Truth…truth is tricky business.
In the 1950’s a college freshman went out for the track team. He did it to please his father, who had been a very good runner in his day, setting school records in the one-mile race. His son, the freshman, had never run competitively. This freshman’s very first race was one-on-one against the university’s best one-mile runner. The freshman was, not surprisingly, badly beaten. Not wanting to disappoint his father, he wrote home after the race: “Dad, you will be happy to know that I ran against Bill Williams, the best one-mile runner in the school. He came in next to last, while I came in second.”
Well, he didn’t lie. He told the truth. But it was definitely his version of the truth.
Truth has become tricky business. In fact, in recent years, the idea of truth has kind of taken a beating, hasn’t it?
In a world with so many competing voices…in a world where it seems like everyone has an agenda…have you ever wondered “how do I know what’s true? What’s real?” Have you ever tried to figure out which voice to follow when so many voices claim truth?
Truth is something that you would think would be an absolute…truth is what’s true. But in the world in which we live, truth has become relative:
- Now, we have democratic truth, and we have republican truth
- Now, we have Fox News truth, and we have MSNBC truth
- We have global warming truth, and we have climate deniers’ truth
- We have vaccinated truth, and unvaccinated truth
- There is rich truth, and poor truth
- There is Black Lives Matter truth and All Lives Matter truth
And so it is confusing…and it is frustrating. Is anyone else, besides me, really ready for this election cycle to be over? Anyone? One candidate makes a claim…and their opponent responds, claiming the exact opposite truth.
And there is nothing partisan about this. I have seen people from both of the major parties, as well as independents and others do this.
So how do we know? How do we distinguish between what is true and what is not?
Jesus has some insight for us today:
Jesus is talking with his followers, and he says to them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The disciples though…they push back. They say: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
So Jesus comes back at his disciples and doubles down on his statement: “…everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus is saying “you’re missing the point here. I’m not talking about political freedom. I am talking about a deeper kind of freedom. Freedom from sin and death…freedom from loneliness…freedom from fear…freedom from hopelessness. I am talking about freeing your spirits!
And in this moment, Jesus is claiming that there is an absolute truth…there is a truth that will set you free from these things.
So, on this Reformation weekend, when we celebrate the 505th anniversary of the reformation as an historical event…and we remember the ongoing work of God, reforming our hearts, and our church, and the world…I think it’s only appropriate that we take a deeper look into this idea of truth.
500 plus years ago, as a young monk in Germany, Martin Luther studied the scriptures, and he realized that the Word of God and the practices of the church did not align; that there was actually a truth, and that the church has strayed from it.
And it was the Book of Romans in particular, that got Luther’s attention. In our second scripture reading today, in this letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that: “All the commandments,” that is, everything God wants us to do, is “summed up in one command: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Paul, and Luther, are saying that truth…the truth we seek…the truth that God gives, is love. Love. It is that simple. All real truth…pure truth…comes back to the idea of love. For something to be true, it must be done with love. And the freedom that results, it is because of of this love…this love that comes from God.
Pastor Adam Hamilton tells the story of receiving an email that was sent to a long list of Christian leaders in the church. The email was written and designed to inflame Christians against the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. In the email, there were photos of United States Marines praying, and the email said that the ACLU was all up in arms about this.
The email quoted an ACLU spokesperson, a man named Lucius Traveler, who said that the ACLU was suing the military to end the practice of Marines praying on federal property. The email closed asking people to pray for the Marines and then asking to Christians to pass the email along. Apparently, millions of people took this quite seriously. The email went viral. You may have seen it. I know I got a few copies of it sent to me.
Pastor Adam read this e-mail and thought that something sounded a bit fishy. So, he took a few minutes to research it, going to the ACLU website. There, he learned that they were aware of this internet myth. They have never employed anyone named Lucius Traveler, and they do not oppose prayer. In fact, they had gone to court to defend the right of individuals to pray. Prayer is a protected civil liberty too.
Somewhere out in the social media world, there were Christians who had created a fictional character and a fictional story with photos of real marines praying, and they sent this out to create animosity against the ACLU. And then there were millions of Christians who had been manipulated to participate in the slander by passing on the email to all their friends without taking the time to see if it was true.
It was all a lie. And it was designed to gain social and political leverage.
Pastor Adam Hamilton wrote that: “There was no truth in this email. None whatsoever. You know how I know? Because there was no love here.”
Our scriptures today point us toward a simple reality: Truth is love. Truth is always love.
Do you want to know if a claim that is made on a news network, or down at the coffee shop, or on a social media site, or in the Concerned Citizens of wherever group is true?
Well, the first piece of advice I would give you would be to apply the “love test” to it. Is what is being claimed, being claimed because of love? Is it designed to build something up? Or does it simply tear something down.
Because it is easy to stand on the outside and throw rocks. But throwing rocks is not an act of love. Tearing something or someone down is not an act of love; no, it is an act of anger, or fear, or divisiveness.
Now, I’m not saying that we can’t offer critique, or even criticism. Not at all. In fact, I think that’s often what we, as people of faith, are called to do. It is how we initiate change when we encounter unjust systems. Jesus did this all of the time. He taught radical things…he sat with the tax collectors…he touched the untouchable, all because he loved them. He flipped the tables over at the temple out of love, because the poor were being cheated, and Jesus loved the poor. Jesus’ very act of going to the cross…his death and resurrection…was a sign that the old system…the system of sin and death, was no more. Through Jesus’ resurrection something new, something beautiful, was being built. Jesus never tore down. Jesus only built up.
And Jesus did these things because of love for you. And because love is truth. And because truth sets you free.
When we, as people of faith, speak the truth…sometimes hard truths, we do so not out of anger, fear, or a desire to gain power. We do it because of love. We do it because we care. We do it because God desires for the world to be brought into alignment with God’s Word, God’s hopes and with God’s vision. And when critique is offered out of love, it is given with kindness, and with gentleness and with hope. When we critique, we do so out of a desire to build something or someone up.
I am pretty certain that we cannot stop people from making false claims that hurt others. Sin is baked too deeply into our souls. But I do think that we can learn to discern truth from falsehoods. We do so by looking for love in the midst of what is said.
We look for words that build people up. We look for words that bring hope, and peace, and reconciliation and love into the lives of those we encounter. We don’t shy away from offering criticism, but we always do it from a posture of love.
I will never tell you for whom you should vote. No pastor ever should. That’s between you and God. But I will tell you this: When you vote, or when you make decisions, or even when you’re wondering “should I say something or not?” Let love be your measuring stick. “If I vote this way,” or “if I make this decision,” or “if I say something,” does it show love? Does it reflect God’s love?
Jesus says that it is the “truth that will set you free.” What is that truth? Well, five chapters earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus does a pretty good job of encapsulating it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall never die, but will receive eternal life.”
That is truth. It is truth for you and for me. Let it be the truth that guides us in what we say, in what we do, and in how we connect with the world around us.
Thanks be to God!