What is truth?

Lessons for the Last Sunday after Pentecost – The Feast of Christ the King: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Jesus answered, “You say that I 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?”

Pilate’s response is interesting (unfortunately, it is missing from today’s reading), “What is truth?” Indeed, what is truth? That is a question for the ages. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, politicians, poets, and priests have been searching for the answer for all of human history.

What is Jesus answer? You might think that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, might have an eloquent soliloquy in answer. But, no! Instead, what we get from Jesus is silence. Jesus, always so determined to rebuff the cynical and self-congratulatory questions of the Pharisees – always ready with quick response to the silliness of the disciples – often ready to answer a question with a question….now, Jesus has nothing. Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question. He just stands there in silence.

Silence is nothing new in the scriptures. The Psalmist prays, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (62:1) and “Be not silent, O God of my praise” (109:1). In the book of Revelation, when the Lamb opened the seventh seal “there was silence in heaven” (8: I) – creation itself coming to an end with a new creation about to begin. The silence that has always intrigued me the most, however, is this silence, the silence of Jesus before Pilate. “What is truth?” It seems to be a question tailor-made for the great Rabbi.

While Jesus does not answer the question here, he does address the question elsewhere in the Gospel. “What is truth?” “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Jesus doesn’t claim religion to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim what people teach about him to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim the Bible or the Church or some system of ethics or theology to be the truth. These all bear the imprint of the truth. They are all individual truths but that is not what Pilate was after. Pilate wasn’t in search of this or that truth. Pilate was after THE truth – the truth about who we are and who God is – the truth about being and about life and death and about eternity.

It is the truth that is The Word, spoken at creation and made flesh in Jesus. It is also the truth that can never be captured by words or doctrine or creed because it is too big or too far beyond the capacity of our language. But it is also the truth that will constantly beckon. “What is truth?” Look to Jesus.

Jesus told stories to describe the truth. Stories often serve well where descriptions will not.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan. This is truth.

Then there’s another story about the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Lost Brother, the last we know better as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You know the story where the wayward son returned home to be welcomed by his father with great celebration “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” This is truth.

Jesus life was truth, his actions and relationships with the people he knew. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus gave sight to the blind. Jesus expelled demons. This is truth.

And do you remember Jesus last sign involving a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, who had died. Jesus was brought to where Lazarus was and there he wept. But this would not be the end for, as he told Martha, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Instead of being the end for Lazarus, Jesus commanded that the stone of the tomb be taken away and Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out.” “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44). This is truth.

At 2:34 am, in the middle of what was a beautiful sleep, I was rudely awakened by a cat jumping on top of me. I can usually fall asleep without much trouble, even after an event like that, but this night I was having trouble because a passage of scripture was swirling through my head.

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.

Matthew 25:35-36

I can count on one hand when scripture strikes me so deeply in the middle of the night that it just must be added to my homily. But it happened this night. Maybe it was because I was preparing for Christ the King and this was last year’s Gospel selection or maybe I was considering the murals that line our Church (depictions of the same commands found in Matthew 25). In any event, there was the passage. And then it struck me: This is truth.

We’ve all signed agreements before, with cellphone carriers, cable companies, or banks. Have you read the fine print? Honestly, it’s maddening and so much so that most of us probably don’t even bother. If you ever do read it, however, you will find rule after rule and addendum after addendum. Then will notice that amidst the rules and addenda are a great number of asterisks that add numerous caveats to the rule and addenda.

When I got the first proofread copy of my dissertation back from my director, the email accompanying it read, “It looks good except for a few notes, which are marked by red asterisks.” It looked as though my director had bled all over the dissertation.

Asterisks mark the exceptions.

Please know, before I go any further, that I am preach from a place of searching – hopefully humble searching though not always, if I am honest. I don’t have a soapbox. I don’t have a policy paper. I’m preach, today, from my knees. While I am searching, I do know that my faith and what propels me to act are based on the above verses in Matthew as well as on the similar command in Micah 6:8,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Whatever our politics or ideologies or persuasions, even if they are vastly different, I longingly hope and deeply believe that we can common ground in the desire to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. While our ideas of justice, mercy, and walking with God may differ, we can at least meet quietly and listen carefully, praying together and searching for the truth.

That being said, there is a war going on. There is a war with bombs and guns, blood and death that is taking its toll on our humanity. There is also a different kind of war that is equally as real and just as deadly: peace against violence, hope against despair, courage against fear, love against hate.

We are all there, I imagine. I am there, right in the middle of it. Something struck me, though, as Matthew 25 floated through my sleepy brain.

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.

Matthew 25:35-36)

There are NO asterisks.

Jesus didn’t say, “For I was hungry, and you fed me.*

* First show me your tax statement so I know that you aren’t mooching off the system.

Jesus didn’t say, “I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.**

**But you smell of liquor and tobacco. Get sober. Then I will give you a drink of water.

Jesus didn’t say, “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.***

***But I can’t be sure that you are a real refugee. Huddle up with your hungry children under this tattered blanket and make yourself comfortable out in the cold. Unless you can prove you’re a Christian because then, of course, you are welcome.

No!!! There are no asterisks in Matthew 25.

I don’t have the answers. I am a broken man looking out on a broken world. There are times when I want to gather my house and shutter the doors, hiding from the wretched brokenness. But I refuse to give in to despair. I refuse to lose hope. I cannot give up on my broken self and this broken world because God did not give up on us. Even though we turned against God and betrayed God’s trust and even though we turned against one another, God has called us to return. God did not give up, sending prophets and sages, giving us a righteous law, and, the, in the fullness of time sending the Son, Jesus, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

The Good Samaritan could have walked right on by and would have been more justified than the priest or the Levite but he stopped, bandaged the wounds, and cared for the man. The father could have refused the son when he returned home but instead he welcomed him back. I refuse to give up on the brokenness of the world because when Jesus taught us how to pray he said, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It would be easy to sweep our arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare with Chicken Little, “The sky is falling.” Instead, I choose to be stubborn and look with hope. There is life right here before me. I believe that God has not yet given up on us gathered here nor on this world. Instead of shuttering my doors, I choose to point my children in the direction of hope: to the life right before them, to the opportunity for peace, to the presence of Christ in their midst.

I do this because my faith is bound in a man who gave himself in bread and wine for a hungry world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Messiah who gave himself as living water for a thirty world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Lord who healed the sick and bound up the broken-hearted.

I do this because my faith is bound in the King who set the captives free.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Middle Eastern family – a man, woman, and baby, who were once refugees themselves.

I am a Midwestern man who grew up on Florida’s east coast, who’s soul hungers and thirsts, who is in need of freedom and healing, whose soul is need of refuge.

I don’t have the answers but I believe that Jesus came as witness to the truth. The truth that God has wrapped our wounds…that God has welcomed us back after a long sojourn…that God has fed us, given us drink, covered our nakedness, healed our wounds, set us free, and given us refuge. No asterisks.

I pray the words of the Psalmist, together with our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, “Be not afraid.”

I pray love and peace and courage to us all…with no asterisks.

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