October 25, 2020
To please his father, a freshman went out for track. He had no athletic ability, though the father had been a good runner in his day. The kid’s first race was against one other person—the best runner in the school. He was badly beaten. Not wanting to disappoint his father, the boy wrote home as follows: "You will be happy to know that I ran against Bill Williams, the best runner in school. He came in next to last, while I came in second." Fact. J
“The truth will set you free.” It doesn’t take much of a leap to get to the words on the gates outside of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp—Arbeit macht frei: Work produces freedom. The truth will set you free. Unless it doesn’t. I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘truth.’
At his trial, Jesus stands stoically before Pontius Pilate and tells him that he came to testify to the truth, and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Pilate asks, “What is truth?” And that is our question now, as well. What is truth?
Truth, as in facts, seems to have taken a walkabout in our society recently. Everyone from media to politicians to even religious leaders point out ‘facts’. But the ‘facts’ are often not only untrue but inaccurate—fake news, false claims, uncorroborated opinions. What is truth? Because the truth will set us free—if we could only figure out what it is and who’s actually telling it.
Two men had an argument. To settle the matter, they went to a Sufi judge for arbitration. The plaintiff made his case. He was very eloquent and persuasive in his reasoning. When he finished, the judge nodded in approval and said, "That's right, that's right."
On hearing this, the defendant jumped up and said, "Wait a second, judge, you haven't even heard my side of the case yet." So the judge told the defendant to state his case. And he, too, was very persuasive and eloquent. When he finished, the judge said, "That's right, that's right."
When the clerk of court heard this, he jumped up and said, "Judge, they both can't be right." The judge looked at the clerk of court and said, "That's right, that's right."
The truth will set you free…unless it doesn’t. The Innocence Project reports that 2-5% of people serving time behind bars are innocent. That is an estimated minimum of 40,000 people wrongfully incarcerated. And even with videos of crimes that circle the internet, we only see parts of what happened—snippets of a whole event. And we decide as judge and jury based on pieces of a puzzle that don’t even begin to show the whole picture. We decide what is truth before we even have all the facts.
And it’s that little interplay between truth and fact that causes so much angst within a society and relationships. The facts don’t always tell the truth of a situation. And the truth is always bigger than what we see or hear or even think. When Jesus talks of truth, he isn’t talking about facts. He isn’t talking about the fact that he’s the Son of God. He isn’t talking about the fact that he is the Messiah. He is talking about a deeper, stronger truth.
In chapter 14, as he is giving his farewell talk to the disciples, he says that he is going to prepare a place for them in the Father’s house. He says that he will come to take them with him once it is prepared—a nod to the wedding arrangements and processes of the day. And they will know the way to where he is going. Good ole’ Thomas asks, “If we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. You get to the Father through me and only me. And you know me…therefore you know the way, and the truth, and life.”
The truth Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with facts. Facts can be proven. Truth, not always. Facts can be looked up and researched and documented and measured. Facts are things like how many people show up for worship. Truth is more about the depth of their faith and the progress toward discipleship. Truth is in the why more than the how or the what.
Today, Eli Barton affirms the baptismal promises his parents made. He makes a commitment to serve God and his community, to prayerfully and faithfully seek understanding, to go deeper in his relationship with God even as he goes deeper in his relationship with God’s children. And in his faith statement, he asks some really important questions—questions that get at the truth of faith rather than the facts.
He says, “I wonder why confirmation is important if I was already baptized. Why are some religious people not always the nicest? Why do different Christians believe different things if we all believe in the same God?” They’re questions not so easily answered because they rely on something more than facts. I can give him the history of the church—how confirmation came to be, our bondage to sin, and how different denominations interpret the Bible. But that doesn’t really answer the questions, does it? The real answer is fear. Why do we do anything that we do? Either because of our fear…or because of our hope. Rarely because of the facts.
When Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” the Jewish leaders misunderstood. They said they didn’t need to be set free. They had never been slaves to anyone. Fact is, they were slaves to Egypt for 400 years. Truth is, though, that as God’s chosen people, they were always free. So, in some sense, they’re right. They were never slaves to anyone because of their faith. Except that Sin isn’t an ‘anyone.’ And they were most certainly slaves to sin, as Jesus points out. We’re all slaves to sin.
Our confession states that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. If the truth sets us free, then the truth is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. The Truth (capital T) sets us free every day. The Truth is bigger than facts about evolution or facts about taxes or facts about DNA or facts about worship attendance. The Truth is bigger than facts about climate change or facts about racist actions or facts about abortion. The Truth takes away the element of one person being right and another wrong.
The Truth is all there is. Jesus is all there is. God is all there is. That’s why it’s said that arguing with facts never changes anyone’s mind. You know why? Because anyone can find just as many facts to refute your argument. They can just decide not believe the facts you present. Which is why our political system is such a dumpster fire right now. But…you can’t argue with experience. Experience is your truth. One might argue about the depravity of a gay person—until they befriend a gay person and love them desperately despite themselves. One might argue about the ugliness of abortion until they are faced with an unthinkable decision and find it’s not as black-and-white as they had thought. You might argue about any number of things—until you live it, love them, experience what you could not have imagined. And then, arguments go out the window.
That’s the truth that sets us free—free to be people of God who can turn to science and facts and research and, at the same time, put our full trust in the God who loves us enough to be killed by us. That is truth. That kind of truth sets us free from the facts and shame of our sin so that we can live into better lives—free from the weight of hurtfulness so that we can become healers—free from the burden of death so that we can proclaim the good news of life to the world.
That’s the truth, and it sets us free every day.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church