King of Truth – Lectionary 11/21/2021

John 18:33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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 asked him, “What is truth?”

Sermon Text

Today we celebrate the kingship of Christ. We worship a God who saw fit to become like us, a human being who knew all pain and weakness despite the eternity before where he knew only power and majesty. That God came and lived the life of a slave so that we might be freed from death and out dependency on sin. What a wonderful God that is to take such a great step down from the heights of heaven into the depths of the earth. Yet, in death and in resurrection Jesus’s majesty overcame the pall of his earthly life and saw him light up the skies with his glory. Jesus the slave, Jesus the servant, was now known to those who would look and listen as Christ the King.

The kingship of Christ is something Jesus was careful never to take on in his earthly life. As his interrogation by Pilate shows in our scripture we read a moment ago, Jesus did not claim to be king of the Jews. If he was to be God’s anointed, God’s messiah, then he was not going to let his name be association only with Judah. Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, was entitled to a title above a single nation. As Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this World, Christ is the King of the world to come, of a resurrected and rejuvenated universe that is made for God and that lives directly alongside God.

Jesus came to earth to tell us the truth. The reality of this kingdom which was not like the one’s we are all accustomed to. There would be no powerplays or political machinations. There would be no wars that deprived people of life and livelihood. There would be no suffering or strife because all people would be devoted to serving one another fully and sharing the abundance God had given to them equally. There was going to be a kingdom, and that kingdom was going to begin with a feast just like Jesus’s ministry had, and that kingdom was right around the corner and that kingdom was somehow already here.

The world, unsurprisingly, was not quite ready for this reality. The province of Judea and its surrounding area had been split between four kings, the sons and relatives of Herod the Great. The entire Mediterranean world was under the leadership of Tiberius Augustus Caesar. There were kings and governors and prefects all around to take on the title of “leader,” apart from Jesus. When Jesus came, not with an army but with a community, the leadership around him mocked his attempt to claim authority. When Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin they accused him of seeking to overthrow Rome or take the throne of David for himself. Herod Antipas asked Jesus to perform a miracle to prove his worth, and when Jesus refused even to speak, dismissed him as a nuisance. Pilate, the governor who Jesus speaks to in our scripture today, was the most sympathetic to him, but even he could not understand a King who made no claims to a throne.

Pilate builds up his questions of Christ, trying to understand what Jesus is doing in a court of law when he obviously has committed no crimes. Jesus remains resolute that his accusers misunderstand him, and that whatever they have laid at his feet are their own words, their own inventions and misunderstandings. Jesus stands only for God’s kingdom, the world that is to come, and the truth that frees all people – the truth of God’s salvation. Pilate responds to Jesus’s assertions about the character of God with a question straight out of any discussion of philosophy, “What is truth?”

This line of thinking is formally called, “Epistemology,” how do we know the things that we know? More cynical thinkers see truth as the consensus of a body of people. In this line of thought, anything can be true as long as enough people agree that is the case. Others who are more idealistic will see truth as something higher than any of us can alter. There is the truth, absolute and beautiful, and then there is the attempts to repeat the truth which we muddle.

The Church has long leaned toward the latter definition. There is something definite about truth in this world. This truth is not empirical – you cannot measure it or conduct experiments to prove it – it is experiential, we know the truth of God and of the Gospel because it has manifested in our lives and shown itself to us. We embody the ultimatum of Paul in Romans 3:4 “Let God be true and every person a liar!” The truth is made most manifest in Jesus, God living among us, and is reflected then in our teachings about Jesus and our imitation of Jesus. We understand all things as secondary to the presence of Christ in our life to inform us of what truth really is.

            Despite the experiential nature of our faith, I would argue that an earnest belief in Christ naturally leads us to respect more concrete definitions of truth as well. As you all know by now, my undergraduate degree is in two things – religious studies and chemistry. To this day I remain a scientist at heart. Sometimes at war with my more spiritual and mystic experiences of God are my objective and empirical tendencies toward how I explore truth. I try not to say anything from the pulpit I do not have evidence for, preferably in writing from a reputable source that fits neatly into a footnote.[1] I am skeptical of claims people make of amazing, otherworldly events, unless they back it up with real evidence and not just hearsay. Most importantly, I try not to take anything someone tells me as Gospel, if they are reporting it second hand.

Some of you may have noticed this about me, but I am not quick to answer questions I am unsure of. Sometimes people will ask me, “How is so-and-so?” or “Do you know about this?” While I naturally filter my answers through confidentiality and appropriateness of the question itself, I also am clear where I got my information. “I have heard that they have some trouble with something, but I’ve not heard anything directly from them.” “My understanding is this, but I would need to read more about it before I said anything definitive.”

