Text: John 18:33-38 (“What is truth?”)
The conversation between Jesus and Pilate in today’s reading has a modern ring to it. Pilate is the Roman governor in Jerusalem, and he is interrogating Jesus on the day we call Good Friday. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. But instead of answering the question directly, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth.
Really? Jesus’ one purpose is to bear witness to the truth? Not to heal the sick, wake the sleeping, teach the ignorant, confront the Empire, confound the religious elite, and die for our sins, just to bear witness to the truth? Perhaps all of the above are contained in Jesus’ statement about truth. But this does not strike me as obvious.
Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his friends that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way of Jesus is one of self-sacrificial love and of communal solidarity. It is also about truth.
Pilate responds to Jesus with a question that sounds like it was ripped from today’s headlines: “What is Truth?” For as long as humanity has been divided into competing classes, tribes and nations, truth has been a question of power. Society cannot function without a shared understanding of reality. So, people with a particular interest fight to define reality in order to maintain power.
Is a government helping us, or should it be opposed? Should husbands lord it over their wives or should married couples strive for equality? Should we work for peace with justice or should the strong countries conquer the weak ones? Many such questions are posed to us but not always answered.
In today’s reading, Pilate tries to determine if the charges against Jesus by the religious elite are true. They claim that Jesus is masquerading as the King of the Jews, which would be an act of treason in Roman-occupied Jerusalem.
At first, Pilate doesn’t buy the claims of the Temple authorities. But in the face of mob agitation, Pilate accedes to their wishes and orders that Jesus be killed. In a dangerous situation, Pilate decides the only truth he is interested in is what will maintain his unjust status quo.
What is truth? Perhaps it is whatever the powerful decide!
As followers of Jesus, we work to create the realm of God. This realm would have many virtues compared to today’s society; and one of them would be a clearer sense of what is true and false.
We face a never-ending litany of competing truth claims. Are immigrants and refugees a threat to national identity and human rights, or are they an economic and social boon? Do Honduran and Salvadoran refugees walking to the United States bring contagious disease, rampant criminality, and terrorist intentions with them, or are they loving families fleeing violence, poverty, and oppression? Is the burning of fossil fuels destroying the ability of the oceans and atmosphere to sustain human life or should we oppose any attempt to restrain the fossil fuel industry?
At a personal level, we are confronted with competing health claims like whether fatty foods are harmful or healthy. We puzzle over whether social media relieves or increases loneliness. We are asked to consider if legalizing marijuana is a positive step that will lower crime or is a threat to the moral fabric of society.
One of the advantages of joining a faith community is to help us understand reality and adjudicate truth claims. Sometimes this involves discussions. But ascertaining the truth also flows from spiritual gatherings and campaigns of outreach and justice.
When the choir sings an anthem and we join our voices in a hymn, we gain an intuitive sense of what is stirring in the community. When we listen to a eulogy at a Celebration of Life, we increase our sense of the breadth and depth of life. When we spend a moment in silent prayer, we touch a spiritual reality that puts the mundane matters that often occupy our minds into better perspective.
Volunteering in outreach projects like the Clothing Bank and the Bread Run confronts us with neighbourhood realities and generates ideas about public policy.
Protesting inequality and working for peace helps us decide if the claims of the rich and powerful are legitimate. Organizing for environmental sustainability and social health helps us discover opportunities and barriers in current social arrangements.
A church like Mill Woods United is not just about worship but also about learning, mutual support, outreach, and social change. The truths we strive for as followers of Jesus are not just theological but also about relationships, economic structures, and political power.
We may often feel confused in the face of competing truth claims, but joining a community that strives for honesty, mutual respect, and love can help us better connect to personal and communal realities.
It can also increase our ability to withstand the dishonesty, manipulation, and lies that pollute popular culture and politics.
We have limited ability to curb the injuries caused by the racist bullies who now rule countries like Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, but we can help each other keep our hearts pure in times of increasing fear, racism, and violence.
I continue to be upset and amazed that we are living in an era in which ignorance, insult, and dishonesty are successful for so many leaders.
The most famous person in the world — the current President of the United States — speaks almost entirely in judgements and insults; with ignorance of and disregard for commonly accepted facts; and with consistent dishonesty. Even those of us who ignore the latest outrages from his Twitter feed are negatively affected by his ignorance, racism, and sexism, I believe.
Over the last few years, I have witnessed growing fear and racism towards Muslims and refugees not just in the news, but in the words of people in my extended family, in voices within many churches, on the bumper stickers on passing vehicles, and in casual conversations with service providers and neighbours. The immorality of people like President Trump has spread far and wide, I fear.
Judgements like his are inherently questionable. Whether something is great or small, evil or healing, important or trivial are endlessly debatable questions. And when such judgements tar entire races or religions they are not just questionable but toxic.
Happily, if we communicate not with judgements, but with feelings, wishes, and personal experiences, we stop being defensive and reveal truths about ourselves.
Reporting what we sense in our bodies and feel in our hearts is honest. When we can stay in touch with our feelings and articulate them using personal stories, we communicate the truth and connect to our values. A community whose members share their feelings and wishes, likes and dislikes, and hopes and dreams in this way can become a space in which to withstand the manipulative discourse that emanates from so many leaders.
In a community dedicated to honest sharing, we have a better chance to discover what is possible in advancing the dream of God we call the Reign of Christ.
In answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus is a king, but not one who rules from a throne in Jerusalem. Jesus is a Christ who is raised to new life within the hearts of all who follow a Way of death and resurrection. The truths that emanate from the Risen Christ within us are eternal and unshakable, ones that shine following the death of our egos and their easily manipulated fears. They are truths that connects us to the limitless creativity, courage, and joy of the Source we call God.
Do congregations like Mill Woods United always live up to the ideals of honest, emotional, and value-based communication? Of course not. But in a culture awash in fear-mongering, ignorance, and insults, our attempts to speak the truth in love to one another and to our neighbours can become a ministry of beauty and joy.
So today, as one church year ends and another one begins, let us join our hearts and voices to proclaim the Risen Christ who reigns in billions of hearts. It is reign centred on beauty and truth, which is all we ever really need to know.
May it be so. Amen.