“What is truth?” A Sermon for Good Friday 14th April 2017
by Roberta Berke
“What is truth?” [John 18.38]
On that day when Jesus was crucified, truth meant different things to different people. For Pilate, truth meant legal evidence. Peter denied the truth that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. The centurion overseeing the crucifixion suddenly realised the truth: Jesus was the Son of God. Pilate, Peter, and the centurian. By their actions, these three people defined truth differently.
“What is truth?” sneered Pilate. He was cynical after Jesus had said, “…I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus had given puzzling and cryptic replies to Pilate’s questions. All Pilate wanted to hear were the plain facts, simple evidence that would stand up in a court of law. He was not asking, “What is truth?” to begin a long philosophical discussion. For Pilate, truth meant objective reality, hard legal evidence. Pilate would have dismissed with contempt anyone who tried to excuse their lies as “alternative facts”. At first Pilate dismissed the lies of Jesus’ accusers. He declared Jesus innocent in law. “I find no case against him.” Then, under pressure from the mob, Pilate missed the deeper meaning of truth. He condemned Jesus to death, despite the legal truth of his innocence. Pilate did what was convenient, rather than upholding the truth. Pilate was also on trial here, and he was guilty of pronouncing a sentence which was not the truth but a lie.
“What is truth?” When Peter was asked if he had been with Jesus, “he began to curse and swore an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’” [Mt.26.74] Peter was not only a liar, he was an unconvincing liar. The bystanders’ repeated and teasing questions show that everyone knew Peter was lying. His Galilean accent gave him away. Why did he lie? Because he was afraid? No one in this situation was threatening Peter. When faced with a physical fight, Peter was not a coward. He’d tried to defend Jesus with his sword and he cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. However, now Peter faced a moral trial. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “lead us not into temptation”. These word literally mean, “do not bring us to the time of trial”. When we’re under pressure, in a time of trial, we may lie and deny that Jesus is our master. For Peter, truth should have meant “telling the truth”, not lying about the facts. But to be true also means to be loyal, to be true to someone we love, to acknowledge a relationship with them. Not only did Peter deny that he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he claimed that he didn’t even know “the man”.
“What is truth?” The truth about Jesus suddenly struck the centurion in charge of crucifying him. ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ [Mt. 27.54] When Jesus died, an earthquake not only split open rocks but it also cracked open the hearts of some people who watched Jesus die. The truth was revealed. ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Fear can shock people into realising the truth. Although fear can also drive people like Peter to tell lies, fear can destroy illusions. Fear can reveal the bedrock of reality. Underlying our mundane everyday existence is God’s eternal presence. Beyond the all our passing hours, God remains, the eternal truth.
“What is truth?” This question confronted Pilate, Peter, and the centurion. This is also a question we face every day. How do our words and our actions relate to the truth? We need to ask forgiveness for our cynicism, for our shallow dismissals of plain Christian truths as naïve and unsophisticated. We need to ask forgiveness for our denials that we’re active Christians when it might be awkward or embarrassing. We need to ask forgiveness for our cowardly failures to acclaim Jesus as our master. It’s hard to bear witness to the truth when we’re frightened. We pray, “lead us not into temptation”, “do not bring us to the time of trial”. Help us to know the truth, and the truth shall make us free. Amen.
Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2017. All rights reserved.