“What Is Truth?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 5, 2016
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 & John 18:28-38
Each of my sermons this summer will begin with a question, a question that someone here today asked me to consider. I’m blessed by this challenge, and it is a challenge, because it gives me a good idea of what you are thinking about. Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the pace of life that it is easy to forget that we all have questions: questions about God, questions about faith, questions about what it means to be human, questions about what it really is to follow Jesus. This is a safe place to ask such questions. My hope in taking on your questions this summer is not that we come away with answers, but rather that we take time to slow down to consider the meat and bones of our faith. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or even any of them, actually. But what we have is this: we have each other as conversation partners, we have the Scriptures of our faith, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit. These three do not guarantee answers; they guarantee that in our search for answers we will come closer to God. And it is in coming closer to God that we gain wisdom, understanding, and the abundant life Jesus promises.
So to begin, I thought we would take up an easy question: What is truth? Pontious Pilate was neither the first to ask this question, nor is he is the last. What is truth? Are there smalls truths and big truths? Is truth negotiable? Does truth change? I imagine that the search for truth, and how to apply its many implications, is a search as old as the human race itself. It is most certainly one of the primary reasons that there are so many different expressions of faith in the world. Every tradition of faith came from a search for the truth, and each claims certain things to be true. Every tradition of faith invites its followers to subscribe to these truths and apply them in daily life. For the big three, the three traditions that believe in one God—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—truth and God are one in the same…find God and you will find the truth.
Today I want to suggest to you that truth in Christian faith is not simply a list of claims to subscribe to, but a way of life where we join our hearts and minds with the heart and mind of God. Instead of thinking of truth as fast and hard, black and white, I believe Jesus invites us to think of truth active something active and dynamic, as active and dynamic as God.
Jesus was brought to Pilate by a crowd that had been convinced by the religious establishment that Jesus needed to be snuffed out. It is Friday morning during Holy Week, and Jesus has already been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and convicted by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Both the High Priest and the Sanhedrin pass Jesus off to Pilate, claiming that they do not have the power to put someone to death. In reality, they did have the power to put someone to death. They were simply afraid. They were afraid to do anything with Jesus because they were afraid of losing the appearance of holiness they held onto so tightly. The charges against Jesus were of a religious nature; of course this was the jurisdiction of the High Priest and the religious council. By passing Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, they could wash their hands of anything that happened to Jesus. If Jesus turned out to be who he claimed to be, and was still put to death, they could call foul on the Roman government and wage a holy war against the state. If Jesus turned out to be guilty, of blasphemy or sedition or whatever, and then put to death, then they could praise the Roman government for being a friend of the faith.
Pilate was way out of his comfort zone in dealing with Jesus, and yet he did his due diligence. Several times Pilate tries to pull from Jesus the reason why so many wanted him dead. Several times Pilate went out to the crowd to let them know that Jesus was innocent. In the final exchange between Pilate and Jesus we start to see what Jesus envisions as truth for those who follow him.
Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus replies: “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.” This leads us to believe that the kingdom of Jesus is someplace other than here on earth, a physically different location. This makes Jesus like E.T.; he landed on earth, did some good and kind things, then phoned and returned home. But that’s not quite right. Jesus isn’t saying that is kingdom is in another location. When Jesus points out to Pilate that his followers aren’t taking up arms to defend him, Jesus is saying that his kingdom does not play by the rules of this world. When the leader of a powerful movement is taken hostage and wrongly condemned to death, the rules of this world call us to fight for them, with words and weapons, until that leader is set free. This is not so with Jesus; his kingdom, he and his followers, don’t play like that. His kingdom isn’t like this world, so those in his kingdom are called to act completely different.
Pilate isn’t following along. That is obvious when he asks Jesus again, “So you are a king?”. Jesus answers back, “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.” Jesus will not confirm that he is a king because the gap between what Pilate understands a king to be, and the kind of king Jesus is, is far too wide. Instead, Jesus reiterates his mission. The mission of Jesus was to come into the world and testify to the truth, to testify to God. It was the reason he was born, it was the purpose of his ministry, and it is what led him to the cross. Everyone who belongs to the truth, Jesus says, listens to his voice.
This should sound familiar. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd…My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” By linking the image of a shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him, with his mission to testify to the truth, Jesus is making the claim that to know him is to know the truth. Jesus is claiming that if his followers listen to him, flock to him as their caretaker and protector, they will know the truth. The followers of Jesus will know the truth because Jesus is one with God, the essence and inspiration of all truth. When his followers follow him, they will belong to the truth.
