Tuesday, 03 March 2009 16:41

March 1, 2009 Sermon

“What is Truth?
John 18:28-38
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 1, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

It’s the Lenten Season, a season where we traditionally look inward to help us figure out how to act outwardly.  It’s a time of reflection.  It’s a time of reconsideration.  It’s a time of finding ways to hang on to what is true as winter eventually gives way to spring.  It behooves us therefore to look at what is true in our lives.  
Several years ago, in a sermon by Ken Sehested, I heard the following quote attributed to Leslie Weatherhead.  I liked it so much I put it on my screen saver:
    “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
    From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
    From the arrogance that thinks we know all truth,
    O God of truth, deliver us.”

Throughout this month, we will examine truth.  We’ll look at truth from a bunch of different angles.  The overarching question for all of us is: what is your biggest and deepest truth?  That’s what we’ll look at throughout this Lenten season.  And not only that, but once you have discovered your deepest truth, what are you going to do about it?  What difference does this truth make for you, for your family, for your community, for the world?   Don’t worry, we’re not going to tackle all of that today.  Today, we are simply looking at the definition of truth.  Echoing the question of Pontius Pilate, we ask, what is truth?
When Jesus encounters Pontius Pilate, he refuses to play by the rules.  Do you notice that no one answers Pilate’s questions directly?
Pilate asks the Jewish leaders: “What accusation do you bring against this man?’  
They answer, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”  Not exactly a direct answer.  
When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you King of the Jews?”
Jesus answers with a question: “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate than asks, “What have you done?”
Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me alive…but my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate, trying to get a handle on this says, “Ah, so you are a king?”
Jesus says, “You say so.  I was born to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate, in the midst of this confusion asks, “What is truth?”  But Jesus is done talking.   He is done playing by the rules of others.  He is not going to play the games anymore.  No more votes, no more recounts; no more preaching, no more search for facts when truth seems so relative.  We are left to determine what is truth.
He leaves Pilate’s question hanging there.  Could you just have answered one of those questions straight?  I get that we are to embrace the truth, but what is it?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is in control of everything, including the moment of his death when he announces, “It is finished”.   He was going to write his own rules.  He was the truth, therefore he defines how things are to be.  John’s Gospel is a lot like the book of Revelation in that there are two separate realities going on.  On the ground there is turmoil and tribulation and in the sky the angels keep breaking in with the heavenly chorus singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the God of hosts” and so on.  In the Gospel of John Jesus, the truth is always in control.  For the first thousand years of Christianity, artists only depicted this understanding of Jesus.  They depicted him only as alive and in control.  If he was on the cross, he was on there with his eyes open.  It was not about death, it was about living life with abundance.  It was about being resurrected to live within the community of faith as the sustainer and continual redeemer of all of humankind.  It was about how we might become like him, in control of our destiny, or at least in control of our selves when people were doing unspeakable evil to us.

Yesterday, our family saw the story of Ruby Bridges at the Stepping Stone Theater.  You’ll remember that Ruby Bridges was the first student to integrate the New Orleans School District in 1960.   She was six years old at the time.  She was escorted to school by federal marshals and had to endure physical and psychological taunting and threats.  For the entire year she attended first grade by herself, other teachers refusing to bring their white children into her class.  She got through it in part by praying for her opponents.  Sometimes those prayers were in the form of the songs she learned in her church, like “I’ll Fly Away” of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” or “Jesus Loves the Little Children: all the children in the world.  Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight.   Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  She knew who she was and others were not going to shake her from her truth.  She just wanted an education and to be treated like everyone else.

So Pilate asked about truth.  Is mine the same as yours?

Now that’s a good question.  Truth, you see, means what makes sense to you—what you find as definitive for your life.  For Pilate, it was law and power and authority.  The rules that Pilate lived by were ruthlessness and coercion.   Apart from the placid figure portrayed in John’s Gospel, historians depict him as a merciless overlord who oversaw the execution by crucifixion of over 1000 people.  Pilate didn’t like people disagreeing with his concept of the truth.  He imposed his truth on others.  

We can think of other leaders who do this in the name of religion, in the name of economic principles, in the name of national sovereignty.  The truth that makes sense to them is one that will conquer another.  Some even have the audacity to edit scientific studies n order to make a better case for their truth.  You know what I’m talking about.

At the Global Baptist Peace Conference, a Naga peacemaker from Northern India said (quoting Psalm 85) that peace needs truth, mercy and justice.  In conflict, truth is often the first to go.  People stretch the truth or downright lie about the occurrences of their lives.  There cannot be peace if truth is compromised.  It’s like a three-legged stool.  If peace is the seat, the legs are justice, mercy and truth.  If any one of them is compromised, then peace cannot exist.  Isaiah 59:14 says,
“Justice is turned back and righteousness stands at a distance.
For truth stumbles in the public square and righteousness cannot enter.”

In South Africa when Apartheid finally ended, there was a reconciliation commission lead by leaders of the faith community and the different political and ethnic groups.   It was called the truth and reconciliation commission.  If there was not a long, bitter, and honest telling and hearing of the truth, there could not be reconciliation.  Truth is very important.  Pilate’s truth was well known as one of brutality and robbery of the Jewish land and heritage.

Pilate didn’t ask what is Jesus’ truth, but what is truth in general?   Whether is was a truly ponderous question or a mocking question by a politician is open to our own imaginations.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”  Of course this did not include women or non-white men.  They weren’t quite so equal.

The scientists among us would say that one determines truth by data, testing and evidence.  Once there have been enough verifiable clinical trials, then we can conclusively determine what is true, of course until new evidence emerges.  But most of us don’t think like scientists all the time.   Einstein said, “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very different from the axioms of science.  Truth is what stands the test of experience.”

Do we accept the truths we hear on Fox News, on the Daily Show, on Rush, in a president’s speech?  Or do we dig a bit deeper and meld the words we hear with the evidence of what we see among us?

In the show “Wicked” the wizard says, “people believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.  We call it history.  A man’s called a traitor or liberator.  A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist.  Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?  It’s all in which label is able to persist.”   A lie told enough times becomes accepted truth.  In a land where truth is suspect, Jesus proclaims not that he knows the truth, or knows how to find the truth.  Jesus says, “I am the truth.”

What was Jesus’ truth?

Jesus said:
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
“You have heard it said love your friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist the evildoer with violence.”

The Apostle Paul wrote
 “Through faith we are all children of God for as many as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”—that is Christ’s nature, Christ’s truth in us. And there is no distinction.  The truth is that “there is no male nor female, no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

“You shall love the lord with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Upon these commandments rest the entire law and the prophets.”  Love God and love your neighbor.

We are to go into all the world and proclaim truth to all people, helping people to live by truth, being defined by truth and transformed by truth.

We are to welcome the outcasts and expose the tears in the fabric of our world.

We are to proclaim that God’s plan is good news to the poor and the marginalized and if the wealthy have a spiritual conversion it will be good news for them too.

This is the truth: that we ought to all be free and that our freedom ends at another’s point of entry.  
What is truth?  
Is our concept of truth the same as Jesus’?  
Does it come closer to Pilate’s concept of truth?  

The point is not for me to answer that question, but for you to do it.  And for me to do it for myself.  What is truth for you?

And based upon what is true for you, what does that make you do?

Pilate asks the question that is not answered.  It’s meant to be answered by us.  Not simply what is truth? But what is true?
“From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
    From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
    From the arrogance that thinks we know all truth,
    O God of truth, deliver us.”