To Tell the Truth

Preaching the Great Ends of the Church – The Preservation of the Truth
Primary Text: John 18:28-38a

I heard the other day that, earlier this summer, ABC actually filmed a short season of the game show To Tell the Truth. Most of us have been around long enough to have seen one of its many iterations. Sorry, young people…

In case you aren’t familiar, or have forgotten, the game works like this:
Three people are introduced, all claiming to be the same “mystery guest”. The would host typically ask each contestant, as they stood side by side, “What is your name, please?” Each player then stated the same thing, “My name is [the mystery person’s name].”

Four celebrity panelists then had some time to ask questions of all the players. The imposters could be truthful or make up answers. The actual person was sworn to tell the truth. The game ended when the host requested that “the real mystery person please stand up.” The truth was revealed.

In our passage today, Jesus is the only contestant. But it seems that between the leaders of the temple and Pilate, there are plenty of questions about who Jesus claims to be, who the people claim he is and the truth about his identity.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus is depicted as both pastoral and political. Marcus Borg describes him as a “social prophet” who criticized the economic, political and religious elite. Borg writes that Jesus advocated for an alternative social vision, and was regularly in conflict with the authorities.

He was put on trial for acts of compassion and justice – for pointing to a realm (a kingdom of heaven) where everyone has what is needed to survive. Jesus’ political activism called for a kingdom where no one is superior due to status or privilege. And as the messiah, the son of God, that kingdom would be his to reign.

Pilate goes through the motions, though Jesus’ fate was sealed from the beginning. The Jewish leaders had the desire, but not the authority to be rid of him. Thus, they handed him over to Pilate, who would hand him over to be executed.

But not before Jesus said these words…
“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 then asks “What is truth?”

It’s hard to know precisely what Pilate was asking. Perhaps it was snark. Perhaps it was philosophical. I don’t know. But it always makes me wonder if we humans can ever really know the answer or know truth.

And yet… Jesus gives us the answer. Already gave the answer, in fact. Perhaps Pilate was playing the first ever round of Jeopardy.  I’ll take “Identifying the Jewish Messiah for 1000,” Alex.

If we back up a bit to chapter 10, you recall that Jesus describes himself as “the shepherd of the sheep. The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

What did Jesus tell Pilate? Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Then In chapter 14 of John’s gospel, when he was speaking to the disciples about going to prepare a place for them (and us), Thomas asked how they would know the way, how they would be able to  follow Jesus to where he was going.

And Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I have come to testify to the truth…
to bear witness to the truth…
to point to the truth…

What is truth? Jesus says I am truth
I am God’s promise.
I am God’s continued presence in this world.
I am God’s plan for salvation.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection bears witness to the truth that  God’s greatest desire has always been for humanity to return to the beauty and intimacy of our first love, for the complete reconciliation between  creator and created.

The truth of that love has been preserved across millenia in the sacred stories passed down through our spiritual ancestors in this Book. The first stories come from the Hebrew scriptures, recounting God’s faithfulness and generosity, God’s continued hope for humanity to become what we were created to be – a clear reflection of God, true image-bearers.

Evidence of God’s mercy is there in the beginning:

It was not good for Adam to be alone, and so when all of creation wasn’t enough, God made Eve to be his partner.

God showed great tenderness and care for Adam and Eve as they left the garden to begin again, clothing them and keeping watch. The Lord stayed near, even as humankind struggled and fought and passed down their brokenness from one generation to the next. God watched for and blessed those who honored God’s ways and sought peace.

After the Flood, God even promised not to destroy everyone if we needed another re-boot. So when the tower near Babel rose too high, God kept that promise and scattered the people into different tribes and tongues, hoping that another re-set might help.

When Moses was doing his best to communicate God’s plan to the people of Israel, and it became clear that they needed to know God’s presence, He sent word with instructions to build the tabernacle. All so that God might be among the people as they wandered in the wilderness. God not only led them to the land across the Jordan, it was, as promised, a place of plenty, evidence of God’s provision.

God made and kept covenants with Abraham and Sarah; God never forgot Hagar, Hannah or their children. God provided a family and a future for Ruth and Naomi, gave Nathan courage to speak to David, gifted Solomon with wisdom, and sent prophet after prophet to teach and warn the people when they strayed. Even in exile, God sent words of comfort and hope for a messiah.

John wrote those memorable words about God sending Jesus, because God loved the world so much…

The truth is God sent Jesus as an embodiment not just of the deep deep love God has for creation,  but as the personification of all the hope… of all the faithfulness… of all the longing for reconciliation that had been building from the day that God send Adam and Eve out of Eden.

And so when we tell the whole story- from its very start to now- we preserve the truth of God’s grace and mercy and humanity’s great need for both.

Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, the light.”  True to his word, Jesus makes a way for us to experience God in as true a form as our humanity allows. Jesus lights a path from the darkness of sin into the truth of God’s grace.

An important part of the work of the church is The Preservation of the Truth. It is, in fact, the last of the Great Ends of the church that we’ll discuss. I struggled a bit with this one, to be honest. Perhaps because I struggle with the idea that there is but one understanding of the truth for us to preserve.

Our presbyterian tradition honors the fact that no one approaches scripture without baggage, agenda and/or an interpretive slant. And we honestly welcome a diversity of faithful voices in hopes that we can together reflect the fullness of God’s image and creativity.

