What is Truth?

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, November 25, 2012
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

What is truth?  Is there really any such thing?  Pilate’s question in tonight’s text sounds like it comes from a good postmodern cynic.  I googled truth as part of my preparation for this reflection and I found the following quotes about truth:

  • If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
  • The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
  • I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.
  • Truth is stranger than fiction.
  • Truth? You can’t handle the truth!

What is truth?  In politics, where is truth to be found?  In the speeches of politicians? Which tells more truth, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal?  In the context of religion, is truth a set of doctrinal propositions like the ones we find in the Nicene Creed?  Is truth something we inherently know and recognize when we see it?  Can we trust our instincts about truth?

My sister Julie is drop dead gorgeous, and over the years she’s gotten a lot of romantic attention.  One year we were going to my psychotherapist Uncle Ed’s house for Thanksgiving.  Julie had a good friend, this guy who was her friend, but he wanted to be more than that and she didn’t feel the same way.  So Julie was asking my Uncle Ed what to do about it.  I’ve never forgotten what Ed told her.  He said, “Julie, you don’t need my advice about this.  You know what to do already.  What you need isn’t clarity. It’s the guts to do the right thing.”

Is truth like that? Is it something we have deep in our bones that we just need to listen to a little bit better?  What is the truth about Jesus the Christ, and why are we talking about truth at all on the feast of Christ the king?

Tonight’s text describes Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  All four gospels include Pilate’s accusation and question to Jesus: Are you the King of the Jews? We know what Pilate means.  He means, are you leading a subversive political movement against the authority of Rome?  In all four gospels Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly.  He says, “You say so.” “You say that I am a King.”  But only in the text we are reading tonight, in John’s gospel, do we hear more about this conversation between Pilate and Jesus on the subject of Jesus as a King.  Pretty quickly Jesus deflects the conversation about whether or not he is a king—which he never directly answers—and instead tells Pilate what his mission is.  He says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  And Pilate, sounding like a good postmodern cynic, answers, “What is truth?” and ends the conversation.

But Pilate’s question ought to haunt us.  What IS truth?  After every presidential debate this campaign season I found myself asking that question.  In this postmodern era we are so aware of the beautiful diversity and plurality of our world that we don’t believe there is any such thing as The Truth with a capital T.  In fact I had a professor in college who taught sociology and anthropology, who used to make his class repeat, over and over, “Models are neither right nor wrong.  They are more or less elegant.”  25 years later my classmates and I can still repeat that motto.  Yet Jesus in John’s gospel claims to be the way, the truth, and the life.  What in the world can he mean? What is the truth that Jesus claims as his mission, and how can it have any relevance to us 20 centuries later?

As you know there are four gospels: the first three, called the “synoptic gospels,” and the fourth, which is John’s gospel.  John’s gospel is very different from the other ones, from the synoptics.  In John’s gospel Jesus makes all kinds of radical claims about being THE truth. Jesus claims to be divine in John’s gospel in a way that he doesn’t as clearly in the others.   He takes the great title of Yahweh, the statement “I AM,” over and over again in John’s gospel.  He claims not only to come from God, but to BE God.  And theologians over the centuries have focused on that movement, on Jesus as God, as the truth of John’s gospel, the truth that was Jesus’ purpose to proclaim.  But I want to say that the focus on that movement, on the movement from Jesus the man to Jesus as God, is precisely the opposite of the truth Jesus wants us to understand.  It’s not that it’s wrong.  It’s that the focus hides the truth even as it is proclaimed.

The truth Jesus wants us to understand doesn’t begin with Jesus the man.  It begins with God and ends with God showing up to us as Jesus the man.  Here’s what I mean. Jesus never answers the question about whether or not he is a king, except to say that his kingdom is not from this world.  The crowning moment of Jesus’ kingship is actually the picture of him in the posture of crucifixion, with a crown of thorns on his head, and the plaque over his head which reads in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, “King of the Jews.”  It’s not that Jesus is God.  Is that God is Jesus, crucified, suffering with us, taking on a posture of absolute weakness and lack of power.  It’s that by suffering with us in this way, God redefines both truth and power.  Is Christ the truth?  Yes, Christ is the truth is that God suffers with us and has given us the promise of resurrection.  Is Christ the King? Yes, meaning that the authority and power of Christ’s ultimate weakness will transcend the power of Caesars and presidents, kings and corporations.

Elie Wiesel wrote about his experience as a Jewish teenager in the concentration camp Auschwitz.   During that time he saw and experienced unspeakable things.  At one point, his German captors hanged a young boy.  The boy was so light that it took a very long time for him to die.  The other inmates of the camp were forced to watch.  While they were watching they were crying and saying, Where is God? Where is God at a moment like this?  And someone said, there he is.  He is that boy, twisting on the gallows. 

The feast of Christ the King is about The Truth, with a capital T, that God has taken on human suffering in the person of Jesus.  The story of that suffering does not end in despair.  It ends in resurrection and in the promise that the authority of Jesus, the kingship of Jesus, will ultimately triumph over all other kinds of power.  It’s not that Jesus will someday become a king like all the other kings we have known.  It’s that that kind of dominating kingdom will ultimately cease to exist.  In the apocalyptic literature of scripture, the author of Revelations describes a final world in which there is no temple, because God’s own self and Jesus the Lamb are its temple.  In that world, the dwelling of God is with people.  This world is not in some completely distant, far-off, future sense.  It has begun already, in the kingdom of God springing up like yeast, like a chemical reaction, all around us.  It happens whenever the suffering of Jesus transforms despair into hope.  It happens whenever our prayers for one another invite God’s healing. 

Tonight I invite you to begin to see and recognize the truth of God’s presence in your own life.  What would it really mean to you if you accepted that you do not have to reach out to find an unreachable God—but that God is already reaching out to you, already intimately familiar with the ways in which you have suffered because God has entered into that suffering for the sake of healing and of hope?  God has not entered into human reality in a way that dominates, but in a way that liberates from the bottom, in the human person of Jesus.

Each of us is surrounded by both joy and suffering, and in our complicated world it can be very difficult to believe that there is any truth anywhere.  This week, as we begin to prepare for Advent again, I invite you to dare to recognize the truth that wherever there is suffering, God’s healing presence can be invited—not from the outside, but from the inside, where God already exists in the person of Jesus.  I invite all of us to recognize the truth that is already here, that we already know, deep in our bones, because God has written it in our hearts already.  The feast of Christ the King celebrates God With Us, always and forever, past, present and future.  Amen.