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What is Truth?
John 18:33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (ESV
The place I was most committed to on our sabbatical travels was Florence. I had been before and had enjoyed it most. However, this trip it was the most disappointing of the places we visited. The year we were last there 3 million tourists had come to the city. In the most recent data we could find that number has swelled to 18 million, and July is one of if not the busiest month. Everywhere we went there was a tide of people, waiting in line, pressing toward the next sight to be seen, vying for the same small shady stretch of sidewalk. Tourists and street venders and cars and cyclists and the occasional leavings from the horse drawn carriages were just too much. Overwhelming. So much that we gave up. To get away from the waves of people we booked a day and half at a farm with a pool and a poolside bar outside the city.
This week in a couple different friend groups we discussed new PEW research on religious affiliation and Christianity in the U.S. It’s not new news, but it does confirm what we’ve known for awhile. That is, that the number of Christians is on the decline and the number claiming no religious affiliation whatever, the “Nones”, continues to increase. Perhaps it’s news that the pace is “Rapid.”
Are you ever certain whether it’s worth the effort to swim against this tide? Or maybe you suspect it’s worth it but the only kind of swimming you’ve seen or known or think exists is a kind of futile thrashing in the water. Let’s call it fundamentalism.
As I continue to process my recent sabbatical I ask the questions; What has/will come of it for me? What have/am I learning? These questions plumb depths beyond the three months break. They’re searching out the cracks and crevices that make up my life. My story. My sense of call. The broken and the beautiful.
I also wonder what it means for us. Here we sit uncomfortably holding out a view of the good life that our neighbors, and perhaps we, find increasingly incredulous, laughable, and at times harmful. Some of us are holding on by a thread against the tide. Some thrashing unhelpfully about. We wonder where’s the payoff. For all the belief and all the talk the tide will not relent against our flailing or failing grasp. Some are persuaded by the force of the tide and have been baptized into the community of “Nones.”
I come to my own moments where I ask, “Do I want to keep doing this?” “If so, why?”
Karl Barth asks it this way, What are you doing, you man, with the word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earth? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling?
Is this just an income for me or a nice tradition for us? Or are we really “mediators between heaven and earth?” “Priests?”
There have been a few companions to my journey into these questions, and I plan to bring them along with us over the next few weeks. Featured prominently is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. In fact, this series is simply my riffing on his work.
So the question is, what is it that we’re really doing here? Or supposed to be doing? The answer, in short, is we are here to tell the truth. We are here to visibly and verbally embody the truth in and for our world, for our neighbor, for each other.
“Pshhhh!” Pilate says, “What is truth?” A question that rings in our ears or that we push down when it wells up because we’re afraid of the answer. That there is no answer.
Or we are like the kid whose just been handed his gun at the shooting gallery only to discover the sights are bent or that we’ve run out of ammunition. And the ducks just keep coming.
Pilate asks his question flippantly, with no apparent interest in the answer. Maybe that’s because he too has be overwhelmed by the currents of life. Its uncertainties and confusion. The contradictions. Perhaps he longs to know the answer but can’t afford to ask it honestly. To face the daunting costs to pursue an honest answer. Or perhaps Pilate’s life is comfortable. His 401k is flush and dream house built. Perhaps he can only ask flippantly because his life is stuffed full of thin pleasures and comforts. There’s no real room or need to ask serious honest questions. Pilate has achieved the Roman dream.
What is truth? For Pilate the world screams Power. Power and its attendant benefits of wealth and the Pax Romana. Why trifle with the deeper meaning when we all know the only persuasive force in the universe at man’s disposal is the thrust of a sword and the hegemony of Empire.
Just as Pilate stumbles into the most profound moment of his life and the question it begs he sleepwalks through the moment without noticing a thing. Well, maybe he notices something, because he will not find guilt where there is none. He will speak the truth that there is no fault to be found here. He sees clearly enough to see that the man before him is an innocent, if strange man.
What Pilate can’t and refuses to see is the Truth standing before his very eyes. The truth is the person standing accused and innocent before him. Travel worn and bleeding. And Pilate stands on the precipice of witnessing the answer to his deepest longing. To finding his true wholeness and life given back to him out of the ruins of the Roman Empire’s glory, but he can’t bring himself to believe that the question matters. OR that the answer bleeds and dies.
Are we willing to allow the question “what is truth?” to impose itself onto our strategies for coping with the strong tides of life? Or is it to remain, as for Pilate, a shield to hide behind? A bothersome fly to swatted on to flit about elsewhere?
If we are to ask our questions with honestly the scriptures then invite us to see the answer is a person. The travel worn bleeding man that stood before Pilate falsely accused. The person who bled and died. Power scoffs and turns away. Truth is found in him embrace.
Truth is found in that;
Somehow in spite of the unlikelihood of it all. Against the currents of Roman power, the fortified religion of his accusers, his backwater upbringing; denial, betrayal, abandonment…“the Truth stands there in person, taking the death that would otherwise have fallen on the brigand. Pilate didn’t see it at the time. Even cunning Caiaphas probably didn’t appreciate the irony of the point. But John wants us to see it. This is what the cross will mean. This is what truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world. And for you and me.”—Wright, Tom