Have you ever had this experience? You’re in the market for a new car, or at least a different car. You become interested in some particular make and model, and then, all of a sudden you start seeing them everywhere you look. It’s funny how that happens. One year, Pam and I began thinking that it would be nice to get a Dodge Grand Caravan for our growing family. Suddenly every other car on the road turned out to be a Dodge Grand Caravan. They were everywhere!
Funny things like that can happen in other ways too. Every once in a while, there will be someone that I really need to get a hold of, and then they just appear. I’ll bump into them at the store, or on the street, or they’ll happen to drop by the church. Occasionally, I’ll have that experience with preaching too. I’ll decide to talk about a particular subject, and all at once that very subject starts popping up all over the place. This morning’s scripture reading for instance, about Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilot, carries an interesting conversation about the nature of truth. Years ago, when I was leading my church in Westport, I decided to use this same passage for a sermon about truth. The same day I gave the bulletin information to my secretary, a plain white envelope appeared in my mailbox. Inside was this brochure that said, “Would You Like to Know THE TRUTH?” I said to myself, “Boy would I! That would save me a lot of time!”
Unfortunately, “The Truth,” according to the brochure, turned out to be a literal reading of the Bible. It claimed that the Bible, all by itself, was supposed to be our highest authority for everything. However, much as I do respect our scriptures, when I go looking for “The Truth,” I find myself seeking a higher authority.
This story of Jesus before Pilot is a good example. Jesus is on trial. His life is in the balance, and Pilot has the authority to see him live or die. The conversation goes back and forth between them. Pilot, apparently, is trying to get a handle on who exactly Jesus thinks he is. Finally, Pilot says to him, “So you’re a king!?” It was both a statement and a question. But rather than answering directly, Jesus takes the conversation to a higher level. He says that, even if it’s true that he’s a king, his kingdom is vastly different than what Pilot was imagining. He sums it all up by saying, “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.”
Now, let me ask you, when Jesus said he came to testify and belongs to “The Truth,” do you think he was talking about “The Bible?” Well, it’s sort of a trick question. The answer has to be no. He couldn’t have been. The Bible as we know it did not even exist yet, the New Testament that is. The Bible that did exist was entirely made up of what we’ve come to call the Old Testament. There was nothing in it about Jesus at all, at least nothing that we recognized until sometime later. The Truth Jesus was talking about was God; the living and dynamic Spirit of God. And yes, the Bible does talk a lot about thatTruth, but the Bible itself is not theTruth, and that’s a very important distinction.
This idea of Truth has always been important to me. Way back when I was a little kid I remember fretting about it. Specifically, I remember getting into situations where what I thought was real and what someone else thought was real didn’t quite line up, and it really threw me. When I was young, my family went through a pretty intense time for a while and there was a lot of arguing on all sides. At one point, I asked my mother, “Why do we fight so much?” She gave this concerned look that I’ll never forget, and said, “What do you mean? We don’t fight.”
Now, as an adult, I can easily see that mom and I were simply describing the situation in two different ways. But back then, what I thought was, “O.K. It seems to me like we’ve been fighting, but mom says we’re not. We can’t both be right. One of us must be crazy, and since I know that mom is always right about everything, clearly she isn’t the one who’s crazy. I guess it must be me.” Little kids do funny things like that in their heads. I’m sure mom wasn’t trying to tell me I was crazy, but in my own mind, that’s the conclusion I came to, or at least that’s what I worried might be happening. And to keep that from happening, I became passionately, almost compulsively committed to telling the truth.
Years later, when I started really getting involved in my faith, I came across stories in the Bible like this one about Jesus and Pilot. When I heard Jesus say that he came to testify to the truth, that he belongs to the truth, that he has come to lead us to the truth, it really spoke to me. Because truth, for me, was not just about being honest. It’s about not being crazy.
Of course, I’m not a little kid anymore. But some of those early lessons from childhood do have a tendency to stick with us as we get older. I believe in the truth. I believe in telling the truth, to the best of my ability. But more than that, I believe that truth is another name for God, and that following God and following the truth are more or less the same thing. That’s essentially what Jesus was trying to tell Pilot. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” I don’t know if it’s ever occurred to you before, but one of the main reasons Jesus was crucified was because of his refusal to deny this very truth; the truth of God.
