If you’ve been to a tourist destination like Orlando, Vegas, or Niagara Falls, you probably encountered a museum that proclaimed that “truth is stranger than fiction.” You may have even paid the admission price to check out the claims. I’m talking about Ripley’s Believe or Not Museums. I can’t verify the claims since I’ve never ventured inside any of the museums but I’ve passed by them. Since I didn’t go in, I have to take their word that truth is stranger than fiction.
You don’t have to go to a Ripley’s museum to encounter strange “truths.” That’s because we are living in a “post-truth” world. What do I mean by post-truth? One online dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or existing in an environment in which facts are viewed as irrelevant, or less important than personal beliefs and opinions, and emotional appeals are used to influence public opinion.” If we are living in a post-truth world, then it’s not surprising that so many folks are buying into and spreading “conspiracy theories” that are found on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Of course, there are the opinion-makers, influencers, and politicians who embrace “alternative facts.” Unlike Joe Friday, who demands “just the facts,” these opinion-makers make up their own set of facts to fit their message. That means a lie is not necessarily a lie. It’s just another version of the “truth.”
Now, I know that many things in life are subject to interpretation. Life is filled with shades of gray. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m more concerned about what was called propaganda—what some call “The Big Lie.” So, we face the question posed by Pilate to Jesus: “What is Truth?”
The Gospel of John puts an emphasis on “truth,” because as Jesus put it, a true disciple “will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32). Our Pentecost reading from the Gospel of John comes from Jesus’ “Farewell Address.” In this final class session, Jesus addressed the future. He told the disciples that while he was about to depart from them, he wasn’t abandoning them. That’s because he was going to send them an Advocate, who is the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:15-17).
We pick things up midway through this conversation in which Jesus tells the disciples that he would send the Advocate, who is the Spirit of Truth, from the Father to testify on Jesus’ behalf. The job of the Advocate was proving “the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). The Spirit would also testify to the truth and guide us to the truth that sets us free.
Jürgen Moltmann writes this about the Spirit of Truth: “It is the ‘Spirit of truth’ who convinces the world of its sins (John 16:7f), puts the unjust world to rights, and turns believers, from being the slaves and victims of sin, into free servants of the divine justice and righteousness which leads to eternal life in this world and the next (Rom. 6.13ff, 22)” [The Spirit of Life, p. 123]. Having been set free from sin, we can testify to the truth. That truth is revealed in the person of Jesus.
After Jesus finished his class session, he went to Gethsemane to pray. While he was praying soldiers came and arrested him. Although there were a few stops along the way he ended up standing before the governor, Pontius Pilate. Apparently, Pilate had heard that people were proclaiming Jesus to be “king of the Jews.” From a Roman imperial point of view, that was a problem. Since Caesar hadn’t appointed Jesus to be “king of the Jews,” any claim to kingship would be considered subversive. Now Jesus didn’t confirm or deny the charge. Instead, he told Pilate that he represented a different kind of kingdom. It wasn’t a worldly kingdom like Caesar’s or Herod’s. It was God’s kingdom, and this kingdom was rooted in truth. So, Jesus told Pilate that his mission involved testifying to the truth and that “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Apparently, Pilate wasn’t listening because he asked a very post-modern question: “What is truth?” (John 18:28-38)
Yes, “what is truth?” I think you would agree that the past year and a half have been rather strange. We’ve watched as one conspiracy theory after another has exploded on the scene. These conspiracy theories offer a “set” of “alternative facts” to which adherents cling, refusing to accept anything that contradicts their beliefs. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we went through a divisive election season that in the minds of some hasn’t ended. While a former President continues to claim that the election was stolen, a goodly number of his followers refuse to accept the verdict of the courts and Congress concerning the elections. Then there are all the conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, which some adherents say is a hoax designed to enslave us to a Marxist government. Now that we have vaccines that have been proven safe and effective, the conspiracy theorists tell us that they don’t work, that they give people COVID, that they kill people, and they are being used by Bill Gates to insert tracking devices into our bodies. I could add the tales told by the deniers of climate change or those who refuse to believe that racism has played a significant role in American history. In this “Post-Truth era,” truth is what we choose to believe, no matter what the facts may say.
This morning we celebrate the coming of the Spirit of Truth on the Day of Pentecost. While John doesn’t have a Pentecost story like Luke’s, he does talk about how the resurrected Jesus, before his ascension, breathed on the disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With this endowment of the Spirit, Jesus gave them the responsibility of forgiving and retaining the sins of others (Jn. 20:19-23). In other words, they were to testify to the truth. The same commission is given to us. By participating in this act of truth-telling we join the Spirit in glorifying Jesus.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Pentecost Sunday, Year B
May 23, 2021
|Image attribution: Greco, 1541?-1614. Descent of the Holy Spirit, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48043 [retrieved May 22, 2021]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.|