Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Proper 29 Year B, Christ the King || Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18: 33-37 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“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.”
That’s the voice of Jesus speaking. It’s not the politically correct voice, the socially proper voice, the voice of the celebrity in the commercial, or even the voice of reason. It’s the voice of Jesus—the voice of Christ the King. That’s the voice we are to listen to, the gospel says, if we want to hear the truth.
But what, after all, is truth?
That’s the question we would hear Pilate ask in the very next sentence were our reading not to end rather curiously at verse 37. It’s a reasonable question to ask, even if Pilate asks it with considerably more cynicism and skepticism than we might admit to sharing. “What is truth?”
Scanning our morning paper, our twitter feed, or the ticker-tape of news headlines on our TV screens, we might be vulnerable to Pilate’s cynicism.
What is truth in a world where so many contradictory voices—from columnists to career criminals, from politicians to pop stars, from terrorists to talking heads on television–each have their own “take” on what truth is and proffer it like the latest “new and improved version” of a breakfast cereal or household soap?
What is truth in a secular, cynical world—where competing versions of the truth are sold like any other commodity, and the seller with the most persuasive advertising pitch—or the most political or military power— wins?
And what about religious truth? What is truth in a simultaneously multi-faith and no-faith culture where—as Duke University’s Will Willimon once said—we’re “more concerned with how to live in a world where there is a plurality of truths—and with how to do so without killing each other—than we are with truth” itself?
What is truth in a world where all religions are deemed equally valid and many Christians—both lay and ordained—are afraid to talk about Jesus for fear of offending non-believers?
What is truth? And are we sure we really want to know? The truth may set us free, but it may shake us to the core first. It may make demands of us we’re not willing to meet. Demands like change, risk-taking, and courage. The search to discern truth can be arduous, the temptation to avoid it may be great. And oh how tempting it can be to avoid truth!
We can avoid truth by joining the “my way or the highway” crowd of any denomination—those extremists who talk as if they hold a monopoly on truth and claim the rest of us are doomed to eternal damnation—end of discussion, case closed.
We can join the liberal religious thinkers of our time and amicably assert that “we’re all talking about the same thing, we’re just using different language to describe it.” So much for the unique revelation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!
We can avoid the truth by joining the Pontius Pilates of the world—the cynics—insisting with indifference that it’s all relative, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Or, I suspect like most folks in Jesus’ day and our own, we can avoid truth by steadfastly move through our daily lives, never asking the hard questions—until some sort of personal crisis or existential despair hits us like a ton of bricks. Then questions about ultimate meaning and truth suddenly flood our shattered souls.
Yes, it is easy to avoid truth—at least for a while. Truth can be demanding, dangerous, sometimes even deadly. But we’re Christians, so we know that. We know what happened to Jesus, the one we follow and the one to whom we are called to listen when he says, “For this I came, and for this I was born into the world: to testify to the truth…Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
What is that truth? Well, the gospel is unambiguous: The truth is Jesus and Jesus is God’s love in human flesh. Jesus testifies to the truth and speaks the truth, but even more, he embodies the truth. For Christians, truth is not a belief or a doctrine, it is the incarnational reality of God’s love.
And here is where pluralism can be problematic. Here is where we’re tempted to turn back for fear of sounding like the voice of the religiously intolerant, and search instead for a voice far less offensive, less exclusive, less—well…Christian. Yet if we belong to the truth, Jesus says in this gospel lesson, we listen to his voice. We listen to the voice of the crucified King who says, “I am the truth,” and who embodied that truth in a supernatural way no other religious figure in history has ever done.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t have any trouble agreeing with those who say that Muslims and Christians and Jews all worship the same God. If there is only one God, how could it be otherwise?
But I do not believe we share the same experience of that God. As Christians, we believe that the central, defining event of history is that God took on flesh–became one of us—to share his uncontainable, unsurpassable, divine love—in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that through the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, death has been dealt the final blow and that always, new life will prevail. We believe that in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ we have been shown the precious creature God created each of us to be. And we believe that through a living faith in Jesus Christ, we can be it.
Bishop Willimon wrote that it is precisely this Christian truth that enabled him to live “with hope and therefore with peace.” Precisely this truth that enabled him to “deal responsibly with those who disagree [with him]—without demanding that they adhere to some specific standard of reasonability.”
In other words, as Christians, when we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can hear—with love– the voice of others. When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we discover that the politically correct voice, the socially proper voice, the voice of the celebrity on the commercial, and the voice even of almighty reason—lose their power over us.
When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we listen to a truth that doesn’t change as often as the headlines that crawl across the bottom of our TV screens. And when we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can represent his love in the world, so that what Reinhold Neibuhr called “the Kingdom of Truth” becomes a momentary reality. The upside down Kingdom of Truth where kings are crucified, leaders are servants, humility is success, the meek are blessed, and the poor are rich. The Kingdom of Truth where we are known not by how we compare to others, but by how we love them.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “one person speaking the truth has more power than a whole city living in falsehood.” This gospel tells us that one person living the truth has more power than a whole world living in falsehood. Imagine then a whole community living the truth of God’s love!
If we listen to the voice of Jesus by living his truth, we will be a powerful witness against a world living in falsehood. If we listen to the voice of Jesus by living his truth, we will offer our world a glimpse of what God meant it to be. If we listen to the voice of Jesus by living his truth, we will, as the gospel says, “belong to the truth.” And if we do that, other folks just might listen too.
Neibuhr said that “the only kingdom which can defy and conquer the world is one which is not of this world.” That’s the Kingdom of Christ the King. It’s the one we are called to incarnate, the one governed by God’s love . And that, for Christians, is what truth is. Amen.