ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 21, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Proverbs 12:17 – 23; Romans 1: 18 – 23; John 14: 1 – 11
There was a time when truth was a simple concept. Something had either happened or it hadn’t; facts were facts; when people of integrity spoke, their words were honest, consistent and reliable. This was so (that is: it was true) even in the realm of politics. We’re all familiar with George Washington who fessed up to chopping down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie. Over time, something happened to truth. It became more of a hindrance and less of a valued commodity. We see this devolution in the realm of politics also. Nixon’s deceit led to his impeachment. Bill Clinton lied to cover up his lack of moral integrity; sadly for him DNA never lies. In order to finish a family feud, George W. Bush insisted there were weapons of mass destruction, even though there weren’t. Obama managed to muddy the waters as it suited him. Hillary’s sense of truth rests on the nuances of language – a fence is good, a wall is bad. And then there’s “The Donald”, for whom truth is ever-changing. We seem to have gone from: I cannot tell a lie to I cannot tell the truth to I cannot tell the difference.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Truth has been in the palliative care unit for a while. In the 1800’s Nietzsche wrote, “The real truth about ‘objective truth’ is that the latter is a fiction.” That’s right up there with the puzzle, “If a Cretan tells you all Cretans are liars, can you believe him?” The foundations of truth have been eroded by the Theory of Relativity – that there are no absolutes; what is experienced can only be verified in its relation to other factors. Post-modernism – which rejects the possibility of “objective knowledge” and is skeptical of truth, unity, and progress. New scientific discoveries that challenge old assumptions – the earth isn’t flat and there are well over 100 billion galaxies. Fake news – in which only portions of the facts are given in order to present a certain “spin”. The Internet where any and every one can and does give their “expert opinion”. Historical criticism which notes the “truth” of history is shaped by the one who tells it (did you know the Americans now won the war of 1812? When pressed their willing to call it a draw). Literary deconstruction – which questions all assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth, and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings. The latter has had a great impact on how we read The Bible – looking for contradictions instead of similarities; questioning the authorship of books and identified speaker of words; and casting doubt on the author’s theological motivation. While these tools can help us understand the context in which scripture was written, they can be destructive to faith when their “revelations” are held higher than the revelation of God. To sum all this up, somewhere along the line “truth” has become completely subjective. An umpire used to say, “I calls ‘em as they are – balls or strikes.” Then “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em – balls or strikes”. Now “they ain’t anything ’til I calls ‘em”. We call this “post truth”.
This applies to religion as well. It’s unthinkable in our day that any religion could claim to be “true”. The popular stance is that all religions are the same and people should be free to believe whatever they like, even to the point that many people make up their own personalized faith system by choosing what they like from whatever is going. As one Harvard student said, “I can believe anything I want, so long as I don’t claim it to be true” which is ironic given Harvard’s original motto in 1636 was: “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (Truth for Christ and the Church). In 1836 this was changed simply to “Veritas” (Truth). Perhaps in 2036 they’ll change it to “Quae semper” (Whatever). Intriguingly, St. Paul observed a similar trend in the secular culture of his time. He claimed the truth of God was evident in creation (natural or general revelation) but, “What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.” (vs. 21 – 23 Msg). It seems that “truth” has become such a fluid concept that the word is devoid of meaning.
Yet we know there is truth. Gravity works. All people will die. In Canada there are 4 seasons. If I step in front of a fast moving truck, it will not go well. The statement “all truth is relative” contradicts itself because it is an absolute statement. Not only does truth exist but it’s important. Andrei Sakharov was the physicist who led the team that gave the Soviet government the atomic bomb. Later in life he became an advocate for nuclear disarmament and human rights. He was awarded a Nobel Peace prize but was imprisoned and exiled by his own government as a dissident. Late in life he wrote, “I always thought the most powerful weapon in the world was the bomb. I have changed my mind… It is the truth.” Winston Churchill concurred, “Truth is the most valuable thing in the world…” Without truth there cannot be justice, mercy, goodness or love. Without truth we cannot become the fully human people God desires us to be. This is the message of the story of Pinocchio. Pinocchio is, of course, a wooden puppet who through learning the errors of his misguided choices of falsehood (the stage), the pursuit of self-indulgence (Pleasure Island) and lying eventually learns to tell the truth and to love which leads him to a courageous act of self-sacrifice that in the end allow him to become a real boy. Pinocchio is a fable that illustrates the truth of Jesus statement, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Of course before it sets us free, it usually makes us miserable.
But that’s not the full truth of what Jesus said. He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” John 8: 31 & 32). We know the truth through self-discovery; we discover ourselves when we know Jesus and we know Jesus when we abide in his word which we discover in scripture. The Bible is the record of God’s self-revelation to humanity. It’s important that we read the Bible as it was intended. We’re foolish if we read it with rigidity – for instance, if we say that because the Bible never mentions organs or cars or a certain method of prayer those things are sinful. We’re also foolish if we don’t recognize the various literary techniques within scripture and so apply hyperbole and metaphors legalistically – we’d all be blind and hand-less. But within the Bible is the revelation of God and so it contains all we need to know about God disclosed in Jesus and how, by abiding in his word, we can live faithful and faith-filled lives. A key part of that revelation comes a little later in John’s Gospel account where Jesus says, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). Truth is not only and not primarily empirical fact. Truth is a person and that person is Jesus Christ.
In our politically correct day that’s an outrageous claim, yet in all of recorded history Jesus was the only person to make that claim. Many people claimed to have been the recipients of some Divine truth, but only Jesus claimed to embody the truth. Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?” The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend who knew him well expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.” Jesus lived his life “under oath” and so he declared “I am the truth”. In spite of the way that sounds to our “post truth” ears, his was a humble declaration. Jesus didn’t claim to be the truth so he could dominate people. Just the opposite. He said it so they could be free to live fully and eternally.
Knowing Jesus is the truth isn’t about “being right” or “better”. One reason truth has been eroded in our time is that “true believers” can be dangerous. Allan Bloom writes, “The study of history teaches that … men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.” That’s one solution, yet living in a world where there is no truth doesn’t seem to be serving humanity any better. Perhaps rather than getting rid of “truth” we need to “abide in [Jesus’] word” so we’ll embody a loving spirit of humility, service and self-sacrifice. God is love. Jesus, the truth, is the embodiment of God’s love. To abide in him is to discover the truth of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. It’s to have hope in the most despairing of situations. It’s to have abundant life and profound peace. To abide in his word and be his disciple is not to act with superiority or to even think we’re superior or force our truth on others, it’s to be like him – truthful, gracious, merciful, forgiving, loving, hopeful, peaceful and alive. It’s to live as Jesus lived showing our neighbour the way back to God. To know Jesus is to see God. May you know the truth and may he set you free.