Sermon Series: I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus Part II
Text: John 18:28-38
Preached: October 12, 2014 at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church
Audio: Tri-Lakes UMC Sermon Podcasts
“The Truth Is Out There”
For 9 seasons this opening played on prime time television, even following a Super Bowl once—I remember because that was what got me watching the show. The X-files followed the cases of FBI Agents Mulder and Scully who investigated paranormal activity for the federal government. Agent Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, was the skeptic. She had trouble accepting the world didn’t work the way she had been taught, and was always looking for a logical explanation behind whatever unexplained phenomenon they were called to investigate that week.
Agent Mulder, played by David Duchovny, was the opposite. He was curious. He wanted to explore the possibility of what was going on. If you were a regular viewer of the show you saw behind his desk a poster with the picture of a flying saucer and the words “I Want to Believe” below it.
Some pop-culture critics and sociologists pointed to this show, which was popular leading into the 21st century, as having a message that resonated with the time. Technology was rapidly changing. The internet was becoming more and more accessible, and it seemed we could find the answers to anything. Then, as we approached 2000, we began to get nervous about the supposed Y2K crisis that never materialized. The technology that we were loving was thought to possibly be the end of us.
The X-files put before us both what we knew and what we didn’t know with these two propositions: (1) The truth is out there; and (2) I want to believe.
Nearly two decades after the show has gone off the air, I don’t think things have changed all that much. We want a truth we can believe in.
We watch the political ads which seem omnipresent right now, and we hear two versions of the truth, about the very same events, proposals, candidates, etc. With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle by multiple channels, and a plethora of internet sources from which to get the news, we wonder if we are ever hearing the truth—convinced our favorite news source is closest to it, and those others just don’t hold up. So we wonder, where is the truth?
As you might suspect from a television show that wanted to stay on the air, Mulder and Scully never found “the truth.” The answers they found were always vague, didn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, or had multiple interpretations. The truth remained out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.
Many of us today find ourselves in that place where Agent Mulder resided – “I want to believe,” but the truth is elusive, out there somewhere, and I am on an eternal search for it.
I Am a Follower
Last Sunday we began a new series called I Am a Follower, where we are looking at what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are keying in on the answer Jesus gives about himself in John 14:6 when Thomas asks how we can know where he is going or how to follow him. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (CEB). Last week Pastor Bob focused on “Via: The Way,” and this week we will look at “Veritas: The Truth.”
I wonder if Pilate would have been a fan of The X-files.
Jesus and Pilate
In our gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus being interviewed by Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate is questioning Jesus to see if he is guilty of treason, setting himself up as a king over and against the authority of the Roman Empire. But this is a private conversation. The press hasn’t been invited in. There are no cameras, no sound bytes are going to be captured which he might use to garner favor with the people he rules over. I get the impression that at some point this interaction turned from legal and political, to an honest conversation about Pilate’s curiosity over who Jesus is. He is trying to make up his own mind about what to do with Jesus.
He asks rather matter-of-factly, I assume, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus asks Pilate why he asks that questions, which puts Pilate on the defensive. So Pilate takes another approach. Reminding Jesus that he has been arrested by his own people and handed over for sentencing, Pilate asks, “What have you done?”
Jesus answers, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.” Some of us have heard this translated as “My kingdom is not of the world,” and misunderstood that to mean that Jesus’ true realm of leadership is someplace else. Or to put it another way, Jesus is here to take us someplace else.
The assumption is that God’s Kingdom is “out there,” and we need to get “out there” with God before the clock runs out and God destroys the world. I would argue, this is a complete misunderstanding of not only the book of Revelation, but almost the entirety of scripture. Time and again we read that God in the Old Testament, and God in Jesus Christ in the New Testament, is not on a mission to bring destruction to the world, but rather on a mission to restore, renew, and, in Christ, resurrect the world.
So when Jesus says “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world,” instead of hearing that, I hear two other things. One is that the opposite is true—His kingdom doesn’t originate from this world, but rather that this world and Pilate’s kingdom originates in him. God is the creator of the world Pilate rules.
Secondly, Jesus is saying that his rule is different from Pilate’s and the rest of the world’s understanding of power and authority. Jesus doesn’t play by the rules of this world by sending guards in to fight. It is almost as if Jesus is saying to Pilate, “You think you are above me because you are stronger than me and have a military on your side. That’s cute. You actually have no authority over me, because my kingdom doesn’t originate from this world, it doesn’t play by your rules. In fact, the way you rule is actually a distortion of the true rule and reign of God, over you and the whole earth.”
This is reinforced when Pilate presses Jesus, asking again, “So you are a king?” and Jesus distances himself from that image. “You say that I am a king.” Jesus replies appearing uncomfortable using that image and all the baggage it brings along with it. He offers his own description of his role, “I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
To which Pilate responds in a very The X-files way: “What is truth?” Agent Mulder would love that question. I want to believe, but I can’t until I know the truth.
