|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 14, 2017
Good Friday Service – 7:00 p.m.
Every year the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary select a “word of the year” which they believe best captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. Their choice for word of the year in 2016 was “post-truth.”
Post truth (adjective): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The folks at Oxford say that use of the word post-truth has increased by approximately 2,000% between 2015 and 2016. Post truth is the idea that to feel something is true is enough for it to actually be true, and to want something to be true can make it become true in your own mind. Post truth cast such an enormous influence over politics and governance in the past year that it feels like it’s a new phenomenon. But the reality is that post-truth has been around for a long, long time. In fact, the story of the Passion, and Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate is a story about the battle between truth and post-truth.
At the time of his trial, Jesus stands before the Roman governor in charge of the region, Pontius Pilate, as an alleged criminal. The religious leaders in Jerusalem claim that Jesus is an inciter of rebellion – a revolutionary who threatens the Roman peace and their religious customs. Yet Jesus has no army and no weapons. The leaders say that Jesus is a criminal, but they offer no specific charges against him. And when Pilate questions Jesus, Jesus doesn’t claim to be a king. He speaks of his kingdom, but he also rejects violence and says that his followers will not fight. In fact, the only thing that Jesus will say is that, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And so, Pilate asks a question, the question that I believe is at the heart of this Good Friday: “What is truth?” It’s a simple question with a lot of edges. Maybe Pilate is being completely sincere, perhaps he’s honestly grappling with all the facts to determine what is true. Maybe the question is sarcastic, an off-hand dismissal of anything this pathetic prisoner could say. The question is certainly self-serving, because Pilate is the one who will both determine and define truth, deciding whether Jesus is a Messiah or a misfit, an innocent man or a criminal. In the end, Pilate chooses to believe what he wants to believe. He chooses what is convenient and expedient over what is real and before him. In the end, Pilate chooses post-truth, and so he condemns Jesus to die.
The irony of this decision is, of course, that Pilate asks “What is truth?” to the very one who embodies truth. John’s gospel begins by teaching us that Jesus is the eternal Word of God made flesh, who lived among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Elsewhere Jesus says, “If you are my disciples, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:31-32).” And Jesus even connects his own identity with truth, saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).” Pilate looks truth in the eye, and chooses post-truth instead. Pilate stands in the presence of the way, the truth, and the life, but chooses the convenience of post-truth spin. Pilate has the opportunity for the truth to set him free, and instead chooses the bondage of cruelty and lies.
It is easy to vilify Pilate – to believe that, if we were the ones faced with the choice between truth and post-truth, that we’d know what to do. It is easy to believe that, if Jesus were standing before us, we would obviously choose him, no matter what. But, if there’s anything that the Passion story reminds us, it’s that discerning truth from post-truth is harder than it seems. After all, the same crowds who shouted Hosanna to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem are the ones who shouted for his death. On Good Friday, we must be humble enough to recognize that there are times in all our lives when we are weak enough to fall into the post-truth trap, with all of its convenience and expediency. And we must also remember that choosing truth, choosing for the truth, takes every ounce of faith and courage that we can muster; it demands the full measure of the divine image that resides in the core of our being. Choosing truth is hard and costly and dangerous.
After France fell in June 1940, the German Army set up a puppet government in the city of Vichy that quickly began cooperating with the Nazis in their work of rounding up Jews for the internment and death camps of eastern Europe. Most of the occupied French populace complied with the new Nazi-inspired laws and efforts, but not the people living in the tiny town of Le Chambon. On the Sunday after France fell to the Germans, Le Chambon’s Huguenot pastor André Trocmé stood up to deliver a sermon to his anxious and fearful congregation. “Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty,” he said. “Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”