Preached on March 11, 2018 at PC Chestertown
“What is truth?” Pilate’s question to Jesus has been asked millions of times by practically every human being. People are always trying to make sense of what is true about the world, about life, about anything and everything. What can be believed and trusted?
Truth is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “the body of real things, events, and facts,” “a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality,” and as “a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.”[i]
Philosophers and scientists and theologians spend their lives reading, writing, testing, and discerning the truth. Presumably, truth is something that can be known and proven. And yet, human experience has revealed to us that truth is often relative; what is true for one person or one situation, isn’t necessarily true for another.
And we live in a time when it’s really hard to know what’s true. The incredible number of media outlets and their conflicting reports leave us wondering what’s true and trustworthy about people and things happening around the world.
So we can understand why Pilate looks at Jesus and asks mockingly, “What is truth?”
For Pilate, truth has nothing to do with religion. Truth is found in power and strength. Truth lies in the hands of Roman leadership.
For the Jewish leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate, truth is found in God and the Scriptures. But their belief and understanding about truth doesn’t leave space for Jesus. They know what they believe to be true about God and the Messiah and Jesus doesn’t fit the bill. The truth he speaks of is blasphemy.
Truth, according to Jesus, is so incredibly different from anything anyone else knows or understands. Jesus claims to testify to the truth; this is what he was born for. He says that those who listen to him know what is true. Jesus is truth. His mission is truth. And he, the truth he embodies, is trustworthy.
For Jesus, truth is love, compassion, justice, dignity, equality, and care. The truth has been revealed by him in all of the things he has said and done up to this point. Unfortunately, Pilate and the Jewish leaders aren’t able to wrap their heads around it.
Perhaps because the question they should have been asking was “Who is truth?” rather than “What is truth?”
That question – “Who is truth?” – was answered for me, over and over again while in Africa last month. As I’ve been processing the trip, especially focusing on my experience of God and God’s presence, the one thing that has been important for me is the ways in which people exhibited their great trust in God’s truth and the embodiment of that truth in Christ. For many of the people I met, Jesus is truth. There’s no denying it. So I want to share some stories and thoughts about my time there and how I’ve come to understand this.
In Malawi and Rwanda, we prayed… A LOT! We prayed before meals, before drinking tea, before, during, and after worship, while visiting prayer houses and historic, sacred places, when distributing malaria nets, and when greeting and departing from visits with people. Reverend Nyirongo, the most recent pastor of Matiki (who left for another church right after we left) opened every single prayer he led by acknowledging that we come to God’s throne of grace. There’s that kingdom language. Every time he prayed and said those words, I could hear Jesus telling Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and I could see the visions which John describes in the book of Revelation, of the Son sitting on the throne and of the twenty-four elders worshiping him.
The act of prayer rooted everything that we said and did together. We were constantly acknowledging that God was among us and that we worship a king who is humble and kind, who deserves our thanks and praise.
Jesus influences how people live in community together. The congregation, as well as the men’s, women’s, and youth guilds are taking Christ’s truth and mission out of the church and into their villages. Their evangelistic efforts bring people to Christ; their educational efforts afford children the opportunity to learn; their compassion leads them to provide malaria nets for the most vulnerable in their community, regardless of financial situation or religious beliefs. Our delegation had the great honor of distributing the 2000th malaria net at one of the prayer houses to a woman who has no connection to the church.
Ruth Mvula, the wife of Dan who chairs the partnership committee, shared with me about an organization she started to ensure that children are going to school and that they have everything they need. If she, or others involved in her organization, see children out when they should be at school, they talk to the children and their parents to find out why they aren’t in school and then they find a way to get them there.
Not only do our friends in Malawi believe that Jesus is truth, they live it out. They seek after God’s truth and make it known to those around them. They are guided by the truth and they cannot keep it to themselves. They are an inspiration to us here in Chestertown, showing us how to be Christ’s light and truth in the world. And that’s worth more than any amount of money we might provide them with.
