What is truth? – Sermon, March 17, 2013

“What is Truth?”
John 18.28-38
FBC Lawrence – Lent V

We’re getting closer aren’t we?  We are inching closer to the cross, and today’s story almost gets us there – in fact, the cross permeates the story.  We can’t tell today’s story – or fully answer the question posed today – and ignore the cross.  You know the children’s book, featuring Grover, There’s a Monster at the End of this Book? Well it’s a little like that: there’s a cross at the end of this story.  And there’s a resurrection at the end of that story.

But first…

A few verses above where I began reading a moment ago, Jesus is first interrogated by the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas.  After Jesus fails to answer them to their satisfaction, their anger magnifies and they are clearly done with him. They move to turn him over to the political authorities, escorting him to Pilate.

Pilate greets them outside. His question to the priests, “What accusation do you bring against him?,” doesn’t receive much of an answer at all. Pilate then tries to send Jesus back, clearly annoyed with these priests. He knows this is not a political matter, and attempts to recuse himself. However, the high priests will not be deterred. They know what they want; they want to see Jesus put to death. However, according to religious law, they cannot kill him. To keep their hands clean of his blood, their best bet is to provoke his execution at the hands of political authorities. And they are doing all they can to leave him to a certain fate under Pontius Pilate’s Roman authority.

After they abandon Jesus to Pilate, Pilate calls Jesus inside and proceeds with his questioning.  Pilate and Jesus then enter into a delicate dance. Pilate tries to give Jesus plenty of opportunity to evade the political consequences. Though Jesus seems not to answer directly he also will not lie. When Pilate asks: “What have you done?,” Jesus responds with an answer that seems somewhat out of place: “My kingdom is not of this world.”


Pilate thinks he may have caught him here. This may be where the questioning will end. To challenge Roman political authority, to claim anyone else is king besides Caesar, let alone to claim kingship for one’s own self? Well, this is a clear expression of treason, and a threat to the prevailing political reality. Surely, then, Jesus claiming a kingdom for himself would be enough. Yet, Jesus refuses to accept any of the institutional labels defined by Caesar. In the crux of their conversation, Jesus defines the sum of his purpose: “I have come to bear witness to the truth.”

To which Pilate responds, “What is truth?”

Was Pilate interested in a thorough exploration of rational understandings of truth and knowledge?

“What is truth?”

Does Pilate intend this as a rhetorical question? Is this an expression of exasperation at the whole situation? Or does he actually expect an answer? (He certainly doesn’t wait for one, if that’s the case.)

Does he ask, “What is truth?” as a way of dismissing Jesus and this entire interaction? It is clear that for Pilate, this whole exercise seemed a grand waste of time – from his first question through what comes later.

“What is truth?”

How do we begin to answer this question? In preparation for this sermon, I consulted an expert. Our very own Philosopher-in-Residence, Brandon Gillette, attempted to shed some light on the question for me.

Brandon expertly identified and explained several theories of truth (and for that I am grateful). Some involve propositions, states of affairs, where truth is defined by fulfilling, quantifiably, concrete criteria.  We can delineate between truth being made up of distinguishable facts – something is true if it is correct – and a truth that is known to us in other, more subjective ways.  You know, maybe Jesus needed Brandon standing next to him to help entertain Pilate’s question.  But I am not so sure that any of that is what Pilate was after in posing the question.

“What is truth?”

It’s not insignificant that John’s Gospel highlights the idea of truth in this exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate, who represents the civil and political authority, at whose hands Jesus ultimately suffers torture and death, challenges Jesus’ own articulation of his identity.  When pressed, Jesus expresses his purpose as testifying to the truth – to bear witness to the truth. Pilate’s response is one of ignorance – perhaps even willful ignorance – and outright dismissal. Even if his question were a serious one, even if he had stood there, hoping, waiting for Jesus’ answer, chances are it would not have been an answer Pilate would have accepted.

In the context of John’s Gospel, we don’t need to wait for Jesus’ answer either.  We don’t need definitions and proofs and theories to respond to Pilate’s question. The answer has been standing in front of Pilate all along. It is as though, through his version of the dialogue, John is winking at us. We already understand something Pilate could not grasp through his institutional inquiry. Throughout his Gospel, John aligns Jesus – as person, and as divinity – with deep and eternal understandings of truth. For John, the truth is wrapped up in the person of Jesus, and his life, his ministry, even his death and resurrection (to which this story points) offers us an embodied articulation of the truth. Truth is Jesus.