In a time when arguing has replaced hard conversation and respectful listening, and when certainty of position borders on stubbornness, I wonder if the Preservation of the Truth is too easily co-opted and morphed into Preservation of Self.

I don’t think it’s our job to protect God or Jesus or even the Bible from the world. I’m pretty sure the God who created the universe with a word and could destroy it with another is not really in need of our protection.

So for the sake of this conversation, here’s how I would like to define our part in the Preservation of the Truth:

The church is called to remember and proclaim the truth of God as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

God sent Jesus so that the world might know life and love and hope. Jesus sent his disciples – just as Jesus sends us today- so that the world might know life and love and hope.

Or as the prophet Micah said to our forebears: all that the Lord God requires of us is to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. When we do these things, we embody the truth of God’s covenant relationship with creation.

Certainly we are the hands and feet of Christ, the embodiment of the work he started on this earth. But we are also the voice of Christ. Doing justice in this age, in this time and place between Christ’s ascension and his ultimate return, doing justice requires speaking up and speaking out.  

Doing justice requires taking a stand against classism, sexism, ageism and racism. Against oppression in every form. Against corruption in every form.  Loving mercy means speaking truth to power, which means we need to understand clearly what and whose truth we are speaking. We need to remember the difference between the Kingdom of Heaven (that we talked about last week) and the powers of this earth.

We looked at the way Jesus flipped the script in the sermon the mount – honoring those at the bottom of the social structures. The concentration of power on earth – then and now –  is found at the top, wrapped up in human institutions

Today, in the United States,  we can point to various levels of government and to the corporations and financial institutions, which are inextricably intertwined. Power in our culture is a network of influence and leverage, moved primarily by way of funding.

Great concentrations of wealth mean that fewer people than ever have the means by which to influence decisions that affect the whole of our population and the lives of peoples in other countries around the world.

There is a golden rule that would be funny if it weren’t so true – The ones with the gold make the rules.

More troubling than the concentration of power is the disconnect between those with power and the reality that their decisions create for the powerless.

I was just reading about an appeals court decision indicating that people had a constitutional right to sleep. Why would we need a court to weigh in on something at once so ludicrous and so obvious?

Governments and agencies have chosen not to fund services and programs that help assure everyone has a place to sleep – whether through affordable housing programs or assuring sufficient beds are available in  shelters. The problem is, fewer spaces than ever are available for a growing population of people who are experiencing homelessness. Meanwhile, local ordinances and laws get passed that make it illegal to set up camps within city or county limits. No tents.

Imagine for a moment that you have no car, and you’ve run out of friends with a couch to sleep on, and you are exhausted. You fall asleep sitting on a sidewalk or a bench near a bus stop. A deputy walks up and says you have to move along. It’s illegal to sleep in public here.

Chances are good that none of the people in power were attempting to make it impossible for people to get the rest they need in order to function. They were working to solve a series of problems, unaware of the challenges they were adding to the lives of one set of constituents while responding to the concerns of another.

The court spoke to the truth of a physical need. I am thankful for that common sense decision.

But the church is called to speak as well, to speak spiritual truth into the situation… because the church is called to remember and proclaim the truth of God as revealed in the person and work of Christ.

This means that Church, and all of its members,  cannot stay silent in the face of any power that threatens to erase the truth that every human being is a child of God, each one worthy of life, love and dignity.

If there are laws or decisions on the table that turn people into nothing more than data points or line items in a budget, our voices must cry out. The church must call upon those with financial clout and political influence to do more than react to worries of investors and shareholders.

What does that looks like on a daily basis, in our own homes? It can mean shopping at stores that choose to deal fairly not only with the vendors but with the migrant workers that harvest and hourly workers in the factories and the people who transport those products.

Preserving the truth of God’s care for all people means advocating for and amplifying the voices of those wh are not usually heard and stepping in to stop conversations that demean or dehumanize others, even the ones we don’t particularly like. And it means telling our friends why we are speaking up, what truth we seek to tell.

We must speak to the truth that God doesn’t bless us because we make good choices and wise investments. God blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others.

God offers us grace and love, so that we might do likewise. God gives us influence and power so that we might use both to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the wounded and set free the captives… all as we bear witness to the one truest and greatest love in all of creation.

The pattern of aggregating  human power at the top is nothing new, even if the scale of inequality is more extreme than during most of history. But remember this so that you can proclaim it…

The subversive power of God is nothing new, either. It has been on display since the young shepherd named David slung a rock at a giant. And since a young woman named Esther dared to speak truth to the king about the evil being perpetrated in his court, thus saving her people.

And God’s subversive power became clearer still in the faith-filled obedience of the woman who reminded us that with God all things are possible as she said “yes” to becoming the mother of the One who would save us all. The one who humbled himself, even to death on a cross, so that the resurrection power of God would be on full display as a promise…
As a promise for the reconciliation and redemption of all people, all of creation, in the Kingdom to come.
As a promise of the power that is within our grasp as we call upon the Lord.

The truth we must continue to remember and proclaim- and thus preserve for future generations- is that God can and will give us eyes to see, voices to raise and power to wield as we humble ourselves, listen for direction, and walk in in the way of Christ.

May we live in that power, may we preserve and proclaim that truth, this day and always. Amen.

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