“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Jesus said it. We just heard it read from the gospel of John. I don’t pick these passages. But I couldn’t have picked a more timely one considering the sad state of truth in the public arena. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Someone once remarked that philosophy seeks the truth, theology finds it, and religion possesses it.”
Well, 501 years ago religion didn’t seem to possess the truth. Today is Reformation Sunday, and the 501st anniversary of the time Martin Luther posted 95 thesis which challenged the church’s claim that people could pay money for forgiveness of sins. “That’s true!” the church said. “No, that’s not true,” Luther said. And so started the reform movement which brought about, among other things, our church … our “Lutheran” church … so named for the reformer who really wanted a reform movement and not a church named after him.
I usually read two or three commentaries in preparing my sermon. One of them advised us pastors to not fall to the temptation to define “truth” in a political sense, but rather to stick to its “theological” meaning, because that is more important and is what Jesus was talking about anyway. Well, I disagree for two reasons. First, I don’t think that Jesus was speaking of truth only in a theological sense. And, second, sometimes sermons can be so heavenly that they are no earthly good. And thirdly (I thought of a third thing), the church needs to speak out about what’s happening to truth in the public square and the implications it has for our lives going forward.
One time someone asked Martin Luther why he preached about grace every single Sunday. Luther replied, “Because every single week people forget it.” And so we proclaim it again this Sunday: Our salvation has nothing at all to do with whatever works we do or whatever prestige we think we have. It comes from the grace of God. We don’t deserve it, but God gives it anyway. Luther’s “aha moment” about grace came when he read the words we heard in today’s passage from Romans: “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
When Jesus told the Jews, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” it didn’t compute. It didn’t compute because they didn’t understand that they needed to be made free. They had pedigree. They were descendants of Abraham. Furthermore, they had the law. Being right with God meant following the law, being upright citizens … good and moral people.
Jesus’ response to them was, “No. We are not good and moral people.” “We are slaves to sin,” he said. And he says this to us, too. We are slaves to sin. As we repeated together in our Confession of Sins this morning, “We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Slaves to sin. Just as slaves have no place in the master’s household, Jesus told them so, too, do sinners have no place in God’s household. Except for one thing. One thing. The master’s son. He has a place in that household. He is the one who frees you. And if the master’s son frees you, you have a place in that household as well.
This is the truth that Jesus wanted them … and us … to know. We are saved by grace. Sole gracia. We are put in touch with that grace only through faith. Sola fide. Grace alone. Faith alone. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free!”
So, there’s the theological truth which my commentaries want to make sure get’s preached this morning. But here’s something for us to ponder. Consider this: What good does it do to consider a thing to be true if truth, itself, doesn’t exist? What good does it do to consider a thing to be true if truth, itself, doesn’t exist?
I’m worried about truth. Recently, the flow of lies and outright falsehoods from our public officials doesn’t just seem to be more of what has always gone on in politics. It seems now to be something different. It is like, if we are told often enough that the sun is square, we either start believing that the sun is square or we start believing that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says it is because we can all just make up our own versions of truth. Alternate facts?g George Orwell once said, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder sound respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The ninth commandment is, “You shall not bear false witness.” When we countenance lies we are not just permitting ourselves to be deceived, but we are tiptoeing up to the postmodern nihilistic view that nothing is true, nothing has meaning, and all claims are relative. One former big city mayor actually said recently on national tv, “Truth isn’t truth.” Telling the truth is not just central to an orderly society, but it comes directly from the biblical tradition in which prophets spoke truth to power. The definition of prophet is not “fortune teller.” It is “truth teller.” We all need to be prophets.
Permit me to use a more extensive quote from a document many prominent pastors and theologians have signed on to. It is a document entitled, “Reclaiming Jesus.” We are studying it in the Adult Forum. It says that, “We reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nations highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children.” Please listen closely to their last two sentences of the statement: “The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.”
I’m dwelling on this for two reasons. First, it’s been something I’ve wanted to preach about for a while now and when the gospel is, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” I feel called to say something. Second, there is a danger of doing backward theology: If we are, in the twenty-first century, discovering that truth doesn’t really exist, then why should we believe a first century preacher who claims to BE the truth? Better to do our theology forward, “BECAUSE Jesus is the truth (and the way and the life), we are free to speak it in church, speak it to one another, and especially – these days – speak truth to power. It is what Martin Luther did 501 years ago.
Text: John 8:31-36