Following the Spirit of Truth in an Age of Distrust

Today it feels harder than ever to wrap our minds around “the truth.” With the constant barrage of “alternative facts,” claims of “fake news,” and a seemingly endless feed of Twitter and Facebook bots filling our screens with misleading claims about both politics and pandemics, its hard to decipher what is true and what is not. In the midst of a global health crisis, when lives are on the line, and fear and uncertainty surround us, and yet at a moments notice every fact seems to be able to become a political football, how are we to proceed. In a very different time and for very different reasons, Jesus once spoke to his disciples about “the truth,” and gave them guidance on how to move forward in similarly uncertain and fearful times.

In the final third of John’s gospel, there is a large chunk of text commonly referred to as the “farewell discourses,” which represent the final words of Jesus to his disciples before he is arrested.  This section of the gospel makes up almost 20% of the chapters in John’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry, encompassing all of chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17.  Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples before he leaves them.  He takes these last moments with them to help them remember everything he has taught them, and also to prepare them for when he is no longer with them.  Jesus, like the writer of John’s gospel, is using this extended dialogue to cast a vision for the disciples about how they are to proceed with his mission when he is no longer with them.  As you can imagine, this is a significant task, as he has been their sole leader and authority for three years, for the entirety of their time together.  Now Jesus is answering the question, “How will we know what to do, who to trust, where to go, once you are gone?” Who can we trust?  From where does our authority come when you are gone.  How will we know the truth?

Only days later, when Jesus has finished his dialogue with the disciples and finally been arrested, will Pilot  sit down opposite him and ask a similarly complicated, though slightly different questions regarding truth, a common theme throughout John’s gospel.  In his examination of Jesus, Pilate ask one of the most well-known questions of the gospel. A question that has resonated throughout history and resonates today more than ever, “What is truth?” A question that seems both foreign and all too familiar. 

Of course Pilate had a very unique perspective that brought him to this question, as he sat in a very powerful seat. One in which his primary concern was the silencing of voices that got too loud, the stomping out of movements that got too strong, and the tamping down of tensions between religious groups that got too out of hand. His security in this precarious position of power within the Roman Empire depended on his ability to stop problems in their tracks before they ever reached the ears of Cesar. To Pilate, the very idea of truth was a problem. In a position where quieting disquieted people was his main task, nothing threatened his job security more than the myriad truth claims that passed before him every day in Jerusalem. Everyone claiming the truth, of God of justice, of land, of rights, of freedom, of liberation, of equality.

To him it became a cacophony of voices claiming so many truths that by the time Jesus sat before him and uttered his truth statement, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Pilate could not help but hang his head, let out a deep sigh, and ask in a tone that did not beg an answer, “What is truth?” A question that was not so much the continuation of the conversation, but the gavel stroke that put and end to it.

Pilates disillusionment with the truth, his descent into the complete relativism that led him to utter this defining question, was born from exhaustion. From sensory overload. From the kind of interior destruction unique to those who have spent their entire lives, and every moment of every day, insuring the security of an empire at the expense of the oppressed and vulnerable. At that moment, sitting with Jesus, Pilate had convinced himself that this truth people talked about, this monolithic truth that provides the one who owns it with the power and authority of the divine did not exist. And he was right. To Pilate truth was either something a person or a group could own, claim themselves, and use as a tool for power and security, or it was nothing at all. Sitting across from him that day, Jesus knew something different about the truth.

Between these two extremes, an absolute truth that someone can own and the relative truth that dissolved into nothing, the teaching of Jesus to his disciples from this weeks gospel opens us up to a new possibility. Jesus, days before his fateful truth conversation with Pilate, sat with his disciples and told them that when he was gone he would send an advocate for them, and this would be “the Spirit of Truth.” Yet Pilate’s questions still reverberates, threatening to hush out the silent but powerful movement of that spirit of truth which Jesus promised his disciples.

The Holy Spirit, the advocate, is the Spirit of Truth. Here Jesus paints a picture of truth far removed from the extreme options of Pilate. If truth is spirit, the Holy Spirit even, then we can only hope to own it as much as we can hope to own the wind, which blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  We need only look to other descriptions of the holy spirit to learn about truth. It is not something that we own, but something by which we are led, something which moves in us and between us. It is unfolding and being revealed. It gives us our identity.  It drives us into the wilderness.  It gives us words when we think we have none.  It testifies on our behalf.  It reveals to us bit by bit the unfolding mystery of God. And as we will celebrate on Pentecost in just two weeks, The spirit of truth lights us on fire, setting within us a burning passion that sends us on our lifelong journey of seeking the truth, seeking justice, seeking the Kingdom of God.

There is only the Spirit of Truth, which can not be grasped and wielded, but only ever gently held. And only revealed, never forced. The spirit of truth invites us into relationship, which will not always be comfortable or exactly what we want to hear, but it will be true. We are not out to claim the one final truth, but on a lifelong journey of following the spirit of truth to deeper and deeper levels of relationship and trust. And part of Jesus call to love one another is to trust one another. To be trusty and to trust. To live into and embody this spirit of truth that dwells in us and between us, that connects us and leads us, and advocates for justice and for the truth to be revealed.

And looking back on that conversation between Pilate and Jesus, it seems now that Pilate did not in the end ask a question the ended the conversation without a response from Jesus.  Instead, we can see now that Jesus responded to the questions, “What is Truth?” with the only response there is.  The only way forward for us.  He responded with silence, with space for the possible, with wordless space for the truth to flow, to blow through the conversation and touch the truth in each of them.  He responded with a quiet reverence for the powerful, ungraspable, uncontrollable spirit of the truth that Pilate so bluntly disregarded altogether.  And this interaction, and Jesus’ words to his disciples today, invite us back to this silent reverence.  Back to one another, back to relationship, where we find the only place that the spirit of truth can truly be revealed.  Pilate is talking about alternative facts.  Conspiracy theories.  Fake news.  Jesus is talking about something more transcendent than that. There are no versions of the truth. There are no alternative truths. There are no optional facts. There is only the spirit of truth, which dwells in us, and moves between us, and connects us all

Paul, in a poignant scene from the book of Acts, models this Spirit of Truth for us in his conversation with those gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, where he does not make those absolute truth claims that you might expect of Paul in his mission to spread the Good News of God.  Instead, Paul takes a two-pronged approach, he invites people into relationship and he invites people into mystery.  He does not tell them that their truth is wrong, he invites people to share their truth, and then he shares his own. Paul, reflecting on an altar he’d seen in Athens dedicated to “the unknown God,” meets mystery with mystery.  He says, 

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

Paul lives into Jesus’ teaching of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, in some amazing ways in this dialogue.  Guided by the spirit of truth into relationship and engagement with the truth of those who share a different perspective and experience of God than him, Paul does two important things.  He says that God in uncontainable, and that God’s hope for us is that we would “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God – though indeed God is not far from each on of us.”

Jesus’ Spirit of Truth blows through this scene with stunning contrast to our current rhetoric on all levels of discourse in our world.  Paul here shows us a way forward.  He recognizes both that he cannot possibly hope to claim the absolute truth of God, and that he is on a lifelong journey of seeking that truth, one in which God is never out there to be found, but always with us, forever.

So what is our way forward? Can we gently hold room within ourselves to wonder? To trust one another? To hear each other out in our genuine journey of following the spirit of truth. Can we lovingly lay down our defenses to have ears to hear the truth of the person sitting across from us? Can we be trusty in sharing our truth both with ourselves and with others? The way back to one another, the way back to the truth, is through relationship or it is not at all.

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