The truth will set you free

Christ the King – 2015

John 18:33-38a

Marian Free

In the name of God who alone is truth. Amen.

Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald reported “a genetically engineered fish has been approved by the United States regulators as fit for consumption”. The fish in question is a salmon that grows much faster than its unmodified version and is therefore ready for sale much sooner. A photo shows two fish the same age. The modified fish appears to be four times the size of its unmodified sibling. Despite the obvious advantages and the fact the the FDA has “thoroughly analysed and evaluated the data and information” provided by the company that developed the fish, consumer groups and environmental groups are arguing that many independent scientists are among those who oppose the decision and are adamant that the fish should not have been approved.

The controversy around genetically modified food is just one example of the way in which scientists can draw different conclusions from studying the same phenomena. Scientists disagree with regard to the effect of the mining of coal seam gas on underground water, and they draw different conclusions as to the relationship between human activity and global warming and on it goes. Absolute truth seems to elude us.

In trying to determine what is true and what is not we have a number of methods available to us – the adversarial, the investigative and the scientific. These methods are not restricted to barristers, the police or to scientists, nor is their use limited to court rooms, detective’s meeting rooms or laboratories. Every one of us consciously or unconsciously, applies these techniques every day as we interrogate the variety of information before us and try to determine whether or not it is to be believed.

The adversarial method of determining truth is that of argument – the stronger argument being given the weight of truth. Our legal system allows both a prosecutor and a defendant to put forward the best argument they can to prove that a person did or did not commit the act for which they are on trial. A jury then decides who has the strongest case. In much the same way we often make decisions by putting a positive and a negative argument side by side to see which is the most convincing.

In other legal systems there is no argument. It is the judge who investigates the crime in order to come up with a judgement. Investigatory analysis might also be carried out by police officers or journalists who collect information before drawing a conclusion as to the most probably scenario given the facts they have gathered. We might apply this technique when we are trying to assess wither our teenager is telling the truth about being late home.

The scientific method of determining truth is usually considered the most objective and reliable of the three. The questions asked are more specific and the methodology requires not only that the information is gathered and observed, but also that it is measured and rigorously tested.

No method however is a guarantee that the truth will really come to light – innocent people are sent to jail, the gullible are taken in and apparently objective research can lead to contradictory conclusions.

John’s gospel is particularly concerned with “truth”. From the beginning when we are told that the Word became flesh “full of grace and truth” (1:14), truth is given priority. The Jesus of John says: “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (4:23-24) and “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6). It should come as no surprise then, that Jesus makes a claim about truth when he is brought before Pilate: “I came into the world to testify to the truth” (18:37). Pilate, puzzled, bored, frustrated, curious or furious asks what is perhaps the most important question in the New Testament: “What is truth?” (18:38).

As the Procurator, it is Pilate’s task to determine the truth of the matters presented to him – in this case an internal dispute among the Jews. Jesus – who looks nothing like the truth of which is being accused – that he is King of the Jews – is brought before him. He has none of the distinguishing characteristics of royalty – he is poor, he is vulnerable and his supporters have deserted him. Pilate must have found it hard to take the dispute seriously. How could the Jews possibly accuse this man of claiming to be a king? How could the man before him be considered a threat to Rome?

Jesus does not deny of challenge the charges against him. On the contrary he claims that his kingdom is not in direct competition with Rome. His kingdom is very different: “it is not of this world”. Pilate understands this to mean that Jesus is a king, but Jesus’ response is confusing: “You say that I am a king. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37). Jesus’ kingdom is like no other. It is a kingdom in which truth is proclaimed and in which truth is believed.

The truth Jesus proclaims is unexpected and controversial. It is a truth that gives union with God priority over all other relationships, that understands that true freedom lies in complete submission and that truth is revealed only when we stop seeking and begin receiving the truth that the Holy Spirit instils in us. Jesus is a king, but the kingdom over which he has dominion bears no resemblance to earthly kingdoms. Jesus’ kingdom is one in which power, status and wealth have no place. It is a kingdom in which surrender takes the place of striving, service replaces leadership and vulnerability is valued over being in control.

All of this Jesus has modelled in his life and he models it again in his trial. Paradoxically, by surrendering himself entirely to God Jesus finds himself in complete control of the situation. He doesn’t have anything to fear from earthly authorities and he has nothing to lose because he has placed himself in God’s hands knowing that God alone has power over heaven and earth. The truth that Jesus lives, the truth that Jesus reveals, the truth that has the power to set one free cannot be found by argument, investigation or research but only by listening to Jesus’ voice, following Jesus’ example and in giving up the pretence that we can know anything or achieve anything by our own efforts. The truth that Jesus teaches, the truth that Jesus models is that of complete surrender – becoming one with God, allowing God to work in us and through us, so that what we know and what we do is God’s truth and not our own poor understanding of what truth might be.

Jesus is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. He knows that truth is not to be found in things that we can see, and touch and feel. Jesus knows that the only truth is God’s truth and that true freedom lies in complete submission to God.

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