins and ends (and is filled with) with tension about truth.
It begins with a scene that seems to paint truth as ambiguous. John says the religious leaders took Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters, but they refused to go into Pilate’s headquarters for fear of becoming ritually defiled, ritually unclean. In other words, they did not want to do something OFFENSIVE to God. On the other hand, the religious leaders took Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters to ask for the death of God’s Messiah. So…the religious leaders ostensibly didn’t want to do something offensive to God, but they were ok with asking for the execution of God’s Messiah. What…is…truth? Did the religious leaders really care about offending God…or did they just care about APPEARING to offend God?
But that’s not the only problem with truth at the beginning of this passage. Perhaps you know this, perhaps you don’t, but by the time of Jesus, the religious leadership of God’s people had made some modifications to God’s commandments given through Moses concerning killing – not murder, but killing, as in righteously putting someone to death…which WAS allowed in God’s commandments through Moses. By the time of Jesus, the religious leaders had made so many rules regarding putting someone to death that there was virtually no way for THEM to put someone to death…but, do you know what they COULD do? They could hand someone – like Jesus – over to someone ELSE, like a Roman authority, like Pilate, who would put Jesus to death, after which they could claim they had no part in Jesus’ execution. Again, the religious leaders were interested in the APPEARANCE of keeping with God’s perceived desire of putting no one to death. What is truth?
And then there’s Pilate. Pilate had no problem with Jesus; Jesus hadn’t broken any of Pilate’s laws, any of Rome’s laws, not the kind that warranted an execution…and yet Pilate was willing to put Jesus to death if that’s what the people wanted. What is truth? Is truth that a person is a criminal as a result of committing an actual crime or that a person is a criminal because the masses believe the person is a criminal?
There seems to be an undercurrent here that the powerful people of the world think truth is whatever they say it is…at least in the first century. If the religious leaders proclaimed themselves clean by following a few rituals, they were clean…regardless of whether or not they really were clean. If the religious leaders claimed it was not THEM who were putting Jesus to death – it was the Romans – then it was not them. If Pilate said the crowd got to determine whether or not a person was a criminal – rather than the person’s actions – then the crowd got to make the determination. In all of those instances, actual truth mattered not at all compared with the truth manufactured by powerful people.
And so it might seem that what we we learn from this passage is that there is no real truth, that truth really is something to be manipulated by the powerful – whoever has power in any given situation. But I would suggest the message of this passage is exactly the OPPOSITE.
I would suggest the whole reason the gospel writer John presents the story the ways he does is to contrast the world’s flexible attitude, ambiguous attitude, toward truth with one of God’s fundamental teachings through Jesus, which is this: we can try to claim truth is whatever we want it to be, but there really is a truth – no matter what we try to claim. More simply: there REALLY…IS…A…TRUTH.
I know this might be difficult to believe or even hear in our world today:
- Periodically throughout my life, I’ve debated this topic ad nauseum with my brother. It seems like it comes up just about every time we end up in the same room together anymore and most times we have a phone conversation. Even as an engineer with heavy education in the sciences, Andy insists there is no black or white but rather shades of gray. There’s no absolute truth. Everything is relative. Truth is SITUATIONAL. And he occasionally claims me to be some kind of extremist, some kind of radical, for suggesting there IS an absolute truth, there IS a right and wrong. It can be difficult to claim there’s an absolute truth when proclaiming as much puts you at odds with others, even your own family.
- It’s most definitely difficult – for me anyway – to contemplate the existence of truth when I read the news. Consult two different news sources on just about any topic these days, and as long as those news sources come from different political leanings – as if political leaning has anything to do with truth – you’ll receive what appears to be completely opposite sets of facts. How can there be opposite sets of facts? Anyway, for us, the consumers of news, this reality makes it difficult to believe there’s a truth…since it seems that even supposedly objective journalists can make the facts whatever they want them to be, the TRUTH whatever they want it to be.
- And since we’re in Church, I should at least address the difficulties associated with hearing that there really is a religious truth. Especially in our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), hearing that there really is a religious truth can be difficult…because we encourage people to discern truth for themselves rather than tell them they must believe what we think the truth is – rather than ME tell YOU what truth you must believe. The end result is that even in one congregation, like this one, we’ve got hundreds of different people with hundreds of different ideas about truth…which can make it really difficult to believe there really IS a truth.
- And, of course, this is an issue beyond just one denomination, even beyond the universal Church, because the Church doesn’t even come close to encompassing all religions. With Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is and others all answering the same questions with different answers, different truths, some people might wonder how anyone can say with certainty ANYTHING about God?
