Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
November 25, 2018
John 18: 33 – 38
Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.
Two men had an argument. To settle the matter they went before a local judge for arbitration. The plaintiff made his case. He was very eloquent and persuasive in his reasoning. When he finished, the judge nodded in approval and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” On hearing this, the defendant jumped up and said, “Wait a minute your honor! You haven’t even heard my side of the case yet.” So the judge told the defendant to present his case. He too, was very persuasive and eloquent. When he finished speaking, the judge responded, “That’s right, that’s right.” Upon hearing this, the clerk of the court became very confused. He jumped up and said, “Your honor, this is impossible! They both can’t be right.” The judge looked at the clerk for a few moments and said, “That’s right, that’s right.”
We live in a time in which the truth is an easy thing to claim. We also live in a time in which it is exceeding difficult to reach a consensus on what is the truth. Our leaders present alternative facts to confirm truth as they wish us to understand it. Social media has become an out of control public courtyard of voices clamoring with self-claimed truths or truths posted from sources whose authority no one bother to authenticate. We long for a simplicity of black and white falsehood and truth and instead we find ourselves mired in truth that is the grayest of grays.
This summer, President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani appeared on “Meet the Press.” He was asked why he did not want the President to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller. Giuliani responded, “When you tell me that he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that is so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.” When reminded that “truth is truth,” Giuliani replied, “No, no. It isn’t the truth. Truth isn’t truth.”
Oprah Winfrey has found some acceptance by using the phrase, “your truth.” Winfrey says that “your truth” is distinctive from “the truth” and in most cases it is more powerful and influential. By this she means that the facts of the situation do not matter as much as one’s perception about the situation that they experienced. Your beliefs about what you have faced is so much a part of you that they are true whether or not those beliefs are factual. While it is somewhat frustrating for me to accept this definition of truth, as I grow older I think I understand it more. Things that I remember and believe happened to me carry a lot of power in how I act today, even if I discover that those remembrances and beliefs aren’t exactly historically accurate.
Way back in 2005, television host Stephen Colbert coined a new term-truthiness. Everyone laughed back then but perhaps no one is laughing now. Colbert used the term to mean understanding something to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be. Writing on Patheos.com, Matt Sapp says that truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth. The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to uncritically accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.
Writing about the Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Matt Thompson voiced in The Atlantic, a view that perhaps many on both sides of the confirmation hearings felt. There was a wide chasm between two witnesses professing the same reality. While many expected an answer from the testimony, we got performances rather than fact and a desire for power rather than the truth. Thompson said we must now acknowledge that truth is no longer power and the battle for power has eclipsed the pursuit of truth.
I read this week where the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year is “webinar.” I guess I have no argument with that. I went back to check on words chosen from previous years and found a perfect choice made in 2016. The word chosen was post-truth. The definition of post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstance in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In a post-truth world, we seek out and lend credence to those sources of information that confirm our biases. Wanting to be right, wanting to win an argument or an election is more important than truth. In the post-truth world, truth is something that is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves and confirm who we are and our interpretation of the world.
This morning is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar. Today is known as Christ the King Sunday. It is an acknowledgement that Jesus the Christ is Lord and King of all creation. He is the fulfillment of the covenant made to David that one of his heirs would sit upon the cosmic throne. In Jesus the Christ, God has brought the world back to God and established the Kingdom of God. On Christ the King Sunday we understand that we must be part of that kingdom by representing Jesus in word and in action.
The Scripture assigned to this Sunday is usually this rather strange and seemingly out of place passage from the gospel of John. This is a scene that we find in the extended Holy Week readings, of Jesus appearing before the Roman Governor Pilate. In this passage, Jesus looks nothing like a king. He stands before Pilate as an accused criminal, his hands bound, his face bleeding from a blow given by one of the chief priests’ officials. It is Pilate who looks more like the king, sitting in the trappings of a palace, wielding the authority of government and economy and army. Pilate is looking for the truth, in a way that we normally understand it, so he can deal with the situation logically and efficiently. He asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus turns the question back to Pilate and 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.” Pilate then offer the question that we all must consider, “What is truth?”
What was Pilate asking when he offered the question? What is the secret of life? What is life all about? Was he being sarcastic? Was he merely being the example of all of our human attempts to find truth in power, in beauty, in wealth, in knowledge, and in being right? Was Pilate asking the question with the correct answer already in his hands, hoping to win the situation, to convict Jesus who he was certain would give the wrong answer?
But Jesus said nothing. He just stood silently before the powers of the world. He did not say that his teachings were the truth. He did not say religion was the truth. He did not say the Bible was the truth. He did not say what people thought about him was the truth. There may be a part of the truth in all of those things but truth is not something that can be captured in a word, in a doctrine, or in a fact. Perhaps where Jesus stood that day said it all, alone and defenseless in front of the power and authority of the world, he stood as a contrast to our own assumptions and way of being. He simply was truth. He simply was the power and presence of God.
Truth is something that speaks in silence and in the noise of confusion. Truth is something that moves and shifts and comes at us in many different directions. Truth is something that we capture for a brief, unambiguous moment and then it flutters away from us leaving us wanting more. Truth is that which is ultimate yet exists in the midst of our everyday story. Truth is that which convicts us and inspires us. Truth is something that cannot be found in easy answers, in human logic, or in the desired formulas that we seek. Truth is the unsettling silence that comes when we stand face to face with God, the presence of the ultimate power of the universe speaking to depths of our soul, comforting and condemning us.
In a Lenten reflection, Barbara Brown Taylor remembers being at a retreat where the leader asked participants to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. When it came time to share the answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, “Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?” According to the gospel of John, Jesus died because he was the truth, a perfect mirror in which people saw themselves in God’s own light. The light of that truth reminds us of who we really are and what we have failed to be.
When confronted by such truth, Pilate sentenced Jesus and then tried to wash his hands of any responsibility. The truth stands before us today. It stands not in ways that we might wish, in ways we can make it “our truth” or in ways that we can live in comfortable “truthiness.” In the presence of Jesus the Christ, truth exposes our integrity. In the presence of Jesus the Christ, truth brings to light who God really created us to be.