Self-Evident Truth

Self-Evident Truth

John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 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?” 36 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.” 37 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?”

Let us pray: Gracious God, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

Do you remember the court room scene in the 90s movie A Few Good Men? Tom Cruise is young unmotivated Naval officer and lawyer named Lt. Daniel Kaffee. Jack Nicholson is Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessup, a hard-jawed marine. It is a court martial case of two marines charged with murdering fellow marine, William Santiago, and also truth and justice in a messy world. In the tensest moment of the court room scene, Jessup says, “You want answers?” “I think I am entitled to it,” Kaffee says, “You want answers?” Jessup asks again. Kaffee yells back, “I want the truth!” and Col. Jessup fires back (say it with me if you know it) “You can’t handle the truth!”

In today’s text, it is Jesus who is brought in for questioning. So are you the King of the Jews? Pilate asked, feigning interest, sipping coffee I imagine. The Pilate administration routinely had to deal with various extremist groups and their leaders. This was generally a paperwork thing. Someone says yes, he is convicted, “dispositioned” as an enemy of the state, and the rest of the breakfast meeting continued. But in this case, curiously, the leader did not give a straight answer. Which was problematic. Granted, there was no fear here for Pilate, just a need to avoid a potential parochial PR nightmare with the Jews, the largest group of his particular region. Pilate knew that the more these subgroups fought each other, the better for the administration, honestly. When they fight each other, you see, they do your work for you. They wound themselves and they tarnish their peaceful holy messaging and what’s more, they are easily controlled. That these faith leaders would adopt a world view based on revenge and capital punishment suited Pilate just fine. But, this Jesus would not take the bait.

What is truth? Pilate asked, maybe with a Col. Jessup edge in his voice by now. The Pilate administration had an answer they were listening for. Let’s be clear: this was not a philosophy class. This was a loyalty litmus test. It’s likely that Pilate already agreed with Jesus on what truth does: Truth shapes people. Truth affects their actions. Their identities. Their allegiance. If you want to know what a person believes is true, just watch their feet. Gravity, for example, is a powerful force on our planet. That is true whether someone assents or not. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, walk most carefully around cliffs. Oxygen is essential for human life. There is no need to poll on this truth to gauge its popularity. And yet those who belong to that truth, who believe it, always move toward fresh air. People, no matter how dogmatic, do not hold their breath for very long.

And the only other truth that mattered was that Caesar was King. Like a good middle-manager, Pilate spent a great deal of time controlling the truth narrative. And his tools were the normal ones. Ask a question like “What is truth” enough and people get confused about what they know is true. A little fear was often enough to make people behave irrationally even around cliffs. A little smoke was often enough to make people run the wrong direction away from the oxygen they need to survive. With enough fear, smoke, and confusion in the air, Pilate and therefore Caesar would remain the voice of truth. Those tools were as effective as any cross or travelled faster than any chariot.

Scholar and preacher Fred Craddock said,  “Like many moderns, Pilate assumes truth is a ‘what,’ that truth has a definite objective content that can be clearly stated.  This is not the understanding of truth in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is never said to teach truth.  He does not deliver the truth to his disciples, who are never said to ‘have’ the truth.  Truth is not an object, a body of material that can be possessed.  Jesus is not a great teacher who gives disciples ‘great truths’ to live by.  He gives himself; he himself is God’s truth.  Truth is a ‘who,’ not a ‘what.’”9

Our world is full of Pilates Pro Tem who still ask “What is truth?” A shelf of recently published books suggest that Western societies are becoming hostile to expertise, increasingly susceptible to bias and vulnerable to superstition. They suspect we are drowning in a flood of information. That we are now post-Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment gave us we hold these truths to be self-evident, the post-Enlightenment might say, “What is truth? Why those truths? Your truth might be self-evident to you but not to me.” In 1966, Time Magazine ran its first cover without art. The cover said, “Is God dead?” It was a discussion about the health of churches and the beliefs they taught. Then, 50 years late, in 2017, using the same font, Time’s cover was “Is truth dead?”

Maybe our human nature truly can’t handle the truth very well. Research shows that when new technologies arise, whether it’s the Roman road system long ago, the printing press or the internet, human nature is pretty predictable no matter what century you’re discussing. The fastest things to spread are the same: confusion, smoke and fear.

Pilate reminds Jesus that his nation has turned on him and wasn’t that significant a nation to begin with. If someone feels weak and alone, they usually flip. What is Truth? In Caesar’s world it was power and pressure and pandering and policing and politics and pretense and privilege and posturing and popularity and eventually severe punishment. In Caesar’s world it was performative and pecking orders and prison and predation. In Caesar’s world, that truth is self-evident.

