“What is truth?” Everyone knows perfectly well what truth is except Pontius Pilate – and philosophers, if all the philosophy classes I have taken attest. Truth is the quality of being authentic; being genuine is what some statements are. That is to say. Truth is a quality of the propositions underlying correctly-used statements. This definition seems plain enough, if a bit esoteric, but we live in an individualistic society claiming personal truths are the ones upheld. “Alternative facts” are often given the same confidence as the ones that fit the somewhat vague definition I just stated. Gun violence hides behind a perceived truth of the second amendment of our Constitution. Discrimination and violence against gender, race, refugees, and the abuse of God’s creation are just a few that hide behind specious interpretations of our Holy Scripture. – – What is truth?
Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. Even today, no one seems to realize that God’s new revelation and Good News is not a doctrine or an idea but a person – a person like any of us. Evelyn Underhill writes in her book “The School of Charity”:
“A person whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Christ, and pays the price of generous love ungrudgingly.”
Jesus was speaking and bringing the truth. Truth You don’t get from a test tube or a mathematical formula. We don’t have truth in our pockets. Philosophers and judges don’t own it. It is a gift, a strange quality that, like Jesus’ kingdom, comes from elsewhere but is meant to reside in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He is himself the truth. “You say that I am a king. For this, I was born and 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, of course, can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. As far as he knows, the only place you get truth is from a Roman sword (or, in our vernacular, out of the barrel of a gun). Political ‘truth’; my truth against your truth, my sword against your sword, with those two meaning much the same thing. Ultimately, for a Roman governor, my truth stands against your truth, my power against your weakness, my cross to hang your naked body on. Ah, but that’s the truth that belongs with Passover. The truth says one man dies, and the others go free. Barabbas, the bandit, perhaps a would-be king or a supporter of someone else’s failed messianic movement, also faces the cross. Somehow, through the cynicism, the casual local custom, the misunderstandings, the distortions, the plots and schemes, and betrayals and denials, the truth stands there in person, taking the death that would otherwise have fallen on the outlaw. Pilate didn’t see it at the time. Even cunning Caiaphas probably didn’t appreciate the irony of the point. John wants us to see what the cross will mean. This is what truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is, and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, Israel, and the world. And for you and me.
The followers of Jesus across the centuries have been repeatedly tempted to desire a kingdom aligned with this world. Christians sometimes want to fuse worship, faith, and justice commitments with a particular political agenda. This happens in American Christianity in the politics of the left-wing and right-wing parties, with liberalism and conservatism. The issues differ, but the passions are similar. We quickly forget the statement of Jesus: “My kingdom is not from this world.” The encounter between Jesus and the civil government is inevitably an ambiguous one. The ambiguity lies in the government’s tendency, in many instances, to claim our most profound commitment and loyalty. This can occur in warfare when laws impinge upon social issues that we care deeply about or in so closely identifying our ethnic tradition with the faith that we cannot easily distinguish between them. The Evangelist portrays the Jewish leaders and Pilate as those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. Jesus—the truth and light—stands before them, and they are so caught up in their political fog that they cannot see God’s new thing in their midst. The Evangelist turns the questions back to us. In the end, we must all make a decision about Jesus—for or against. How we respond depends on whether we see and hear.
Our world is infected with injustice. Jesus demonstrated the truth about this infectious injustice and the human cost required to maintain unjust power structures with his life, teachings, and death. Throughout his life and death, he shows us God’s loud “NO” to the dominant systems of this world and God’s louder “YES” to ways of hope, peace, and justice.
The church, then, is the community God calls into being out of the suffering of Christ. Its task, its call, is to remember what God has done. It is to tell the truth of the story and—in telling—to live it. Through our worship, God’s people fulfill their calling as the “new Israel.” The psalmist has said, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”
What is truth? The cross reveals the truth. The truth of pain and suffering continues because of the inhuman demands of our unjust systems and structures. The truth for those willing to join themselves to a community that continues to look on the cross. Who strives to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting, marginalized, and still being sacrificed – crucified – every day. The cross also opens up the way to transformation and salvation. May we be given the strength never to turn away from the cross and live more fully in the truth, the way, and the life revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord.