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A Question of Truth
Never ask rhetorical questions. That’s a tease because you the asker know the answer in advance. In one parish I heard about a minister asking ‘When Jesus was deserted by his disciples, where were you?’ To which one enthusiastic congregant replied, ‘In the men’s room.’ It seems like Pontius Pilate hadn’t gotten the message about rhetorical questions.
Here is Pilate, somewhere between an imperial interrogator and a curious journalist, firing questions at Jesus who’d been deserted by his followers, rejected by his people. Pilate is looking for Jesus to confirm his status as a rebel by claiming to be the rightful king. Jesus isn’t interested in talking about who’s in charge. He’s got something more important to talk about. He’s talking about the truth - that God is can be accepted only in a confidence founded on reality itself.
Jesus says, ‘This is why I was born. This is why I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate shrugs his shoulders, and asks a rhetorical question. ‘What is truth?’ This scene in the governor’s headquarters has brought together, face to face, the two most explicit answers to the most important question of them all. What is truth?
Let’s think about Pontius Pilate’s answer to that question. Pilate is a pragmatist. He has his employers in Rome to keep happy. He has the Judean leadership to keep sweet. And he has the excitable crowd to keep docile. The Roman Empire may be puffed up with high-minded rhetoric about peace and glory, but on the ground he has to be ruthless and clear-headed and single-minded. Otherwise he’s going to be stitched up by Rome, double crossed by Jerusalem, or slaughtered by the crowd. Truth is a concept he’s got no use for. It’s just fluff. He’s interested in what works, what functions well, what keeps the show on the road, what ensures everyone’s happy, what ticks the economy over and leaves the coffers full.
Some today believe unsubstantiated tweets are true, where verifiable reports are fake news. This is the mindset that dominates politics, high finance, big business, major sports, and almost every sector of the economy. Pilate isn’t a monster: he represents what most people think, most of the time. ‘Just get the job done. Just make the thing work and ask questions later. Life’s too short. What’s truth got to do with it? Just do it.’ There’s a lot of Pilate in each one of us. But face to face with Pilate is Jesus. Jesus says, ‘Truth is the reason and meaning of my existence.’
What is Jesus saying? What is truth? Truth is for Jesus, and for us, a statement of conviction about the past. God made the universe as a companion, made the world as the theatre of glory, made humanity to bear the divine image, called Israel to be a blessing to all, showed in liberation a purpose to be with us, so all humans might flourish. Jesus embodied that commitment with a love that overcame death, and at Pentecost gave us a guarantee that what had been with us in Jesus would never leave us.
That’s truth in the form of a story. But truth is not confined to the past. Truth is a promise for the future. What is true is ultimately what will always be. When we ask ourselves ‘What is truth?’ – when we look up into the wide blue yonder and feel how small we are, when we see all the busyness of the commuter, the worker bee, the milky way – this is most often the sense we have in mind. What does it all amount to? What’s the point of it all? Where’s it all going? Jesus’ word for this is kingdom.
Kingdom is where we are with God, with one another and with the renewed creation. It’s not the same as creation because it’s not just the way things were meant to be. It’s the way God makes all things new. In the kingdom we don’t have perfect bodies and spotless characters: we find that God has improvised on our flawed bodies and fragile characters and made us into something beautiful together. When we glimpse moments like that we sense we’ve got a glimpse of the kingdom.
But there’s another sense of truth, and you get an idea of it when you feel what an impoverished life Pontius Pilate’s living if he has all this wealth and prestige and pride and power, but, when it comes to truth, all he can do is shrug his shoulders. It seems he has everything in the world except the only thing that matters. And that’s not just a conviction about the past or a promise for the future. That’s something very present.
What thrilled people about Jesus and mesmerizes us today is that he modeled a new way of being with one another, and with God. The offer - the past is forgiven, the future is open, the present is Good, that you are accepted, took away the fear of you being you. If you’ve tasted this truth, you’ll never be thirsty again.
So truth is three-sided. It’s about the past: we could call that faith. It’s about the future: we could call that hope. It’s about the present: we could call that love.
Some folk are very focused on the truth of the past: what exactly was said in the scripture. Other Christians, are more oriented toward the truth of the future: as to what kind of community God calls us to be, how the church can look more like the kingdom, how we can live in such a way that anticipates the equality and peace and enjoyment of one another that constitutes a truly redeemed common life.
It’s not hard to see why those with two such different notions of truth can make it difficult. But if the greatest of these is love, then to be God’s church is to model a common life in which we can be present to one another. Because forgiveness has dismantled the pressure of the past and an open tomorrow has life has lifted the weight of the future.
This is where truth hurts. In the past and future senses of truth we can surround ourselves with people who think the way we do. But if the truth is to be good news now if it’s to be the embodiment of love, it’s got to offer a peace the world cannot give. Love means an amazing ability to be present, to be with, to learn from, to appreciate, to be thankful for, to cherish those who think differently. If we love only those that love us, what good is that?
It’s the shocking, counterintuitive, otherworldly truth that Jesus embodied for us. Jesus loved Pilate. Who are you asking God to help you find strength to love today? Pilate made the cynic’s mistake. He recklessly tossed out a rhetorical question. Pilate thought he could speak of truth and just shrug his shoulders and laugh it off as if it were a ridiculous, unanswerable, absurd question.
John’s gospel doesn’t record Jesus answering the question. But that’s because the answer’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying. There’s only one possible answer Jesus could give to the question, ‘What is truth?’: ‘I am.’ ‘I am’: the closest we get, with Moses at the burning bush, to the name of God; the closest Jesus comes to identifying himself as the heart of God, the two words that show that Jesus is everything that Israel longed for and everything that God has in store for us, all crystallized into a person in the present tense.
That’s the simple answer to the question, ‘What is truth?’: I am. John’s gospel doesn’t record an answer to Pilate’s question because it offers us an opportunity to answer the question for ourselves. Are you ready to answer that question for yourself, today? When we’re worn out with grief and hurt its time to fall back on first principles and face the most basic question of all.
This scene in the governor’s headquarters distills the whole of the global history of philosophy down to a simple, stark alternative. What is truth? For Pilate, the question’s absurd. There is no truth. Life is just power and advantage and maneuvering and making the best of it. Truth where forever and the past meet lies in the present for loves work.
Sunday, April 2, 2017