Truth Matters

The text of the sermon, based on John 18.33-37, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 21, 2021.

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Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine. The religious authorities have accused Jesus. Not of blasphemy, claiming to be God. That is a theological matter. Pilate couldn’t care less. Rather they have charged that Jesus claims to be “King of the Jews.” That is a political matter of sedition against the state. Pilate, seeking to keep the peace and Caesar’s favor, couldn’t care more.

Pilate’s headquarters. The place of judgment. Yes, for Jesus. Whether he lives or dies. Yet also for Pilate. Pilate, the captor, is challenged by the captive Jesus through whom Pilate might behold his destiny of history’s judgment about what is right and what is wrong. (Sometimes in this life laden with ambiguity, there are moments that achieve the crystalline-clarity of either-or.) Will Pilate, the governor, look and let himself be governed by what he sees or will he turn away?

Pilate, fretful and fearful, demands, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus, always responding to a query with his own, clarifying the intent of the questioner, “Is it you or another who asks? Is this your concern or that of others?”

Pilate, threatened, countering defensively, “How would I, a Roman, know? Your people turned you over to me!”; then scrambles to stay on the offensive. “What did you do?”

Now, Jesus answers Pilate’s initial question (saying, as I interpret it, “Nothing worthy of your crucifixion and everything worthy of your worship”): “My kingdom is not here.”

“Aha!” Pilate, confused, at once, is relieved and troubled. “You are a king!”

“As you have said it,” Jesus declares, “then it is true. And all who know truth listen to me.”

Our gospel reading ends before what, for me, is the most poignant moment of this encounter. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Yet, awaiting no reply, hastily departs.[1]

In the face of truth (the truth of who Jesus is, the Word of God, the animating power of the universe in flesh; therefore, the truth of life, the truth of all being and becoming, the truth of the meaning of existence[2]), Pilate turns away.

As the story unfolds, Pilate, with no evidence of a crime,[3] condemns Jesus to die. And for two millennia, history remembers that Pilate, holding in hand the power to do right, sacrificed Jesus and his own integrity on the altar of political expediency.

We may (pray God!) never encounter a moment, as the poet describes, when our destiny of history’s judgment falls heavily on our shoulders, our souls:

Once to every man and nation

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood,

For the good or evil side.[4]

However, today, life in our nation is riven by strife. Political, social, racial. All of it, disturbing. None of it showing signs of declining. And truth, always seeming to depend on one’s point of view, conflicting

Concerning how to tread with care the perilous path of these days, I (humbly, for I have no first or last word about anything!) offer counsel in the form of two propositions and one question:

Proposition 1: If Truth with a capital “T” can be described as everything about God and everything that is existentially real and ethically right, then, by that definition, Truth is impossible for us to know completely.

Proposition 2: If we, in our lives and living, necessarily must discern and decide what is true with a small “t”, that is, our individual truths, then, inevitably, we, from time to time, will disagree with one another about what is Truth with a capital “T”.

Question: When, not if that happens, will we listen to others with whom we disagree and, perhaps, discover something about Truth with a capital “T” that we did not know or will we, like Pilate, turn and walk, run away?

In the moment, it occurs to me to add and to close with a one-word exhortation: Choose.

© 2021 PRA

#whatistruth #listeningtoandlearningfromtheother


[1] See John 18.38a

[2] See John 1; especially John 1.3-4, 14

[3] See John 18.38b

[4] From The Present Crisis; the first two lines of the fifth stanza; my emphases (1845) by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). In 1890, Thomas John Williams (1869-1944) fashioned portions of this poem, set to his tune Ebenezer, into the hymn, Once to every man and nation.

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