What is truth? In these last days before the election that is a question we should all be asking. I used to think the answer was simple. My best friend in college, who is now a university professor, used to say, “Truth’s truth. You can’t have opinions about truth.” But how wrong he was. America’s Mayor has told us that sometimes the truth is not true. Nowadays we have facts and we have alternative facts. Everything seems up for grabs.
Is the caravan making its way through Mexico a mob of disease carrying terrorists, intent on invading our country? Or are they the ones Emma Lazarus described in her poem that is on the Statue of Liberty: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free who see the lamp of liberty beside the golden door? Is global warming the greatest threat facing humanity that requires immediate action, or is it a hoax by the Chinese perpetrated to cripple America?
How we answer those questions, what we accept as facts, has as much or more to do with how we interpret them as it does with objective reality. In the early 20th century Upton Sinclair exposed the brutal working conditions of the meatpacking plants in Chicago, hoping that his writings like the novel The Jungle would lead to reforms that saved lives and improved the welfare of the meat packers. He was disappointed when the people whose lives he hoped to improve were hostile to changing the conditions of their work. He observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
But it’s not just economic factors that influence how we distinguish between what is true and what is false. We define reality through our convictions about who we are and what our purpose is in life. That’s why Jesus was such a threat to the religious leaders of his day.
Jesus told the truth. He showed us what it looks like to live by the spirit of God’s law, as God intends us to live. That threatened the religious leaders. If you try to see things their way, you can understand why. For instance, God’s law says to honor the Sabbath. Centuries of tradition had spelled out how to do that. The religious leaders upheld that tradition. The way they saw it, to do any work on the Sabbath violated God’s law. So when Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath, when he healed a lame man on the Sabbath, when his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, that threatened the very identity of those religious leaders. The truth was a threat.
Jesus taught that God had chosen Israel to be a blessing to all people. He welcomed the sinners and the outcasts. He ate with those who collected taxes for the foreign oppressor Rome. Those were threats to the leaders’ understanding of who God had chosen them to be. They believed that being chosen meant that they should stay away from anyone who broke God’s rules. Jesus fulfilled God’s law by not excluding anyone who trusted in the Lord. He demonstrated how the truth broke down the barriers his opponents had spent their lives building up.
The religious laws that they followed so scrupulously wouldn’t let those leaders put Jesus to death for blasphemy, so they resorted to a different set of laws, the laws of Rome. They sent Jesus to Pilate and asked the Roman governor to do what their law wouldn’t let them do. Pilate didn’t get it. He couldn’t figure out what Jesus had done wrong. So he asked Jesus, “Why are you here?” Jesus didn’t appeal to the laws of the temple. He didn’t appeal to the laws of Rome. He replied, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
Some say that Jesus has no interest in earthly affairs. They say that he is concerned with matters of the spirit and his followers should keep faith out of how we run our business or how we cast our vote. But why would God send Jesus to earth, why would he have bothered to leave heaven if it didn’t matter what goes on here? When Jesus said that his kingdom is not from this world, he means that it doesn’t originate from this world, from the impulses that drive human beings to set up kingdoms and empires. Jesus’ kingdom is from heaven, from God who is pure and just and perfect. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, full of grace and truth, so his kingdom might come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
God wants us to live by the truth. He is the way and the truth and the life. Truth is not a collection of facts that we interpret according to our economic interests or our political orientation or our philosophy of life. Truth is this person, Jesus. In him we know the truth, and the truth is what sets us free.
The truth sets us free from fear as the world around us changes. When we live by the truth, we have a solid grounding as the way we see the world changes. 2000 years ago, it was an accepted fact that the sun revolved around the earth. When Copernicus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, it threatened the faith of many people. But eventually we realized that the truth about God is not in the ancient understanding of how the universe works but in the one who fashioned the universe. The ancients knew that truth of God which was revealed in their understanding of the cosmos. Even though the science has changed, the truth of the one who made the universe has not changed. We can still believe that God created the universe even though we realize that saying it was done in seven days is a poetic description, not a scientific one.
Or take the role of women as leaders in the church. There are still many people of faith who think that women are not able to serve as leaders in the church. They can quote verses from the Bible that they hold up as facts telling what God intends. But Jesus teaches a broad interpretation of God’s love and sends us the Holy Spirit that gives gifts of leadership to men and women. As women have claimed their God-given gifts of leadership, the truth of Jesus’ love shows us how drawing on all the gifts the Spirit gives us strengthens his church.
Our standard of truth is Jesus. We interpret the Bible through our relationship with him. We make decisions about how we live in this world based on what we know about him. That scared the religious leaders of Jerusalem. They feared that he was tearing down all standards, that following him meant that anything goes. But Jesus actually calls us to higher standards that are more difficult to follow. He doesn’t let us settle for what is easy or what has always been good enough. The truth is that Jesus wants each person whom he loves to have health and wholeness. We can disagree about how to do that. Jesus probably doesn’t care if we have Medicare for all or if we rely on private competition. We can disagree about how we as a nation provide health care, but as those who belong to the truth we are not indifferent. We know that God desires health and wholeness of all, however it’s provided.
We can agree that Jesus commands us to welcome the outcast, to care for the dispossessed, for the widows and the orphans regardless of their citizenship. We can disagree about how to do that in a way that is fair and just to all. How we live in the truth is not always clear because as Paul says, now we see in a mirror dimly. We do not yet see the truth face to face, so we disagree about what is fair for Dreamers or asylum seekers. But we always listen for the voice of God’s truth speaking out to us through the clamor of the competing voices of our own self-interests and preconceptions.
The powers of falsehood and deception are strong. Last week’s shooting in Pittsburgh demonstrates the fatal power of lies. But we stand up to hatred and fear because our lives belong to the Prince of Peace whose perfect love casts out fear, whose truth sets us free.
When we gather at this table, we step into Jesus’ world where the truth sets us free. We gather at his table with people from every land and of many political persuasions to be more like Jesus, to practice living in his kingdom. Every choice, every decision we make in this life will be imperfect. Jesus is not on the ballot on Tuesday. Only fallible human beings like ourselves are running. But we exercise our civic duty shaped by the one we know as the truth. We don’t give up on humanity because God hasn’t given up on us. He is the way and the truth and the life – today, on Wednesday morning, and forever.