The irony, of course, is that Pilate asks, “What is truth?” when the Truth is standing right beside him. I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t our fate still today.
What is truth?
There is a debate in some corners of the church over a false dichotomy between absolute and relative truth. I call it a false dichotomy because of the way it is presented. The basic assumption on both sides of the debate are that ALL truth is either relative, or ALL truth is absolute.
Now please don’t get mad at me before you hear me out, but I want to say that I don’t think relativism is necessarily a dirty word. Now that doesn’t mean I believe all truth is relative.
On the contrary, I believe in absolute truth. For example, as Pastor Bob pointed out last week, the Law of Gravity was true long before an apple fell from a tree, bonking Sir Isaac Newton on the head in the 17th century. Newton named it, even created a formula for it, but he didn’t start it. It has been absolutely true from the beginning. So, regardless of whether you believe in the Law of Gravity or not, if you jump from an airplane, you’d better have a parachute, because gravity is absolutely true.
I believe the same thing about Jesus. He says he came to “testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Like Newton describing the Law of Gravity, Jesus has come to point us toward something that has been true for all time, something that was true in his day, and something that is true in ours. He has come to show us God and God’s Kingdom. He has come to tell us that the truth isn’t out there somewhere, but rather that the truth, God’s Kingdom, is right here with us. That is an absolute truth.
But then there are other truths—like love, and beauty. There is a subjectivity to those truths, but that doesn’t make them less true, does it?
4 Echoes of a Voice
In his book Simply Christian, which was an important book for me, NT Wright talks about those other truths—the ones we cannot use the scientific method to prove, ones that cannot be replicated in laboratory, but are true nonetheless. He names what he calls four “echoes of a voice” – a longing for justice, a quest for spirituality, a hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. These are truths that our scientific method cannot prove or disprove. Wright argues therefore that they are not truths human beings could have come up with on their own, but instead point to something beyond us, namely the God of the universe who has come to us in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.
In other words, for Wright and for us as Christians, the truth is not “out there” waiting to be discovered, or waiting for the end of time so that we can be part of it. It is right here among us, in things like justice, spirituality, love and relationships, and beauty. We have the choice to walk in it, or walk away from it.
Because there are a lot of “truths” out there. But there is only one ultimate truth. Pilate is standing right there next to the Truth. So am I. So are you. The trouble is though, that sometimes we have trouble seeing it.
Truth creates our reality
The truths we believe create our realities. That’s deep, right? Here’s what I mean:
If we repeatedly tell a student they are not smart, they will soon give up at school. Or tell someone they are bad long enough, and when a choice comes between the good and the bad, they will choose the bad, because that is who they have been told they are and have come to believe they are. We see this play out in abusive relationships where wonderful, beautiful people are told by their abuser that they are unimportant and that no one will ever love them. They come to believe it, and they stay.
This is a psychological phenomenon known as self-fulfilling prophecy. What we hear and believe about ourselves affect the choices we make. This is obvious in extreme circumstances, but is also true in far subtler ways in all our lives.
My guess is that through the years you have heard things about yourself which you have come to believe that simply are not true. Some of them were said out loud. Others were never spoken, but the message came across loud and clear anyway.
Maybe you heard you were dumb, lazy, or indecisive. You may have heard you were emotional, sad, too introspective. Or that you were flighty, rational, and needy. Maybe you can’t get past the thoughts of being too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too pretty, or not pretty enough. Maybe you heard you were always a disappointment, couldn’t meet expectations, never did anything right. Maybe you were taught that you are nothing more than what you can earn, what’s in the bank, what you own, what position you have at work. What have you heard? What is the soundtrack that plays in your head and heart when things don’t go right?
Take that footprint attached to your bulletin, and write that word on it. I know it’s probably not something you want the people around you to see, but write it down then hide it in your bulletin. This is for you.
As you think about that word, I want you to know it is a lie. That is not who you are, ultimately.
Hear instead the truth of who you are. Simply put, it is this: JESUS LOVES YOU. You, as you are right now. Not the you you could be if you got your act together. Not the you you would be if you hadn’t messed it up. No, he loves you as you sit here right now.
You sang it in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” In our 9:45 service we sing it fairly regularly, “He loves us. O how he loves us.”
The Bible tells it to us several ways:
While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. (Romans 5:6-9)
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
This is the truth. It is not some conspiracy theory. It is not some complicated prescription for life we need to follow. It is not some mark we need to attain. It is not that “truth” you’ve come to believe about yourself that you wrote down on that piece of paper.
Right after Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus went forth to show him exactly what it was. It is a love so great that he goes to the cross for us—for me, for you. This is the truth. The truth behind all truths. He loves us. O how he loves us!
As you leave today, I invite you to take that sticky note, and place it on the glass around the poster labeled Veritas: Truth, in the Great Room, as a sign that you are trading in that lie you have believed about yourself for the Truth in Jesus’ love for you.