Belonging to the Truth

FatherTim

John 18:33-37

What is truth?

Is truth relative?  Or is it absolute?

If it’s relative, then what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.

Now, there’s wisdom in this sort of thinking—that truth is relative.  It doesn’t take us long to see.  Right now, for instance, on the world stage there are people who believe that western thinking is wrong, and that all westerners deserve to die.

For me, anyone who possesses a personal truth, a doctrine, that prejudges another person or group of people because of race, color, creed, or ideology—well, that’s no “truth” for me.

So, what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me.

But we can go too far with this kind of thinking.

Like that time in college when a friend of mine declared, “There’s no such thing as absolute truth!”

And I said, “Are you absolutely sure?”

Absolute truth is a concern of all the great religions of the world.  Is there any sort of truth—or, if you like, are there some ideologies or doctrines—applicable to all humanity?  Is there some kind of moral code by which all people, regardless of era, civilization, or culture, ought to live?

The Golden Rule, maybe?  Or love?

If so—if there is such a thing as absolute truth, something applicable to all humanity regardless of time and place—then we’ve found a key to one of life’s great mysteries, a principle by which all people should live.

Nevertheless, whatever the case, persons, people, and whole nations can’t agree.  And the debate continues.

Is truth absolute, or is it relative?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?

Today’s Gospel teaches us a lot about truth.

Near the end of the passage, Pilate asks Jesus a leading question about his identity: “So you are a king?”

Jesus answers, “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.”

If Jesus is a king at all—and we all know he is—then his is a kingdom of truth.  To testify to the truth is why Jesus was born; it’s why he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to his kingdom.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to the truth.  Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth.

But Pilate doesn’t get it.

For what does the very next verse say?

We ended with verse 37.  We ended with Jesus declaring, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Then—verse 38 says—“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

What is truth?

Well, Pilate, you think that Jesus and his kingdom are no threat to you.

You, Pilate, think that you’re the most powerful, in-control person in all of Jerusalem.  After all, the truth is, you are the local representative of Rome, of Caesar himself.  No human being is more politically powerful than you.

And you think, Pilate, that an ideological kingdom, a kingdom of truth, a kingdom not of this world, is no threat at all to you or Caesar.

And so you ask, “What is truth?” and you go out to Jesus’ opponents and tell them, “I find no case against him.”

BUT, Pilate, reality—in other words, the truth—is not what you think.

Despite that you think yourself so powerful, Pilate, you are obviously trapped in fear.  That’s the reality here.  Jesus’ opponents, the “underground” leaders of the community, want him crucified.  If you don’t give them what they want, who knows what kind of uprising will follow?  And then, what will Rome think of you?  You fear the answers to these questions, Pilate, don’t you?

Despite that his is an ideological kingdom, Pilate, this kingdom of truth is in fact a very real threat to you, your power, and the political kingdom of Rome.  For, despite what you think, Jesus’ teachings are very subversive when it comes to allegiance.  For Jesus’ followers, when it comes to either the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of God, Rome takes second place every time.

So, you, Pilate, are in denial.

Maybe the question we should ask, then, is not whether truth is relative or absolute. Maybe it’s more about reality.  What is the reality into which Jesus calls us to live?  What is the truth that is Christ’s kingdom?  And what traps us in fear of living into that truth?

Journalist Jonathan Darman tells the story of a U. S. senator who wanted to make a public statement, after the fact, that he had acted against his better judgment when he voted to authorize the war in Iraq.  This senator wanted to declare that he’d made a mistake and offer a public apology.  So he wrote three drafts of an op-ed article.  But in every draft, his aides either deleted his confession altogether or tempered it to say, “I was misled.”

For this senator’s aides, maintaining power was more important than being honest.  And thus the senator was trapped.

Is that what our fears are about?  Maintaining position?  Do we fear what we would lose by being honest, authentic, real?

I wonder how many of us live in this fear.  Many of us enjoy our creature comforts.  Many of us have nice homes and comfortable cars; and we take expensive vacations.  Fine and well.

But to what extent do we go in order to enjoy these things?  Are we real with respect to our public personas?  Do our colleagues at work really know us—what we think, what we believe in, what makes us tick?  Or do we put up a front, out of fear of losing our jobs?

We’ve got to pay the mortgage, after all.  And the car payment.  And the credit card debt.

These things can trap us into denying reality—or avoiding it, or fearing it.

And what about the Church?

This question has been on my mind and heart a lot lately, especially after the recent pastoral letter from Bishop Mathes.

Today is known as Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year; next week Advent begins, the Christian New Year.  So, is Christ our King?  Do we in fact give all allegiance to Jesus Christ, trusting completely in his divine sovereignty, as we declare on this day?

The Church has grown accustomed to certain creature comforts.

But studies have demonstrated that the mainline Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, have experienced steady decline in membership over the last four decades.  America is becoming increasingly post-Christian.  St. Paul’s is losing its place of influence in and around Yuma.

So, I’ve got to ask, are we trapped in fear of this reality?

Some of the Episcopal Church’s parishes are living in denial, following models of congregational development that once seemed effective but no longer address the realities of today’s world.  Leaders of such parishes say things like, “We’re just trying to be faithful to what Jesus calls us to do.”

Other parishes acknowledge the reality; but they try to avoid it.  They are trapped by fear of the unknown, or they suffer from that age-old disease called analysis-paralysis.

Still others temper their message and mission, like that senator’s aides, in a desperate effort to maintain position.

But the Church professes Christ as King.  Shouldn’t the Church live out its profession?

After Pilate asks Jesus the first time, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus turns the tables and asks him a very revealing question:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Jesus asks Pilate this revealing question and thus invites him to be honest, to be real, to be authentic.  It’s as if Jesus says, “Listen to me, Pilate.  Be true.  Be real.”  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Do you see?  Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd; Jesus offers Pilate the opportunity to belong to the truth.

But Pilate refuses.  Pilate dismisses Jesus’ offer, asking with disdain, “What is truth?”

It’s the same with us.  Jesus invites us to be authentic.  Jesus is offering to us—as individuals and as the Church—to be our good shepherd, the opportunity to belong to the truth.

So now it’s our turn.

Will we be like Pilate, refusing the truth, dismissing Jesus’ offer?

Or are we ready to receive it?

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