John 18:19-40 & John 20:1-18

Every year Oxford Dictionaries selects a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest. In November of 2016, After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was “post-truth” – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ This word word was chosen because while the concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, Oxford Dictionaries had seen a spike in frequency last year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.[1]

Perhaps the best example of the “post-truth” phenomenon has been the rapid rise and spread of so-called “fake news.” Fake news, according to one fact-checking organization, refers to made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.[2] The most prominent “fake news” stories of 2016 were that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop in D.C., that Democrats wanted to impose Sharia law in Florida, and that thousands of people at a Donald Trump rally shouted “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back.” All three of these stories were completely untrue, yet that didn’t stop these stories from being given wide-spread attention and from being shared millions of times across different social media platforms.

Of course, in our “post-truth” world, even this definition fails to encompass the widening usage of the term, as politicians have taken to branding news stories or news organizations they don’t like or agree with as “fake news.” Ignoring the facts has long been a staple of political speech. Every day, politicians overstate some statistic, distort their opponents’ positions, or simply tell out-and-out whoppers. Surrogates and pundits spread the spin.[3] But when we have political pundits speaking about “alternative facts,” news media organizations are right to say, “alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods.”[4] This “post-truth,” “post-factual” world in which we now apparently live influenced TIME magazine to ask on the cover of their March 23 edition the question, “Is Truth Dead?” Perhaps we should first ask the question, what is truth?

What is truth? This is the same question ruler Pontius Pilate wondered when he was questioning Jesus, the man brought before him by the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem. They did not have the power to have Jesus crucified on their own accord, they needed the authority of the governing Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the prefect over the Roman province of Judea, and served under the Emperor Tiberius from 26-36 AD. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were not thrilled with having to take the step of hauling Jesus before Pilate to justify their desire for capital punishment, they were locked in a struggle for power with the Roman authorities but consented that they needed Pilate’s permission to have Jesus killed.[5] So Jesus was handed over to Pilate for questioning, in hopes that Pilate would see he was a criminal worthy of punishment. It’s in this questioning where Pilate asks the famous question, “what is truth?”

To face the punishment of Rome, Jesus must have committed a crime against the state, such as treason or insurrection. For this reason, Pilate asks Jesus in John 18, “Are you the King of the Jews?” To claim kingship would have been a direct statement of insurrection against the empire of Rome and immediately punishable by death. Jesus responded that his “kingdom was not of this world.” And Pilate then asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “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 then asked him, “What is the truth?”

“What is the truth?” It is a question human beings have been asking for hundreds of years—even right up to this present day. And the truth is something humans have been struggling to come to terms with for just as long. Yet when we hear so much about “fake news” running amok, when we are said to live in a “post-truth” society, it’s hard not to wonder “what is truth?” and perhaps even more so, like TIME magazine wonder, “Is truth dead?”

It should not surprise us that empire and ruling authorities have an uncomfortable relationship with truth. It’s the reason why politicians are so apt to bend and finagle with the truth—the truth challenges and questions the foundations on which power is structured. Truth is often like termites eating away at the integrity of a structure. Just like termites, left unchecked, can turn structural wooden beams into piles of saw dust waiting to collapse.  Truth often works in this same way, eating away at the falsehoods and lies that support the immoral and ungodly foundations of empire. It’s the reason why totalitarian rulers work so hard to suppress the truth and stomp out any dissent. It’s why rulers must propose alternative facts. It’s why, like Pilate, rulers begin to even wonder, what is the truth?

First of all, we are here today because we know what, or rather who the truth is. In the first chapter of the book of John we are told that Jesus came from the Father, “full of grace and truth” and in turn “grace and truth” come though Jesus.[6] We are told in in John 14:6 that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Then Jesus tells Pilate in chapter 18, “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”[7] Jesus is the truth—for the essential belief of Christianity is that in Jesus we see God embodied in human life. Jesus shows us the heart of God.[8] We know what the truth is. Jesus is the truth.

Truth is not dead. American poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant once said that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” On the day we remember as Good Friday, truth was crushed to earth in the person of Jesus, by the hands of the Roman soldiers, through the instrumentation of crucifixion, at the bidding of religious authorities. Yet on this day we remember as Easter Sunday, we celebrate that truth has risen again. Truth, in the person of Jesus, was crushed to earth, yet truth, in the person of Jesus, rose again! Truth is not dead, truth is alive! Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we will never, ever live in a post-truth world. Truth will always exist, whether we choose to accept it or not.

And this fact that truth is not dead, that truth still indeed exists, should inspire and encourage us to work and live on behalf of the truth. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who quoted those words of William Cullen Bryan in his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech.

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”… With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children all over this nation – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We are Free At Last.”

King’s words remind me of Jesus’ from John 8. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[9] That’s what truth does. That’s what Jesus does. King believed the truth that all people are created equally in the image of God—and that truth could not be suppressed forever. Truth is not dead, truth rises again, truth wins in the end.  Yet, while truth is not dead and truth is risen again, our work on behalf of the truth must never end. There are still many lies masquerading as truth, there are still many authorities seeking to hide the depravity of their true nature, there are many “alternative facts” we choose to believe.

This post-truth world wants us to believe that we are not good enough, we are not smart enough, and that we don’t have enough. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising telling us if we did this certain work-out, if we read this book, and if we bought this gadget, we’d be okay. This post-truth world wants us to believe that we’re the only people that matter—our little homogenous community and family. Forget the people who don’t look like us, act like us, or believe like us—we don’t need to worry about them, only ourselves. This post-truth world wants us to believe we need not worry about how the way we live impacts our neighbors, our world, or God’s creation—it’s all about us. In this post-truth world, we can comfort ourselves with “alternative facts,” but there is another word for “alternative facts;” they are called lies. And as Jesus so powerfully demonstrated many years ago, truth will always overcome lies. We don’t know how long it will take, whether 3 days like Jesus, 3 weeks, 3 years, or for King and the Civil Rights struggle, 13 years, truth always wins.

On this resurrection Sunday, let us not only celebrate the resurrection of the person of Jesus, but let us also celebrate the fact that truth also rose again that day, and that truth can never be defeated, truth will always rise again. Let us also work to align ourselves with the truth, to ignore the lies which seek to distract us from the truth, and to work to overcome those persons and institutions which seek to hide the truth from us.  In many ways, the struggle for truth is still ongoing, there are many more Pontius Pilates of the world seeking to dilute and destroy the truth. Let us, on this resurrection Sunday, align our hearts and minds with the person of Jesus, trusting in God’s Spirit, that we will be guided into all truth.[10]

 

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[2] Angie Drobnic Holan, “2016 Lie of the Year: Fake news,” Politifact.com <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/13/2016-lie-year-fake-news/> (accessed April 14, 2017).

[3] Angie Drobnic Holan, “2016 Lie of the Year: Fake news,” Politifact.com <http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/dec/13/2016-lie-year-fake-news/> (accessed April 14, 2017).

[4] Chuck Todd, Interview with Kellyanne Conway, Meet the Press, NBC, January 22, 2016.

[5] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective: John 18:1-19:42” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 299.

[6] John 1:14

[7] John 18:37

[8][8] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 80-81.

[9] John 8:32

[10] John 16:13

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