As simple as these steps are, they are a commitment to something that goes beyond my role as a teacher of spiritual truths. To stand where I do, I believe it essential that I do not lead anyone astray in anything. I’m not perfect in this, I’ve had to correct myself many times in the course of my ministry. However, by seeking to tell the truth and putting guards around what I do and say to represent just how confident I am of anything I am speaking about, I am not just covering myself for accusations of deception. I am respecting the concept of truth in itself. Truth, as high and inviolable as it is when we speak about things like the Gospel and Christ’s divinity, is a fragile thing when we get to our earthly explanation of the same, or our attempts to live in the same reality as those around us.

I firmly believe that we as Christians have a duty to tell the truth. This does not mean that we have a duty to speak as we like, we’ve talked about that before. Instead, it means that we must be proactive to prevent the proliferation of lies in the world around us. Jesus spoke out about Gossip, not to put a damper on after church breakfasts, but to prevent his people from becoming the source of slander. Jesus advised us to be careful of those who would try and mislead us, because the Church is meant to defy liars, not join their ranks. Jesus wanted us to protect the truth, in all its forms, because truth is a fragile thing, and when it begins to be broken down, then trust and even reality itself can begin to follow it.

Last week we briefly talked about what I call the “End Times Industry,” the people who make money by bending the scriptural teachings about Christ’s return to something they can market. Whether that is marketing of books or movies, or survival equipment does not matter because it is the twisting of a truth, “Christ will come again,” to the detriment of that truth’s real power in this world. That is just one example of making money by twisting the truth and I’m sure that we can list many more just by thinking a little while longer.

I also revealed to you last week my love of conspiracy theories, and my disbelief for all of them. Part of my love of this field of study is the reality that studying how people lie to make the world seem more sensible, helps to inoculate you against those tactics when people try to lead you astray. Because I have read as much as I have about supposed plans for depopulation written in some random rocks in Georgia, I know when people come to me talking about “depopulation,” what they’re really saying. When people tell me some hyped-up story about rich people collecting children and drinking their blood, I recall accusations against Jews of the same thing and know that it is all the same set of lies. This stands true for conspiracy after conspiracy after conspiracy.

The problem in our modern day, and for people like me with this strange hobby of studying lies, is that more and more often the line between mainstream belief and fringe conspiracy theory is beginning to erode. One of the chief targets for my regular study of nonsense is the media network Infowars, and more specifically the Alex Jones Show a proud peddler of conspiracy theories for over twenty years. That program has alleged all kinds of madness – fish chimeras with sad human eyes, alien law codes dictating human life, secret satanic shadow governments, false flag attacks, MMR vaccines as a means to control population or introduce a surveillance state, stories of stolen elections dating back to well before the Bush era.

Suddenly though, fish human hybrids aside, some of those crazier stories are now making their way into my Facebook feed. Reasonable people, lulled into a sense of security and willing to chase after the headlines that make their worldview fit reality a bit more clearly, are suddenly spreading the same lies that have been aired on repeat for the past twenty (and really longer than that,) years and applied, mad-libs style, to anything that fits. We are a people for whom truth has become a commodity, something we buy from the people with the best offer and sell to people who are willing to believe us. There is nothing sacred in something that is so easily trafficked, and if we take seriously the idea that our God chose “Truth,” as one of the divine names, then we must fight earnestly to preserve truth.

This is not just so big a thing as advocating for scientific and political literacy, it manifests in the everyday interactions we have with one another. Think of the times in your life where you’ve said something, which someone else tells to someone else, which someone else says to someone else, and then suddenly people are asking you to explain comments you never said to people you haven’t talked to in weeks. Think also of the times you spoke too soon about something you thought you knew about, then found out that you were dead wrong, and all the fallout that came from failing to follow up what someone else told you about.

We worship a king who is not of this world, so why do we sink to the tactics of this world? We should be people who champion the truth, yet we so often get caught up in gossip and lies. Let us all, each of us gathered here, commit ourselves to be more honest people – not just by passively refusing to lie, but actively fighting to end the misrepresentation of truth around us however it presents itself. It is not an easy calling, but it is a necessary one. We worship a God who came to testify the truth, and if we do not deal also in the truth then we will become like Pilate and not like Christ. We will be asking “Whose truth? Your’s or mine?” Rather than pursuing the truth which God has given to all of us for the sake of all people. Tell the truth always, and let us do our best to stop a lie before it finds roots in our hearts. – Amen

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