Pilate then asks the infamous question: “What is truth?” This is much more than a flippant remark spit at a dead man. Pilate’s question reveals that he still does not get it. Pilate doesn’t get that Jesus doesn’t play by his rules. Pilate doesn't understand that truth is found in following Jesus. Pilate doesn’t get that truth is as much an act as it is a belief.
If Pilate had heard the voice of Jesus, he would not have even entertained the idea of putting an innocent man to death. If he had listened to the voice of Jesus he would have easily seen through the plot to kill Jesus for what it was: a play for power, not a search for justice. If Pilate had listened to the voice of Jesus he would not have presided over a government notorious for persecution and imbalances of power and wealth, but one that was built on equality and true justice. If Pilate had listened to the voice of Jesus he would have worked to end the religious tension in Jerusalem, tension created by religious extremism and violent fear. If Pilate had listened to the voice of Jesus he would have ended the mass executions of Rome, handed down to anyone who stepped out of line. If Pilate had listened to the voice of Jesus the worship of empire, the worship of the emperor, the worship of power and might, would have been replaced by the worship of God, ushering in a time of peace and unity.
And why? Why would Pilate’s life and work have been so different? Well, because of the things Jesus told his followers. Jesus once told his followers that disagreements and charges are to be settled in a civil and calm manner, remembering that no one can claim absolute innocence. Jesus once told his followers a parable about two men, one rich and one poor, about how the rich man was condemned for his thirst for power and how the poor man was quenched in his thirst for justice. Jesus once told his followers that the poor in spirit are blessed, because they will inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus once said that it was harder for a greedy person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Jesus once told his followers that vengeance, wrath, was God’s, and God’s alone. Jesus once commanded to his followers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Pilate wanted a list, black and white facts, answers that were easy to understand. What he got instead, what we get instead, is an invitation. Jesus issues an invitation to his followers to a new way of life totally encapsulated in the life of God. This life recognizes the sacred dignity of all life, because in God’s image we are created. This life recognizes that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but that sins have been forgiven and grace rolls down like a mighty river. This life does not seek power and fame, but strives for justice and peace even when it is most difficult and costly. This life will not bow to the power of oppression or stand by when one of God’s children is being trampled by the world, by evil, or by another child of God. This life recognizes that truth is not about checking boxes on a list in order feel good, but about being one with God, in heart and mind and body and soul, and living each day for God’s glory as one who has been redeemed by Christ.
You see, my friends, we find truth by following the way of Jesus. We find truth when we pour ourselves out in love, for God and for one another. We find truth by recognizing the blessings of Jesus on the poor, the grieving, the hungry and thirsty, the persecuted and slandered. We find truth when we lay down our lives in order to take them up again. We find truth when we act as the Good Samaritan did, or receive help gratefully from someone who is our ethnic or religious opposite. We find truth when we sow the seeds of faith, confident not in our ability to make things grow, but in God’s ability to bring fruit out of even the most stubborn and infertile soil. We find truth when we approach one another in such a way that respects and dignifies the sacred image of God in each person. We find truth when we approach the world not with skepticism or fear but with wonder and a willingness to be surprised. We find truth when we meet violence with olive branches and not with more violence. We find truth when we seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, but in his kingdom is truth and life. If we are really seeking to find and understand truth, we must start with Christ, we must listen to his voice. It is not an easy place to start. In fact, the first thing Jesus asks us to do is take up our crosses and follow him. Following Jesus leads to death. But following Jesus also leads to life.
Today I invite you to consider a few more questions. You claim to be a follower of Jesus, but are you really following him? Are you following Jesus or are you following some image or interpretation of Jesus that is your own? Are you searching for the truth God proclaims or the truth that the world proclaims? Are you willing to give up any false truth that you have picked up along the way so that God’s truth can wiggle into your life? Are your ears open to hear the truth today that you are a child of God, called and claimed and loved, and sent out into the world to live in peace and love? Is your heart open to accept the truth that Christ died for your sins to set you truly free? Are you ready to give up your preconceived notions of God and cling to the truth that God is way bigger than the mess and the pain and the suffering? Will you accept the truth today that God loves you just as you are, just as God created you to be? Are you ready to enter into the dynamic and active truth of God, the active and dynamic life of God, and be changed?
What is truth? It is Christ and today he is inviting you, he is inviting me, and he is inviting all of creation to take up a cross and follow him. Take up your cross and follow him, today and forever, and you will find truth, and the truth will set you free. Amen.