- I probably don’t even need to address how technology and social media play a role in this. We’ve got access to pictures and video footage from cell phones and audio recordings along with eyewitness accounts of purportedly true stories available about EVERYTHING…and yet, the still images and the video footage and the audio recordings and the words of eyewitnesses all seem to tell different stories…so we simply don’t know what the truth is…which might make us wonder if there IS a single truth.
So…as difficult as it is to discern truth in our society…how can I tell you that the message from God from our scripture is that there IS A TRUTH?
The answer is a lot simpler than you might think. The only reason answering the question SEEMS complicated is because the confusers – represented by the Jewish leadership and Pilate in our scripture reading for today – have gotten really good at confusing, really good at getting you to question truth.
The simple answer is this: every time something happens, SOMETHING really did happen. There is a truth to what happened. You might not KNOW the truth, but that doesn’t change the reality of it. You’re not KNOWING the truth doesn’t change the truth.
- No matter what the Jewish leadership said they did or did not do, they actually sent Jesus off to be crucified;
- No matter what the Jewish leadership said, each individual in that group actually knew whether or not he wanted Jesus to be crucified;
- No matter what Pilate said, Pilate really did let the crowd determine Jesus’ guilt rather than allowing Jesus’ actions determine Jesus’ guilt;
- Certain things actually HAPPENED – no matter how humans tried to spin them;
There IS a truth to everything:
- Somehow, the world came into being. There IS a truth to how it happened. We may or may not know what that truth is, but it really did happen in a specific way;
- Something happened with a person known as Jesus of Nazareth about 2,000 years ago. Was he God in human form? Was he crucified? Was he resurrected? I BELIEVE I know the answers to these questions, you BELIEVE you know the answers, and others believe they know the answers. And we might disagree. But that doesn’t change the reality that there IS a truth to what happened.
- Every time we pick up a newspaper or log onto a news site on the internet and read a story, there is a truth:
- A person either committed a crime or didn’t;
- A person lied or didn’t;
- A politician wants what’s best for us or what’s best for that politician;
Y’all, there always IS a truth. We might know what it is; we might not.
Which brings me back to God, to Jesus, and to our scripture reading for today. There ALWAYS is a truth. Something happened. And the reality that powerful people will try to manipulate the truth for their own purposes hasn’t changed at all in the last 2,000 years. That’s exactly what was going on with the religious leadership and with Pilate when it came time to crucify Jesus: how could the truth be manipulated so they could get what they wanted without also getting the negative side effects of what they wanted? How could they get what they wanted without the truth being seen, known, by everyone else?
Y’all, there is ALWAYS a truth. As followers of Jesus, followers of God, our job is to always, always, ALWAYS do our best to be a part of the truth, to always do everything we can to discern and reveal the truth, even to be honest about when we’re not 100% sure what the truth is. Our job is to be a part of the truth, to reveal the truth, instead of MANIPULATING the truth, creating and spreading a FALSE TRUTH, to get what we want.
Oh…and if you want to know what the truth is….Jesus told you how, right at the end of this passage of scripture. “[Jesus] came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to [His] voice.”
When it comes to the big picture stuff at least, if you want to know what the truth is, go back and read what Jesus said. If you want to reveal and spread the truth, say what Jesus said. If you want to live the truth, follow Jesus’ example; do the kinds of things Jesus did. It’s really not that hard, not at all. But, it requires a commitment to some things that are very different than what our society uplifts:
- If you like democracy – which, by the way, is great as a political system, and I’m not knocking it – but if you like democracy and want to bring it into the Church and let the whims of people determine what we do here, that’s NOT what Jesus said. When it comes to being Church, to being people of God, Jesus said to let God be in charge, not us;
- If you like placing your biological family first, and you think that’s what God wants for this world, I’ve got news for you, that’s NOT what Jesus said;
- If you like using your resources – time, talents, money, materials stuff – for yourself and your family and friends PRIMARILY, that’s NOT what Jesus said to do.
- If you want to delegate the responsibility to take care of people in need, I’ve got news for you, Jesus said he wanted YOU, each and every person, to make that choice for yourself, to NOT delegate it to someone else;
- If you want to keep the gospel to yourself, even to say that your faith is something that’s just between you and God, nice try, but that’s about as far from the truth Jesus revealed as you can get. Jesus is the guy who said, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
- And if you want to follow Jesus by believing in your head, alone, and doing nothing else, remember Jesus’ words about how people will know we are his followers: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Y’all, there really is a truth. And I get it, we can’t ALWAYS know what the truth is…even though that doesn’t take away the reality of truth. BUT…Jesus did reveal ENOUGH truth for us to cling to together; Jesus did reveal enough truth to guide us into being Church, into being congregation; Jesus did reveal enough truth to guide pretty much everything we do together. As we proceed into the future, let’s be united in the truth taught and exemplified by Jesus. Amen.