by The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
November 25, 2018
“What Is Truth?”
Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a 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?’
I don’t know when it happened. At some point, my idealism was shattered. I began to see the world of politics as little more than a process of cynical calculations. There had been a time when I thought such ideals as liberty, equality, justice, freedom, were the guides by which our government functioned. Now? I think they are secondary considerations. What seems to drive the politics of our day is what will keep folks in power. And you? Am I alone? I hope so. I hope that you can honestly say that noble ideals steer the course of American politics. But I spent nine years as a child living in Missouri, the “Show Me State.” So I will believe it when I see it.
I mention this because Pilate’s question is the quintessential question of those driven by power – “What is truth?” You see it in his actions. He wants no part of Jesus. Indeed, he seems to fear him. And notice what Jesus’ accusers say, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” The opinion of some officials claiming Jesus to be a criminal is hardly enough evidence to convict Jesus of anything. Pilate, wanting to avoid passing any judgment on Jesus, tells them to try Jesus themselves. There. That should do it. Everybody’s happy. The accusers can still bring a judgment against Jesus and Pilate if free of guilt. That should do it. Did it? No. The accusers now admit their true motive. Under Roman law, only Roman officials could sentence a person to death. That’s why they had brought Jesus to Pilate. They not only wanted Jesus to found guilty, they wanted him to be found guilty of a capital offense. In the end, Pilate was left little choice. Jesus does not directly answer Pilate’s question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” and since there can be only one government, one Caesar, one Rome, Jesus’ fate was sealed.
Is our age any different? Listen to the news today. I don’t care if it’s Fox news or CNN, both give an assessment politicians actions in terms Machiavelli would have loved. Most of their assessment of any given action is grounded in the power it will bring to a respective party. The question of fairness is not explored. Liberty is never mentioned. Equality takes a back seat. We live in a time when what guides our nation seems to consist of two polar political positions rather than shared principles that unite us as a nation. It is little wonder that Pilate’s question becomes our own, “What is truth?” Like him, we base much of our action not on principles but on politics.
Oh, but our problem is deeper than my loss of idealism. It is deeper than the sorry state of our politics. It cuts to the core of the church’s mission. In much of our daily deliberations and deeds we operate as if we don’t know the truth.
But wait. It was Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” People of faith know the truth. However, we don’t always life as if we do. I have not always brought honor to my mother and father. At times I will bend the truth and justify it by claiming a higher purpose. I don’t always turn the other check. I’ve been known to do the bear minimum and forget about that second mile. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? Oh, I believe it. I just haven’t lived it. And how are you doing? You know the Sermon on the Mount and if you don’t, you can find it in Matthew, chapters 5 though 7. Is your life lived in conformity to the teachings of Jesus? I have to admit that as much as I believe in Jesus, my life doesn’t always measure up.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Just my luck. I had four brothers!
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
I think I know my gender well enough to say that every male should be wearing an eye patch.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You know the world. Do you really think “do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” is good advice?
The reality is, Jesus is hard to follow. But here, in this sacred space, we affirm Him to be the way, the truth and the life.
So far we have identified two problems confronting Christians today. The first is the loss of idealism and the ascendancy of political skepticism. The second is Jesus Himself. We may profess Jesus to be the truth, we may believe it in our hearts, but we live in a world that does not seem to play by the rules of Jesus. If that is an apt description of the problems we face and why Pilate’s question is one we, too, ask, what is the cure?
It begins with being honest. We can accomplish nothing for Jesus if we are not honest. In regards to politics today those who see political calculation rather than our founding principles as the guide to policy are right. This is where we are and I think it is where we will be into the foreseeable future. That does not mean, however, that our principles can be cast aside. If we cannot find moral leadership within the government, let it be found here, in the hearts of those who have pledged to follow Jesus. When the marginalized are threatened by those in power, the church must speak. When people are used as pawns and barriers are erected to prevent one’s opponents from voting, the church must speak. When the gap between the rich and the poor grows to where it is today, the church must speak. These are not simply political issues. They have spiritual roots in the words of Jesus and the prophets. Honesty may require us to admit we cannot change the way the world sees politics, but we can help politics see the truth of Jesus.
Not only does honesty require a sober appraisal of our world, it requires us to be spiritually honest as well. So let it be said that while called to follow Jesus, we often don’t. When asked to carry His cross of service, we set it down. We are not who we say we ought to be. But we will not reduce the claim of Jesus on our lives in order to avoid the stigma of hypocrisy. We know the truth. We listened to His voice long ago and are listening to God’s voice today. So to those who condemn religion saying it is nothing more than pious fluff, I ask them to consider this. They, too, give their allegiance to institutions founded on ideals they fail to accomplish. Remember the trial of O. J. Simpson? His acquittal was an affront to justice and let me remind you that he was acquitted in a court of law. Do we call for the abolition of the courts? Do we say that because justice went wanting we need to do away with jury trials? No. To do so would be absurd. We recognize the flaws and continue to press for the ideal. So it must be in the realm of politics and faith. Neither will be what they should be this side of heaven. The question is not whether they will reach their ideals but whether we will fail to know when they don’t.
Long ago Pilate asked Truth itself, “What is truth?” We need not ask the question. We know. Our task is to follow in His way. Let us pray….
28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters.* It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters,*so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a 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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’