What Is Truth? (Christ the King Sunday)

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As many of you know, I am NOT a morning person!  It takes me a while to fully wake up and be coherent, and I’m a little bit grumpy if I’m prodded too much before I have enough coffee.

But even more than mornings, I have become even more irritable when people try to triangulate me into their personal fights.  That is, when somebody tells me that I need to tell somebody else that they’re wrong and the other person is right.

And those two personal irritations have always conditioned how I’ve read the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. 

It’s not quite clear from the verses in today’s reading, but the set up to this piece of the Passion narrative is that Pilate has been awakened VERY early in the morning by the Jewish religious authorities who insist on triangulating him in their dispute with Jesus … (“get up and take care of our problem for us!”)

And it’s impossible for me to read this without feeling that Pilate is REALLY ticked off by the situation.  And because the religious leaders won’t enter the pagan headquarters, Pilate has to keep running back and forth between Jesus and the leaders, and he’s becoming more and more irritated – “What have you done?!”…

And then Jesus starts to speak to him about truth, and how Jesus has come to testify to the truth.  And to this, Pilate retorts, “What is truth?”

“What is truth?”  It’s an interesting question, because I’m not totally sure what Pilate means by it.  It’s possible that Pilate’s question is:

  • An honest query about the nature of truth – “how can I know what’s real and what’s fake?  What is the actual ‘truth’ here?”  After all, Pilate’s tired and maybe if he could just figure out the real facts, he could resolve this and go back to bed…
  • A cynical sneer – “is there anything that’s really ‘true’? Isn’t what one person calls ‘true’ just an opinion or a perspective?”  After all, there were a lot of “truths” in the Roman Empire, and maybe Pilate was just tired of getting sucked into philosophical debates…
  • A simple statement of political reality – “what does it matter what ‘truth’ is?” The ‘truth’ is that if it’s necessary for Jesus to die in order for Pilate to keep the peace, than that’s what’s gonna happen, and it doesn’t objectively matter at all if this “king” or “messiah” stuff is real or not.  That’s the hard “truth” for Pilate …

So which is it?  What question is Pilate really asking about “truth”?  We might get some insight, but that’s the last line of the conversation.  Either Jesus didn’t answer the question, or Pilate didn’t wait around for an answer.

And yet, it’s still a good question for us to ponder.  “Truth” is a subject of much debate in our world and in our lives these days.  And indeed, when we wonder about “truth” we, too, are often asking:

  • How can I know what’s real?  After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.  And lots of fake stuff out there looks true.  What’s objectively “true” on our social media?  In our news feeds?  From our leaders?  And how can we know?
  • Is there really anything that’s “objectively true”?  Or is it all just perspective and opinion?  We’ve just been through an election in which opposing candidates agreed that, for instance, a trial happened.  One said they were defending themselves from false accusations, and another said they were trying to get away with illegal schemes.  Is there any real “truth”, or is it all just a matter of your political perspective?
  • Does the “truth” – even if it objectively exists – really matter?  After all, politicians on all sides recognize the political reality of the fact that if people feel that something to be true, they vote accordingly.  It doesn’t matter if the “facts” don’t back up their feeling.  And so does the “truth” really even matter?

These are the questions we still ask about “truth”.  And while Jesus may or may not have answered this question when Pilate asked it, Jesus did in fact, answer this question for us.

Back a couple of chapters in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as the truth.  “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he says (John 14:6).  And this would simply be pious drivel (and even insane drivel), except for what comes after today’s discussion of truth with Pilate.

Regardless of whether Pilate knows what the truth is, or if he thinks there is such a thing as truth, or even if he cares, he has Jesus crucified.  And Jesus dies.  And Jesus is buried.  And that should be the end of this “truth” discussion.

But then Jesus rises from the dead.  And his disciples experience his living presence.  And in the experience of the Resurrection, the disciples find out that “truth” is:

  • An objective reality – yet “truth” isn’t an idea or a concept, but life itself.  And that means that all of Jesus’ talk about life, and God’s love and God’s forgiveness weren’t just ideas or concepts, but are actual living realities in their lives through the Risen Jesus…
  • Therefore, not an argument to be won, but an experience to be lived.  In John’s Gospel, there is no attempt to “prove” the Resurrection – that is, to win the reasonable argument that this just seems impossible.  Instead, there’s simply a witness to what they have lived and experienced and seen and felt in their lives.  They know it’s true because they have a living relationship with the living Jesus.  And that’s how we live into the “truth” as well …
  • Does matter – because even when death stomps it out, God’s life doesn’t die.  And that means our lives have value and meaning, even if the world doesn’t think we – or indeed – anything, really matters…

Well, there are many ideas about “truth” in our world today.  But from a Christian perspective, “truth” is fundamentally not an idea, or a concept, or even an objective fact.  Instead, “truth” is found in a living relationship with the living God.  And that’s why Jesus calls us not to simply “know” the truth, but to “belong” to the truth.

And when we belong to the “truth” that is the life of God, we live into the objective reality of God’s love and forgiveness.  When we belong to the truth, we get to share the experience of that love and forgiveness without the need or expectation to “prove” it to anybody.  And when we belong to the truth, it finally means that we don’t own the truth – the truth owns us.  And that “truth” is what promises us life everlasting.