S. Good Friday.20 “What Is Truth?” John 18:38a
Wow. That’s a whole lotta bible reading there! So much to cover. But fear not; our text for this homily is just the first part of one verse: “Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth’?”
That is a great question. Especially these days, when everyone is locked up in their houses cowering with fear that they might get the Corona and die and the 9 of us here are looking pretty silly live-streaming though you’ve been really nice about not pointing that out, much. Is it a deadly disease, or not? A pandemic, or just panic over a nasty cold? Are these extreme measures really necessary, or no?
I’m skeptical, maybe recklessly so. It hardly seems like the Zombie Apocalypse, Bubonic Plague, or even 1918 Spanish Flu to me (he says, with just a trace of ill-concealed disappointment in his voice :-). But who knows, really? My kids have not tired of pointing out I’m no medical expert—and fair point, kids! My friend Rusty Reno at First Things shares my reckless bravado, but has convinced me we’ve lost this argument, and our intransigence is just making people more scared and needs to stop. So, I’ve moved on to trying to heal wounds in the church and the damage to our society the lockdowns have and are causing, the deep mental illness that is a pandemic all its own.
What is truth? Well, on the Corona, we still can’t say for sure, can we? You have your opinion and I have mine (which is probably different from yours) but our opinions hardly matter, really. However; there are some truths about death that our fear and hysteria over this virus has laid bare that I can address with divine authority. The first truth is: “sin came into the world through one man [Adam] and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Rom. 5:12). That’s God’s Word on the matter(!)—and you can run, hide, social distance, mask up; but you can’t escape death.
It really doesn’t matter whether it’s famine, global warming, smoking, drugs, drinking, old age, sword, sugary snacks, sex, cars, cancer, clumsiness, or Corona that kills you—life’ll kill ya, as Warren Zevon said. Psalm 90 says we get 70, maybe 80 years and time’s up! If we get beyond 80, hey, it’s all free game, man. You’re living on a very little bit of borrowed time, so, well: make the most of it!
This is truth.
A fairly wise man, Ernest Becker wrote a book that won (posthumously, ironically) the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. The book is called “The Denial of Death”. In it Becker notes that our entire culture (as all have been throughout history) is constructed like a big screen to hide from our awareness the fact that we are like the animals in that we will die. Yet, unlike the animals, we are conscious of this terrible truth; and worse, we have this spirit or soul in us that says this is not normal, not the way it should be, that really, on some level we should be immortal. And yet, we aren’t.(!)
Becker notes how, of all the greatest thinkers who’ve wrestled with this problem, no one has seemed to get it more right than the Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard notes that really, the only thing that lets us face death with courage and equanimity would be actual immortality. Mmm… how would I get that? The world has pseudo immortality projects for us to try: fame, wealth, honor, family, art, politics, anything that makes a name for us, that will defeat death. But all those are just scams and smokescreens that conceal the truth that we will die and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it (and I mean damned literally there, I’m not swearing—all our efforts to foil death are literally damnable, which makes it a worse problem!).
So what can we do? Kierkegaard offers only the biblical leap of faith. Fall—helpless—with fear and trembling and dread, blindly, into the darkness of the cross and trust Jesus to catch you. Death is the ultimate trust fall. And faith? Well; Kierkegaard says, that is a divine, mysterious and tricky business itself! As Luther rightly notes, it comes only as a gift to people who’ve faced the awful truth that we are sinners, rightly doomed to die; people who, moving through fear, have come to a wild, reckless, free faith that Jesus will catch us as we’re falling into the grave and raise us up, somehow. However, it’s nothing you can control, this faith business. It finds you, you don’t find IT!
But we want to think we can hold off death. We think we can fix the weather, save the planet, stop the Corona if only we social distance enough. Maybe we can, but probably not, I think. And even if we did: cancer, clumsiness, famine, and peril are still undefeated. Few make it past 80, honestly. None make it to immortality, not by their own efforts.
So here we are, finalist; sitting with Pilate. Hopefully, I’ve got your attention as Jesus had Pilate’s. It was a good talk: Pilate: “So you’re the King Jew?” Jesus: “You said it, brother! Did someone tell you that or did you figure it out yourself?” Pilate: “Do I look like a church-goer? Seriously, what have you done?” Jesus: “My Kingdom’s not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight, but now my Kingdom is not from here.” Pilate: “So, you are a king, then?” Jesus: “You say it again, brother! For this I was born; for this I have come into the world—to be martyred for the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate:…
“What is truth?”
And the silence is all the answer he gets. But here’s a couple truths: death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Not by a long shot. So R-E-L-A-X! Hell is the only thing really to fear!—and the God who gets the hell outta you. Nothing else is worth getting that worked up about. The loss of faith, love, truth, beauty, goodness—those are things we should fear losing far more than physical life, which again: we’re all going to lose anyway, sometime, sooner than you think. So why not go out with some… insouciance? (Pardon my French!).
What is truth?… That only Jesus does dying right. It’s a paradox: only a perfect man can die a perfect death, but perfect, sinless people cannot die. Yet Jesus: the perfect, sinless Son of God does die. How ‘bout that? Put that in your pipe and vape it! What is impossible for men is possible for God.
What is truth?… Well; that the Jesus who did dying right by that death on Golgotha has defeated death and sin and hell once and for all.
What is truth?… Well; that he can and does share his dying with us in the Gospel Word and Sacraments of his church. Dying with Jesus, you live; and those who live and believe in him never die, really. And while you can’t believe this, on your own, the Holy Spirit is present; as is Jesus Himself, in the holy words, water, bread, and wine—His very Body and Blood!—to embody us with Jesus, make us truly share, body and soul, his dying, so that we can be full and secret sharers in his rising to Life Eternal too.
What is truth?… It’s the pregnant pause as Pilate lights another cigarette, and sends Jesus stumbling on his (holy) way; it’s the catch in your throat now as you go: “It can’t be; but what if…? just maybe…? could it be…?
This is truth. It’s here, for you, now; wrapped up in the Word and Worship of Jesus. Taste and see for yourself. Here’s the gift that keeps on giving Peace surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.