Truth is not a thing to be grasped or fought over; Truth is the One who is God-with-us, who gives us and the world life when we abide in relationship with this Truth.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Reign of Christ, Last Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 34 B
Text: John 18:33-37 (added 38a)
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“What is truth?”
Pilate’s question lingers over this story, over Jesus himself.
And it’s a potent question in our day. Today there isn’t even agreement amongst ourselves as a nation about whether facts are static, real, measurable things. People can, and do, shout “Fake news!” any time something is said that is inconvenient or troublesome to their public persona or point of view.
Truth has become relative. No one can stand in the public square and declare, “This is the truth” without many disputing it. Not on the grounds that the truth is something else, but still discoverable, but on the grounds that “that’s not my truth.” The bitterness and spite in our public arena is amplified by each group or person claiming “their” truth is the only truth, while treating the facts and truth others speak as make-believe or personal opinion.
Yet, we gather here each week with a shared understanding. We believe, and we believe together. Coming here we have an expectation of some kind of agreed-upon truth. We might disagree about nuance or interpretation, but our gathering here together, as a community in worship, implies that as a community we seek truth together, that we even find truth together.
So, Pilate’s question is still vital for us. What, indeed, is truth? Well, it depends on what you mean by truth.
For Pilate, truth was a complicated goal.
Already on a short leash from the Roman emperor due to previous missteps in his governance, this prefect of the troublesome province of Judea faced the truth that he might lose his job. What information he had about Jesus’ case is unknown. As we heard, Pilate wants to know if Jesus is the King of the Jews. Which could translate, “King of the Judeans.” Since Pilate was the Roman prefect of the Judeans, the sole authority in the empire for that province, if Jesus was claiming overlordship of that province, Pilate needed to know.
Perhaps Pilate really wanted to know the truth of Jesus’ case. Is he a criminal or is he innocent? Does he claim to be a king or not? Is he a revolutionary threat or a harmless lunatic? What we do know is that after Pilate said, “What is truth?” he immediately went out and told the religious leaders that he “found no case against [Jesus].”
Seemingly he found the truth about Jesus: the charges were unfounded. And yet, he still issued an order of execution for a man he had declared to be innocent. Truth, for Pilate, seems to be whatever will keep him in his job longer.
The truth about Jesus is also complicated for Christians.
There’s likely nothing Christians have fought over, hated each other about, and broken the community of Christ for more, than the truth about Jesus.
Is Jesus God or is Jesus a human being? Is Jesus a king or is Jesus a servant? Is Jesus a shepherd, or is Jesus a sacrificial lamb? Is Jesus a peacemaker or does Jesus bring a sword?
Generally the Church tries to nail down these paradoxical realities of what the Scriptures say about Jesus into an agreed doctrine. So, for example, in the fourth century, long, drawn-out theological battles over the “true” nature of Christ Jesus finally led to the formation of the Nicene Creed we still proclaim. Fully God, fully human, the Church declared, and used carefully chosen theological terms, as if somehow we could parse out the very details of the mystery of the Son of God in meaningful distinctions.
But if we pay attention to Jesus in John’s Gospel, truth is not something to be nailed down.
John’s Gospel weaves the word “truth” throughout, and it’s not about having your facts straight.
In John 1, we hear that “the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” So, Christ Jesus, God’s eternal Word who participated in creation and now has taken on human flesh, brings “truth” into the world.
Then, in John 8, Jesus says: “If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples [my followers, my learners]; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Now the eternal Word of God, in human flesh, invites those who would follow him to abide, live, continue in this same Word of God, and find truth that frees.
But in John 14, Jesus makes the truth about truth abundantly clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This is the great wonder: The Truth is in fact the Son of God himself, the Incarnate Word. Truth isn’t something we can grasp or fight over. Truth isn’t something I have and you don’t. Truth is a Someone. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” means we don’t find God by knowing or believing the right things. It means the One who is Truth embodied brings us to God.
The true Truth cannot be controlled, boxed up in a perfect theology, or fought over. The true Truth can only be known in relationship.
This is what Jesus wants Pilate to see.
It isn’t whether Jesus claims to be a king as Pilate defines king. Jesus asks, “Do you say I’m a king on your own, or did others tell you?” Jesus wants to know what Pilate says of him, what he claims. The only ones who know Truth, Jesus says, are “my followers.” The only ones who know the Truth are the ones who live in relationship with the Truth, with Jesus.
“Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says. You don’t belong to a thing, to an abstract argument, to a stated fact. You belong to a Someone, to a Person. And in belonging, you hear that Person’s voice and follow.
So too, we find the true Truth, the Incarnate God in our lives, not by argument but by living with the One who is the Truth.
“If you continue in my Word, live in my Word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. I will make you free.”
True followers live in the Word and in relationship with the One who is the Truth. Is Jesus a king or a servant? Instead of arguing that out, trying to teach the truth, Jesus put on a towel, knelt, and washed his followers’ feet. In relationship, Jesus showed them Truth. And then he said, “Go, do the same. Be like me, live as servant. Be the Truth yourself.”
And Jesus didn’t make a philosophical argument about the kind of King he was, or a theological lecture about self-giving, sacrificial Love. He allowed himself to be arrested, tortured, and executed, and in the power of God’s eternal life, rose from the dead as Ruler of all things. In relationship, on the cross Jesus showed them Truth. And then he said, “Go, do the same. Be like me. Love, as I have loved you. Be the Truth yourself.”
The question isn’t “what is truth?” It’s “Who is Truth?”
And thanks be to God you have met this Truth in Word and Sacrament, in this community of children of God formed by God’s love and grace. Here you live as Truth to each other, and by your lives witness to the undying love of God that fills you and all things. Here you learn to follow, to love, to serve, to abide in Truth for the sake of the world. And for your own sake.
And this One who is Truth truly makes you free.
In the name of Jesus. Amen