When we translate this into our own lives, truth becomes the foundation for all of our other values. It’s pretty hard to have a lot of honesty, integrity, decency, or trust in our lives if there’s no truth to begin with. And what is true of our values is also true of our relationships. All healthy relationships depend on the trust that rises from truth. I don’t know how you feel about it, but the minute I know that someone has lied to me, it calls into question everything that person has ever done or said. Lying damages relationships in ways that are very hard to recover from.
On the other hand, lying is so much a part of our lives. It’s funny to me how often the TV shows we get caught up in have to do with the lies people tell each other, and the consequences of those lies. Maybe you remember the show, “Lie to Me.” The whole premise was built around the fact that we all lie, and the ability of the lead character to detect and reveal those lies. I also remember the show “House,” which was about a half-crazy medical diagnostician who always assumed that all his patients were lying to him. Recently, Pam and I have been watching old reruns of Friends. It’s a very funny show. It’s nice to watch something that is light and entertaining. But it’s amazing how often those six “friends” end up dancing around the truth with each other. It’s funny, on the show. But in real life, not so much. In real life, all that dancing around doesn’t just magically work itself out at the end of a 30-minute episode.
Part of the challenge we face these days, is that our whole notion of truth is under assault. People say that we live in a post-modern world. And one of the great hallmarks of post-modern thinking is that our old notions of truth no longer apply. In the post-modern world, there is no such thing as a truth that is true for everybody. It is all simply a matter of perspective and opinion. So, when people seem like they’re lying, what’s really going on is that they are simply telling the truth from their own personal point of view.
Now, in fairness, this post-modern appreciation of different perspectives has actually been helpful in some ways. It can help us realize that, in order to get at the whole truth, sometimes we have to listen to voices that have not always been part of the conversation. We’ve just had our Thanksgiving celebration for instance. What we’ve come to learn about it is that the standard White American truth of Thanksgiving is very different than the Native American truth of Thanksgiving. If we are willing to have our consciousness raised a bit, what we could end up with is a larger truth than either group of us had to a begin with. We could celebrate a larger diversity and a broader sympathy.
But unfortunately, that’s not usually what happens. What has been happening is that, rather than expanding our understanding of what is and is not true, we’ve started hunkering down inside the fortresses of the truths we already believed. We close our minds and hearts to perspectives other than our own. We have begun to see people with other experiences and other points of view as our enemies.
All of this is completely out of keeping with Jesus. You know that, right? Jesus whole life and ministry was about breaking down the barriers between people; about opening people up to one another; about bringing healing across lines of race, religion, gender, social class, education and what have you. Read the stories, or read them again it it’s been awhile. Jesus was forever reaching out in love and compassion to those very people his society ignored and/or despised. He had no patience with people who thought they deserved to be in the privileged class. He had no patience with arrogance or intolerance. And the entire foundation of this ministry was built up from one thing; truth. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus made no bones about it, he belonged to the truth, and he wanted his followers to belong to the truth as well.
A few years ago, Stephen Colbert coined a new word that got a lot of attention. The word was “Truthiness.” It was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2005 and by Merriam-Webster in 2006. According to Wikipedia…
Truthinessis the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination of facts.
Truthiness is not what is true, it is what we want to be true, or believe should be true and therefore must be true. In an interview, when Colbert was asked about his own definition, he said this…
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything … Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feelit to be true, but that Ifeel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.
Truthiness is a perfect word to describe our post-modern thinking; the belief that there is no such thing as a truth that applies to all of us. Colbert went on to say that the practice of truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I agree with him.
It tears out country apart because, if there is no larger truth to which we can all appeal, it destroys our ability to trust one another, to judge between guilt and innocence, to work together for anything like a greater good. We are left with every family and tribe, every race and religion, every political party battling it out with one another over who will end up being in power over everybody else. When the truth is not the foundation of our lives and our society, the only thing that remains is “might makes right.”
Jesus belonged to the truth. He came to testify to the truth. He gave his followers a vision of the truth and said that that truth would set them free. The entire foundation of our faith rises from a truth that surpasses any one of us and all of us together, and without that truth there can be no Christianity. If we are going to call ourselves Christian, followers of Christ, it is fair to say that, whatever else we may do, we will strive to belong to the Truth.