And there is the world of Jesus. The world where truth is as personal as it is general. The world where truth is not a kind of accounting. Counting heads. Counting rights and wrongs. It is an encounter. It is not a rule. That allows us to feel right and stand in judgment over others. It is a relationship. Where we are vulnerable because we know how wrong we can be and we are loved anyway.

Those who belong to that truth, who believe it, feel God’s love grounding them like gravity and feel the Spirit breathing them through every fear. Christ the King Sunday is when we practice de-throning ourselves as the Kings of our lives. We take off our little paper ego crowns and slide off our shoes and remember we stand on holy ground. On Christ the King Sunday we stand in awe before God who chose to be truth among us, the kind of truth we could follow but never possess, love but never limit, trust but never trap. A real relationship.

When Dave and I were going through premarital counseling, we met with a wonderful Episcopalian Priest named Frank, though he had a fancy title in the diocese The Very Right Reverend. He laughed and said, “You know that doesn’t get me very far when I use it at home with my wife.” He wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Being Together, and as we talked, Frank said perhaps the most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. He said it twice. The most important skill in any marriage is the ability to renegotiate around a new truth. Suppose someone gets a new job or a child is born or someone wants to move. Someone becomes a vegetarian or is plunged into grief or is suddenly home all the time or gains 25 pounds. All of these are new truths, and the marriage needs to learn how to adapt. He said it is often not effective to tell the other person to deal with it. Nor does it go well to keep plodding along as if the change has not happened, avoiding the new truth. You have to renegotiate.

And how do you do that? When a new truth comes, healthy marriages become very articulate. They speak what they need, plainly without manipulation. Sometimes there isn’t an easy agreement. She loves going to parties. He does not. She wants to be more social. He wants to relax. When it is clear there isn’t an easy way for both parties to get what they want, he said our faith tells us to rely on the truth of grace, and to speak the language of gift-giving. For example, if he decides to go along to the party, she makes point to say “Thank you. I know you that wasn’t your favorite but it meant a lot to me.” If she stays home, he makes a point of saying, “Tonight has been a gift. I see what you gave me. Thank you.”

This is true for any relationship. Friend groups, families, churches, communities. We all renegotiate around a new truth. Whether that new truth is a new family member at Thanksgiving or a community dealing with a new phase of the pandemic. There might be a Thanksgiving where not everyone agrees. Or a season at church where not everyone agrees. Or even a time in the country when not everyone agrees. I know, it is hard to imagine, but think on that with me. Instead of Caesar’s truth, governed by pandering and pressuring and punishment, imagine that people could be articulate about what they need and that we could use the language of grace with each other, of gift-giving. Not the Black Friday gifts kind. But the gift of relationship. The gift of listening with absolutely no agenda. The gift of saying, “I might be wrong.” The gift of laughter so that conversations have oxygen enough to breathe. The gift of trying their suggestion. The gift of saying thank you when someone goes along with your plan when it is not their preference. Truth within real relationship.

There is a church I know that even before the pandemic was realizing that being a multi-cultural church was important to them but that meant not everyone was getting what they wanted. What felt beautiful to some, extended silence for example, was uncomfortable to others who preferred an extended passing of the peace. So, they started using something called the 75% rule. They realized when they gather for worship everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of the service otherwise it was likely that one cultural preference was being dominantly expressed. That meant that the 25% of the time or more when something was unfamiliar or even uncomfortable, and others felt joy and comfort, they learned to see this as a gift to God and from God, a gift found in relationship.

The Kingdom that Jesus describes so often throughout Scripture is unlikely community and unexpected welcome and strength found in weakness and wisdom that looks like old school foolishness. It’s bread multiplied and death defeated and life rich and abundant. The gifts of God for the people of God.

Indeed, this is a hard time for churches, for all communities. It is a time of renegotiation around a new truth of pandemic and polarization and such deep pain. I wish it were not so. I wish I had started with you when the truth we were facing was simply which coffee brand we preferred.

Recently we watched Lord of the Rings as a family. I identified so deeply with Frodo who looked at Gandalf and said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I suspect we are here today because we want to be reminded again about what is true. So here it is: The truth is not a what but a who. Jesus who gave his life for you not because you were very right but because you are very loved. Jesus who turned Caesar’s tools…. a cross, pain, punishment, into the sign of God’s truth… forgiveness, eternal life and world-changing communion. Jesus who prepares you and prays through you and prods you to serve your neighbor and promises you that you will not be alone to face this and provides others who while different from you are essential to you so together you become the people of peace and patience and purpose. A people of proclamation that Jesus is Lord.  Amen.