The title of this little series of sermons is “Christ and the Philosophers” – meaning, not the big names in Philosophy, such as Plato, or Kant, or Descartes, but, well – you and me. We are all philosophers, because all of us every day think and act on the great philosophical questions, namely: what is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? And while Christianity has no official philosophy – there are Idealist Christians and Realist Christians and Existentialist Christians and what-not; nevertheless, the Bible has a fair amount to say about what constitutes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Which brings us to the story of Jesus before Pilate. The High Priest Caiaphas & Co. have presented the Roman Governor with a ready-made sentence of death against Jesus of Nazareth, based upon a mixed bag of charges that Pilate can’t make heads or tails of. So Pilate turns to the prisoner, Jesus, to ask if he’s really claiming to be some sort of king – which would make him guilty of rebellion or sedition or something.
Jesus then asks Pilate if he's making the accusation or if he’s just repeating what he’s been told. Pilate says, “Am I a Jew?” meaning, "How do you expect me to understand all this? Your own people have asked for the death penalty. What did you do?"
Jesus realizes that Pilate is sincerely asking, so he tells him what he has refused to ever say to the likes of Caiaphas: “My kingship is not of this world,” and I’m no threat to Rome. Pilate asks then, “So you are a king?” And Jesus responds, “You call me that. I say that I came into the world as a witness to the truth.” To which Pilate responds, Phfft -- “What is truth?”
You gotta understand that for Pilate – and for many, many other people in this world, truth is whatever lets you keep your job – or your head. And he is trying, as best he can, to get Jesus to say something that will allow him to let Jesus off – but Jesus won’t say the magic words. Jesus won’t go along to get along. He has his own understanding of what is true, and he is willing to die rather than buy into what everyone else has agreed to call true. In the end, Pilate and Jesus just wind up talking past each other – but we don’t have to do the same.
So, what is truth? Well, first of all, truth is that which conforms to the facts, to reality. It’s the opposite of error, but also the opposite of fantasy. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday would say. If we’re talking about history, then truth is wie es wirklich war – the way it really happened. And if we’re talking about religion . . . Or if we’re talking about the Bible . . .
Is the Bible true? Every bit of it? Are some things true in one sense and some true in another? What are we to make of all the miracles in the Bible? How do we reconcile what the Bible says with what we learn via the Scientific Method? Oh, these are deep waters, indeed. And I have always appreciated J.R.R. Tolkiens’s epilogue to his great essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” where he says,
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.Just to be clear: I believe that the story is true. I note especially that the New Testament is the best attested document of antiquity, and that the persons and events and customs mentioned in it are all according to Hoyle, and that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is as provable as any miracle ever could be. Being a Gentile, I’ll take the Old Testament on Jesus’s word and give it a presumption of truth, and then investigate its odd corners to see what’s in it. And there, too, I find all sorts of confirmations of its testimony.
But when Tolkien talked about “sceptical men” accepting the Gospel story as “true on its own merits,” he was saying something important. I don’t spend a lot of time preaching on the evidence for our faith, because, generally speaking, you have to really be open to the evidence for the evidence to convince you. The professional skeptics – the atheists, science-mongers, and modernists - are all like W.C. Fields. Fields was reading the Bible one day, and an astonished friend asked him what he was doing. “Looking for loopholes,” is what he said.
"Looking for loopholes" – and the atheists, science-mongers, and modernists are not alone in that. There are also all the progressive Christian leaders, who set out to explain Christianity and the Bible and in trying to make it acceptable to today’s taste, wind up explaining it away. Meanwhile, there are other people, who believe in the Bible, but who think that means you gotta believe their crazy and distorted interpretations of it – that if their weirdness ain’t so, then you can’t trust God’s word. Which is bunk.
There’s plenty of evidence, if evidence is really what you’re looking for. If you really want to know the truth, then the Holy Spirit will lead you to it – and you will find Jesus there when you find what is true. Yes. It really happened. He really did what he did, and he meant what he said.
