Friday, May 10, 2024

What is Truth?

Text: John17.16-19

The Gospel of John is notably concerned with the question of Truth.  In the previous chapter to the one we’ve read today, Jesus promises his followers that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.  And then, a few chapters later, Jesus ends up in a debate with Pilate about the nature of Truth, leading to Pilate’s famous question ‘But what is truth’.  In Melvyn Bragg’s libretto for Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate’s question is memorably expanded to read ‘But what is truth?  Is truth a changing law?  We both have truths.  Are mine the same as yours?’.  In expanding Pilate’s simple, but profound philosophical question, Jesus Christ Superstar invites us to think about all the competing truth claims that there are in our society.

There are, of course, many such competing truth claims, and not just in the political sphere.  Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  My truth is based on my experiences, my knowledge, my context, my intuition.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of religion.  I have often wondered whether I would be a Christian if I had not grown up in a English village, in a Christian home, and joined the choir of my local church.  If I had been born in an Islamic home, or a Buddhist one, I daresay that I would call myself a Muslim or a Buddhist.  So, you may well ask, why is that when I know this, and when I’ve studied other religions, why do I hold on to the adjective Christian?

In today’s reading, Jesus is recorded as praying to his Father that his followers will be ‘sanctified by the truth’.  As I said just now, this comes after promising that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth.  This is a bold claim, from the writer of John’s gospel.  He puts in Jesus’ mouth the thought that sanctification (which is another word for salvation) will be achieved by the Truth.  In other words, Truth saves us.  It is also John who gives us the memorable phrase from Jesus’ lips, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’.    ‘But what is this Truth?’ as Pilate asked.  How shall we know which of the many truth claims from all the world religions is the one we should pay most attention to?

John offers us his answer to that question.  He quotes Jesus saying ‘your word is truth’.  Which might make some of us run scurrying for our Bibles.  But this same John, who puts those words in Jesus’ mouth, is also the author of the great prologue to his own Gospel.  You know the one:  ‘in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’.  There’s a beautiful circular logic to what John is saying.  He’s saying that Jesus points us to truth via God’s Word, who turns out to be Jesus himself!  But the trouble with circular logic is that it has a tendency to crumble quickly under the weight of intellectual scrutiny. 

Take, for example, those Christians who believe that the whole Bible (and not just the words of Jesus) is the Word of God.  They point to various passages, such as the famous line in the second letter to Timothy, claiming that all Scripture is God-breathed (and is therefore the ultimate source of truth).  But this is a circular argument.  How do you prove that the Bible is the Word?  By pointing to the bits of the Bible that say it is!  To use an analogy, I could claim that I am a thin man.  How can I prove this to you?  By writing the words ‘I am a thin man’ in elegant writing on a piece of ancient parchment.  Then you have to believe me…whatever your eyes are telling you!

So, you may justifiably ask, why do I remain a Christian (despite finding Truth in all sorts of other places, despite acknowledging the circularity of the Bible’s own claims, and despite the dubious nature of some of its more miraculous claims)?   To that question, I say that in all my study, in all my wanderings through philosophy, history, theology and the great wisdom often to be found in other religions, I have not yet found a BETTER answer to the problems of the world, than the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I have not found a better example of how to live, than the life of Jesus Christ.

For a moment, as an experiment, let’s dare to strip away the accretions of the gospel writers, written to increase faith in Jesus, to prove that he was Divine.  Stick with me here.  Strip away, just for now, in your mind the miracles, signs and theological monologues for a moment. What are we left with? 

I suggest to you that we are left with the teachings of a man, uniquely inspired by the very idea of God, who truly saw what the world was like, and who offered a better Way to humanity.  He saw the way that violence and coercion were the main tools for governing, and he proposed the tools of love and self-giving as an alternative.  He saw the way that the rich people of the world kept the poor in check by depriving them of the basics of life – and he proposed a topsy-turvy alternative, in which the poor would be raised up, and the rich cast down from their thrones.  His self-declared purpose was to declare the Day of the Lord’s favour, when the prisoners would be freed, the sick healed, the poor made rich, and the broken-hearted would find solace.  He declared that in this Day of Favour, in this Kingdom of God, the poor, the peacemakers, the meek, the humble and even those who mourn would be blessed.

So to those who justify division between people of different ethnicity, we turn to Jesus who says ‘everyone is my neighbour’.  To those who justify violence to maintain control, we point to a Lord who advocated love, and who called peace-makers the children of God.  To those who justify the hoarding of great personal wealth, we look to the Lord who had nowhere to lay his head, and who called the man who built barns to contain his wealth a fool.  To those who want to sit in judgement on other people’s life choices, we look to the Lord who says ‘judge not, lest you be judged’. 

My friends, we need a kinder, more tolerant form of Christianity in this country, and in this world.  We need a Christianity that lifts up the broken, which loves the stranger, and which blesses the poor. We need Christians who judge not the sins of others but who endeavour only to live their own life in as holy, sanctified way as they personally can.  We need to strip away the dogmas of past ages, the arid debates about what dogmas we have to believe in order to be saved, and instead look to Jesus, the Word, the Life, and the Truth.  His word his Truth.  He has the words of eternal life.  Other great teachers, great gurus, great religious founders may echo or reflect the Truth we find in Jesus.  We can listen to them too.  We should listen to them too.  But, I declare, proudly and with certainty, that it is in the life and teachings of Jesus that we find our most reliable, most consistent, most divinely-inspired path to salvation. He is the one who offers me the Way, the Truth, and the Life by which I can find my own path to becoming one with God and the world.  And that’s good enough for me. Amen.

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