What does it mean for truth to be a person? For divine truth to be embodied in fully human frame?

This is a theme pervasive throughout John’s account of Jesus’s life. In the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” ImageWhat is this truth, though, and how will we know it?

Later, when Jesus claims, in the fourteenth chapter of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is answering this question by making a wholly countercultural claim.  Truth is not discovered in a rational system, or calculation.  Rather, truth is wrapped up in a person – in this person, in the Christ, and it is found in The Way.

Truth is not found in facts and figures, but in the call of Jesus to come and follow and live as he lives.

The words of the verse from chapter eight are etched in bold letters across the Main Building – the Tower – on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Presumably, these words were chosen as a testament to the centrality of knowledge, learning, information, education.  (And you know I am not one to ever begrudge these things.) But this is not at all what Jesus means. In the Greek, the word used for ‘know’ when Jesus says we “will know the truth,” indicates not knowledge or objective observation, but rather understanding, the kind that relies on every mode of our comprehension – seeing, hearing, investigation and experience: “Those who know [in this way] participate in the eternal.”[1] Therefore, Jesus isn’t saying you will know the kind of truth that is quantifiable or scientifically verifiable.  Rather, we will know this truth to the very core of our being – with all that we are.  We will know the truth, because we see who Jesus is, we see how he calls us to live, we see his Way. And it is in knowing truth in this way, that we are set free.

We return, still, to the question, “What is truth?” and we want rationality, we want certainty, we want information.  The reality is, though, that any truth that is wrapped up in Jesus is not a system. It’s not a definition. It is not even, at first – or maybe even at all – rational. Theologian Andrew Purves says this: “the truth of Christian faith…is not located in a…title – in “Christ”… The truth for Christian faith is located in the personal particularity of Jesus, who in the flesh of his humanity is both Christ and God.”[2]

In John’s nativity story, he writes that Jesus is the Word. He is eternal, and he came into the world to dwell among us full of grace and truth. What is this truth? For John it is about light breaking through the darkness. Though darkness threaten our world, though it encroaches, the light and hope of Christ will break through and shine even in the darkest places – it is already doing so.

We have been tracing this light since Advent.  We lit candles, one each week, waiting for the Christ light of Christmas Day. We watched for and followed alongside the magi the Epiphany star. We continue to light the Christ Candle, acknowledging that even in the quiet darkness of Lent, in the dimness of our waiting, his light shines still. Yet the truth pervasive in John’s Gospel is this truth: the light of Christ opens up a way for us to experience grace even in the midst of our continued imperfection.  Even in our own darkness, Christ’s truth is a light that shines brighter.

Pilate’s question persists: “What is truth?”

John tells us all we need to know: Jesus himself is the Truth. We do not know truth because we memorize a system; we know truth because we live it.

We do not know truth because we understand and articulate theories; we know truth because we have seen it embodied in Jesus.  God created us for and pursues us to be in relationship; we know the truth through relationship with God in Christ, and with one another. We cannot separate our seeking theological and spiritual truth apart from relationship. God’s own truth is wrapped up in Jesus, and we know it because we can and do encounter the living Christ – through him.

The living Christ came to challenge our assumptions in his life and teaching

To say that truth is found in a person is at once thoroughly unsettling, countercultural, and irrational. And look at the person we call truth: What kind of truth refuses to defend itself in the face of political adversity? Jesus, though, refuses to abide by Pilate’s definitions.

My Kingdom is not of this world.

Pilate’s kingdom holds that power oppresses, power controls, and power restrains. But Jesus’ way calls us to know a different truth: that “the most powerful person in all creation became powerless for our sake.”[3] His power was revealed in his vulnerability. He set us free from our old ways and calls us to live not for our own sake. In his death and resurrection he turned upside down our ideas about power and success.

