Today I was honored to preach during the weekly chapel service at my denomination’s headquarters. I found it to be quite serendipitous that the Gospel lesson was from John 8:31-36, which speaks to knowing the truth and being set free. I’ve written about that before and it didn’t go so well. Or maybe it did because it pissed some people off…
Below is my sermon from today that explores truth, what is true, how it sets us free and why it pisses us off..
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”[i]
This quote has long been attributed to leaders in activist movements without specifically knowing who was the first to say it. Regardless of who said it, it bears repeating: “The truth will set you free, but first, it will piss you off.”
This leads me to three questions:
- What is truth?
- How does it set you free?
- And why does it piss you off?
Today’s gospel text helps in answering these questions and it does so quite simply and one might even say, quite succinctly.
Jesus is the truth.
He sets us free from bondage to sin.
This pisses us off because it goes against our human nature and calls us into a different way of being – one that is not theoretical, but actual because it is a way of being that follows the person of Jesus Christ. It causes us to change course; to die to ourselves and live anew in ways that are about loving God, loving others and loving self.
However, in true Rozella form, I can’t stop or even begin there. Let’s back up to some personal reflections.
How do you define truth or that which is true? The formal definition says that truth is the quality or state of being true; that which is in accordance with fact or reality; a fact or belief that is accepted as true.
I needed to dig a little deeper so I went seeking the definition of true. That which is true is something that is in accordance with fact or reality; that which is accurate or exact.
Truth is a noun – a person, place or thing and true is an adjective – something which describes or modifies a noun.
Your English lesson is now complete for today.
But I’m not satisfied with this because I come from a particular background and use a theological lens that calls into question all that has been considered fact or reality. Who said something was a fact? How did it come to be? What is being overlooked when something is accepted as true without serious inquiry? In all honesty, I’m suspicious of anything that is described as true or said to be truth with certitude. I didn’t just get this way overnight. On one hand, I learned this lesson from math. When I was younger, 2 + 2 = 4. When I got to Algebra, depending on what was in front of the 2, the outcome of 2 + 2 could equal 4, 0 or -4. All of these things were true and it messed me up for the rest of my life.
On a more serious note, I embody a race, a gender, an age and a class that has been oppressed by those who have said what is true, what is fact and what is reality; so much so that laws and the structure of society have been created to uphold what I now know to be falsehoods. This has led me to always question and always wonder about truth.
We live in a country that professes a history to be true that wasn’t the reality for everyone but was defined as fact by those in power. That we still celebrate Columbus Day as a national holiday, a day named for a man who was responsible for the decimation of a people and began the ongoing rape of a land not his own, shows us that we ascribe to a false truth.
The fact that many are unaware of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated by blacks in Texas who found out two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed that they were free shows us that being set free has to actually be known in order for it to be lived out. But freedom was considered to be a fact when Abraham Lincoln signed those documents, but it wasn’t true until folks got the word.
For many, the struggle for women’s rights leaves out the intersectional reality of women of color who were not afforded the same rights at the same time because of their race. So while it is true for some that the Women’s Suffrage movement had a great impact on a portion of a population, it is true for others that their reality didn’t change because they weren’t considered as members of the population
Think about the conflict in the Holy Land. What is true, truth, fact and reality in that region? Who defines? Who corroborates it?
So again I ask, how do you define truth or that which is true?
What informs your decision-making?
What reality or facts have you been formed by that have led you to believe something is true? How has this reality shaped your relationships, civic engagement, view of others, view of self and dare I say, your faith?
Has anything happened in your life that led you to question what you knew to be true in light of new experiences?
As a practical theologian, one who uses everyday, lived experiences to help people come into contact with who God is and how God moves in and through their lives, this conversation about truth is imperative for me. It helps people to make sense of the incarnate God and deepen in a belief that God’s presence sheds light on that which is true.
In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus in the midst of his public ministry, teaching about what it means to be a follower. These verses aren’t referring to the truth in some abstract way, but the truth of God as revealed in the person of Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus is necessary in order to know that truth and to be set free from it.[ii]
So this leads me back to where I started:
- What is truth?
- How does it set you free?
- And why does it piss you off?
The Gospel of John tells us that the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus and that Jesus is the truth. This truth is defined as that which brings life and frees all from bondage to that which is life taking. This truth connects and doesn’t divide. This truth walks with and teaches along the way. This truth points to the holistic health, healing and restoration of society. This truth expects, no demands LOVE. This truth continually asks the question – who benefits from keeping people oppressed – and then goes about dismantling systems that do so, all the while speaking truth to power and demanding that his followers do the same.
Jesus sets free from our navel gazing, from being incurvatus in se, so curved in on ourselves that we end up being blinded to all that unfolds around us. Jesus literally opens us up – our bodies, our hearts, our minds and our souls – so that we can be in relationships that seek freedom and that show us how our liberation is bounded to each other. Jesus frees us from the lie that death has the final say, that resurrection is not possible. Jesus frees us to forgive and to be forgiven. The freedom in knowing the truth that is Jesus leads us into community because community is God’s inherent nature.
This all sounds so good, so why does it piss us off? It’s interesting to me that the Jews in this gospel became indignant when Jesus told them that knowing the truth would make them free. They immediately went to their literal understanding that led them to an emotional response. Why is that when we hear something that we don’t agree with or presents another reality (because there are many) that we get defensive? What are we protecting in that moment? What do we have to lose from exploring another way of thinking and being? Why do we jump to anger when confronted with that, which is true and that which brings communal freedom?
I can’t think about all of this and not think about Martin Luther and the Reformation. In 2017, the global Christian Church will recognize the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany surveyed the religious landscape and was convicted about the abuses of the church. In response he constructed his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Hear the opening statement to his theses:
“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”[iii]
Luther’s purpose was never to divide the Catholic Church but instead to reform the church he loved so dearly. He was seeking truth that was missing in his lived reality, truth that pointed to the person of God in Jesus Christ; truth that set the catholic church free from a way of being that oppressed and divided. And you know what? It pissed people off. Thus began the Protestant Reformation.
Sisters and brothers, we are in a time when truth is being coopted, when fear runs rampant, when we believe the lie that is scarcity and we have forsaken the truth that is abundance.
We are in a time when people are seeking truth, by any means necessary, and we as the church are relatively absent from this search.
We are in a time when people are living divided lives because our society has said that wholeness is not possible.
We are in a time when people are wondering why this life, why this faith, why this church.
We have something to offer. We believe in another reality. We believe something else to be true. We believe in the truth, in God incarnate, in the one who sets us free, even when it pisses us off.
[i] Anonymous quote attributed to Gloria Steinem
[ii] John 8:31-38 Commentary. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. NRSV