And I’ll tell you another thing Jesus said. When he was arguing with the Pharisees, he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But here, truth is something more than just facts, more than just the way it really happened. Truth is not merely the opposite of fantasy – it is also the opposite of lies. And so many, many people are chained up in a prison of lies.
Sometimes, lies can take over a whole society, such as the old Soviet Union, where everybody had to say what everybody knew wasn’t true, so that they wouldn’t be punished for contradicting the State. The USSR even published falsified maps for their own people. There were whole cities that didn’t officially exist – you couldn't find 'em on a map, even if you lived there. People earned doctorates in academic fields, writing dissertations on subjects that everybody knew was total horsefeathers.
But you don’t have to live in a prison-state like the Soviet Union to suffer in a dungeon of lies. There are all kinds of people who live in the prison of their own heads – unable to get away from the lies that they hear over and over – about themselves:
You’re no good.Sometimes, these lies come from others – from what we heard as children or even from our current relationships – and sometimes they come from what we tell ourselves:
It’s your fault.
You know what people are saying, don’t you?
How could you?
What makes you think anybody would love you?
What makes you think God would forgive you?
I’m so ugly.Yes, and sometimes the lies come from pop culture, that imprisons us within certain categories that we must fit within – or else we forfeit our coolness, our belonging, our identity:
I screw up everything.
I wish I were anything but what I am.
You don’t wanna be one of THOSE people, do ya?Ultimately, of course, we all find ourselves prisoners of sin – our own sin – and we spend enormous effort on self-justification, on excusing ourselves even as we condemn ourselves, telling ourselves comfortable lies to get through another night of alienation and despair.
Well, to know the truth is to refuse the lies we tell ourselves – as well as the lies we hear from others. To know the truth is to see with God’s eyes: to see the world with God’s eyes, and to know the deceit and the folly of it; and to see ourselves with God’s eyes, too, to see not a failure or a horror but a precious child that Jesus died for – a son or daughter to be raised to fulfill the beauty that he already sees in you.
Jesus told the Pharisees he was the true bread that came down from heaven, that before Abraham was, I am. And to be in the right relationship with him is to be restored to freedom, indeed. It means to be forgiven, to be at peace, to be able once again to value things properly, including yourself. Oh, whom the Son of God sets free is free, indeed – that’s another thing Jesus said. And you can depend on it – because he said it.
In Revelation 19, John says,
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.Jesus is called Faithful and True – and in this case, “true” means primarily, “dependable, the one who keeps his promises.” As ol’ Horton the Elephant put it, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”
You can count on Jesus. People will disappoint you – even those who mean you well. Not everyone is two-faced or crazy or manipulative. There are many wonderful people in the world, and you are greatly loved by some of them, I’m sure. But they can’t always be there for you – sometimes through no fault of their own. I mean, people die, people move away, people sometimes fail to notice things or get busy with other stuff. And they can’t “fix” you – nor “fulfill” you, anyway – so depending upon people is an iffy thing.
Depending on things – on the right circumstances, on a job or the results of an election or not getting sick or making a deadline or having a nice house – will disappoint you, too. Satisfaction is not to be found in things. And you’ll find you can’t keep things, anyway.
Depending on yourself isn’t the answer, either. Your own power is just not enough. All of us have too much need and not enough strength, not enough wisdom, not enough time. But Jesus never fails – and he will not fail you.
He will be there when other people cannot. He will not fail you as things inevitably must. He has the power you lack. You can depend on him: he’s the dependable sort.
“What is truth?” I’ve looked at the evidence, and I believe the Gospel is true. By the grace of God, I have looked upon the world – and upon myself – with God’s eyes, and I am not bound in the prison of lies any more. And I know that my Redeemer lives, and I’m trusting in his faithfulness – in him who is called Faithful and True.
“What is truth?” Jesus is truth. His love for you is truth. His faithfulness is truth. And don’t let anybody ever tell you different.