Jesus tells us he is the truth and the way, and his way points to an eternal truth not about equations or rationalities.  It is the grace revealed in his final words: “Father Forgive,” and “It is Finished,” not in final blows of retribution or declarations of warfare and violence. It is the irrationality of the cross, and of the power found through Christ’s sacrifice of his power. Jesus turns on its head our expectation that our truth, power, and knowledge will fully satisfy our longings, pointing rather to a deeper truth: a truth found in a person, which can only be known by walking in his footsteps, by following his way.

God’s own truth is a wholly irrational truth. In the cross we witness divine grace that is demonstrated through sacrifice – in laying down his own life, his own pride, his own selfish will to survive, Jesus taught us a new way. In his ministry we see the truth of self-emptying love expressed through faithfulness and peace. These are certainly not rational things, but they are true things. I appreciate these words from Dylan Breuer on the countercultural irrationality of Christ’s truth, found ultimately in his death and resurrection. She writes, “there is peace and forgiveness, [in] the wounds that declared an end to anyone’s right to wound, the death that declared an end to anyone’s need to kill, the strength and courage and compassion to be naked before the powers of this world and to see in that the power of our suffering, dying and living to God.”[4]

And here too is God’s own truth – that the eternal God, the God who created the world – loves us enough to dwell among us, to walk alongside us, to suffer with us, even into death. But God’s truth doesn’t end there. God’s truth is the eternal truth that comes alive in resurrection, that creates and creates again, each of us, every day. God calls us Beloved, and we are resurrected alongside Christ, called to new life.  This is the truth of John 1, the light that outshines our darkness, and the truth that pervades through the Gospel, of life that continues to defeat death.

And here too is God’s own truth – that our salvation is wrapped up in this embodied truth – in the truth of the Incarnation. We call that truth by name – Jesus, who is our Christ –and to say that we are saved through that truth, means that we ought to know what we are called to do: to love God, love others, believe in God, care for the poor and hungry, be wary of riches.  When we eat and drink together, around the meal Jesus first celebrated out of the Passover tradition, we share in the embodied reality of this truth.

And here too is God’s own truth – Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free.  We are created anew. The grace of God, in Christ, makes all things new – makes us new, makes our definitions, ideas, our way new with each new day. In that we are set free. “We are free. Free to love, free to serve, freed from every system and every habit that made us. … We are free to claim the vision of a world made new, the immeasurable wideness of God’s mercy.”[5] If Jesus is truth embodied – in God made flesh – then he not only embodies truth about who God is and the way God intends, but he further embodies the truth about who we are as human beings, created in the image of God. As the fully authentic human being, Jesus is the truth about who God created us to be.

And here too is God’s own truth – Jesus tells us all we need to know about his Way: we are called to love God and to love others.  That’s it.  That’s the whole of the Gospel; that’s the essence of Christ’s way. We know that because that is how Jesus lived. Rachel Held Evans writes, “when God strapped on sandals and walked among us, God fed the hungry, wept with the mourning, touched the untouchable, turned water into wine, … defended the defenseless, bantered with children, forgave his enemies.”[6]

And here, too, is God’s own truth of the resurrection (if you will permit me to skip ahead): that Jesus continues to walk this way with us. We have not been left with a set of instructions left to our own devices to decode. The living Christ, through the Spirit, walks the way with us, and continues to teach and show us the way, as we continue to pursue truth through relationship with him.

And here too is God’s own truth – Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. That Kingdom is already dwelling in us, among us, both because of us and in spite of us. What would it take to take this on as our mantra? What would it take to claim it for ourselves – not just to say Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, but OUR Kingdom – yours and mine – is not of this world? This kingdom is powerful stuff – it relies not on any political party, or leader, or majority rule. It is a kingdom of love, grace, and inclusion, and that, my friends is real power.  That is God’s own truth.


[1] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985. 119.

[2] Andrew Purves, The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord, IVP Books, 2010. 27.

[3] Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Christ our Passover,” http://www.sarahlaughed.net/sermons/2004/04/christ_our_pass.html, April 9, 2004.

[4] Sarah Dylan Breuer, Good Friday, Year B, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/04/good_friday_yea.html, April 13, 2006.

[5] Sarah Dylan Breuer, 2004.

[6] Rachel Held Evans, “Ashamed,” rachelheldevans.com/blog/ashamed, March 7, 2013.


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