Now my experience of truth was quite different in Rwanda. It was immediately obvious to me that the truth is difficult. The effects of the genocide can still be felt. The day we arrived was Umanganda, a day of community work that all Rwandans take part in on the last Saturday of each month. All businesses were closed and people are required to take part in service projects in their villages, cleaning and improving the country – TOGETHER. It’s required by the government in an effort to build unity among people and I found that to be truly impressive and inspiring.
But it quickly became clear to me that no matter what requirements are placed on people, truth-telling wasn’t happening. Appearances are so important to the government, wanting to appear developed and clean. Thatched roofs are illegal and heavy fines are in place for littering. Churches are being closed because they aren’t up to the government’s physical standards, though they won’t admit that this is the reason they are closing them.
Appearances don’t tell the whole truth, though. People don’t talk to each other, they don’t share their stories and experiences. They don’t greet you with a friendly smile or even make eye contact on the street. While the government is forcing unity, people are struggling to be honest and to tell the truth about their feelings and the burdens that they’re living with.
While enjoying a wonderful meal with theological students who are being trained to serve as pastors in churches throughout Rwanda, I learned that these students didn’t know much about each other. Each of them shared with us what their names meant, and the meanings were powerful, alluding to the situations and experiences of their families at the time that they were born. They didn’t know what each other’s names meant. They didn’t know each other’s stories. This was jarring for me, as my seminary experience was one of openness and honesty with my peers. How else could we go out into congregations, wrestle with our beliefs, and understand who we were if we didn’t tell our stories?
Truth-telling is difficult in Rwanda. Perhaps because the truth is hard to see, hard to hear, hard to believe, hard to cope with. A walk through the Genocide Memorial can attest to this.
Yet, for some, God’s truth is a source of comfort, strength, and wisdom. The theology students like Peter, Benjamin, and Theogene helped me to know that the truth – that Christ – is still alive in Rwanda. These future pastors smiled the entire time we were with them. Despite their own experiences and struggles, despite the fact that churches are not considered a safe, trusting place by some, these young men know and trust the truth of God, embodied in Christ.
These men have a huge task in front of them; they have the real job of building unity, of repairing relationships, of facilitating conversation and truth-telling in the congregations and communities they will serve. And they can root all of this in Christ, the God of love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.
Our truth, as followers of Christ, is Christ himself. So why do we find ourselves trusting in and basing our lives on other truths? We live in a world where many people claim to have and know the truth about an assortment of things. Every political party has the truth. Every religious tradition has the truth. The media tells us what is supposedly true about how we should look and dress. Everywhere we hear voices telling us the truth.
But there’s only one true voice. Everyone on the side of truth listens to Jesus. The Jewish and Roman leaders tried to tell people that Jesus said nothing that was true, that he was guilty of blasepmhy.
Jesus was guilty. He was guilty of loving unconditionally; of healing those who desperately needed it; of seeking justice for the oppressed; of opposing superiority sought in status and privilege. Jesus was guilty of telling the truth, of living the truth, of being the truth.
When we ask ourselves “What is truth?” or “Who can I trust?” the answer should be obvious. It’s obvious to our friends in Malawi. It’s clear to future pastors in Rwanda. The question is not “What is truth?” but “Who is truth?” And the answer is Jesus. Jesus tells Pilate this directly. He exists to testify to God’s truth, to who God is.
As I consider our Gospel text and my trip to Africa and where we are in the season of Lent, I am forced to consider what truth is central to my life and my being. What do I know and believe so confidently that I will not compromise? We need to ask ourselves those questions. And I pray that our answer will be Christ. He tells us it is so. We don’t have to wait for Easter to learn of this truth, even though Pilate and Jewish leaders do.
We have a reliable, trustworthy source of truth who we can stake our lives on. So when we’re discerning what’s true about guns and video games and nuclear weapons and healthcare and food stamps and just flat out how to treat people, when we want to know and assert what’s right, perhaps we should simply ask ourselves “Who is truth?” And we’ll know. Amen.