By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Few verses of scripture are better-known or more appropriate for Lent than John 3:16 (KJV): For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
But not many of us know the verses that follow:
John 3:17 (NRSV) "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who trust in him are not condemned; but those who do not trust are condemned already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
Those who do what is true come to the light, making visible deeds that are done in God.
It might not surprise you that part of what drew me to this passage was its focus on truth. Truth is an important concept in the gospel of John. The word “truth” and its derivatives occur in the gospel 55 times! There are 21 chapters and 55 occurrences of some form of the word truth. Yet, truth is something our current culture seems to struggle with. We are all too familiar with “alternative facts.” We now live in a world where “truth” is becoming increasingly suspect.
When I was five, my best friend was a neighbor girl my age named Gail. Gail had a penchant for telling fibs and exaggerating. To such a degree, in fact, that anytime she told me something that sounded dubious, I would make the accusation, “Gail, you lie,” to which she would emphatically defend herself with the words, “No I never, Tracey. No I never.”
We want our children to tell the truth, right? Having not had children myself, this week I consulted with one of my favorite people and mothers, Ruth Smith. Many of you know Ruth. She was our admin person, then our Communications person and, finally, our Community Outreach Consultant. Ruth and Marc have three children, spanning from ages 2 to 8. I got Ruth’s consent to be my sermon fodder. Now, one of her two older children is, by nature, quick to fess up when he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t, while the other is far more reluctant. She will even lie about things that are insignificant, such as putting on socks with her boots. Apparently, she doesn’t like to wear socks and has given herself terrible blisters. Ruth has explained, this makes it difficult for Ruth to trust her and compels her to verify if there are socks under those boots. It reminded me of my niece when she was little. My sister had to sniff her hands because, if asked whether she had washed them with soap, she didn’t skip a beat in lying and claiming she had even though she hadn’t. It was Ronald Reagan, in his negotiations with the Soviets, who made famous the cliché “trust but verify”… which is an oxymoron, I might add.
Regardless of what’s happening in our cultures or our homes, we all know – instinctively – that truth matters because it so significantly impacts relationships.
Once again, truth is an extremely important idea in the gospel of John. It appears right at the beginning in the prologue – twice. John opens by telling us that Jesus, the pre-existent Word, is both life and light; and that, through him, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[i] Further, John states in his prologue, Jesus as Word made flesh revealed the heavenly Father’s glory, “full of grace and truth.”[ii]
It is in John’s gospel that Jesus proclaims himself to be “the way, the truth and the life.”[iii] The gospel reminds us that truth is liberating when Jesus says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[iv] Only within John’s gospel do we read the profound question posed by Pilate to Jesus at the time of his arrest: “What is truth?”[v] And, that pervasive presence of “truth” threads through from the introduction to the conclusion, as – in our penultimate gospel verse – we are told that the testimony given within the gospel is true.[vi]
This is but the tip of the iceberg so, hopefully, you can see why I say that “truth” is incredibly important in John’s gospel.
But, to steal a line from Pilate “What is truth?” And, to steal a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” That sounds a little like alternative facts, right?
The Greek word for truth, aletheia, is used in a very distinct way in John. It is connected to a Hebrew, Old Testament, word (‘emet) that means “solid, reliable, or faithful.” So this isn’t a concept in the abstract. Truth is a relational thing. This really takes us back to the illustration with the children, my niece and Ruth’s daughter, right? Truth builds trust and trust is essential for relationship. Remember what I always say: Christianity isn’t a belief system. It’s a relational system.
Truth is the very character – the very identity of God. God’s Word reveals truth. God’s work in the world reveals truth: truth in the sense of that which is dependable, solid and trustworthy.
In addition, the way in which the Greek word for “truth” was used in the first century Greco-Roman world focused on truth as devoid of pretense and deceit. Again, those are also relational ideas, right? When we enter into relationship with people, if we want that relationship to go deeper, we must take off our masks and set aside our false personas and pretense and be willing to reveal the real us. That is truth. It is what is authentic and genuine.
So, if this is the truth we seek – God’s truth, it has less to do with facts and data and more to do with discovering through Jesus how to be in relationship with God and one another.
Truth is the very character – the very identity of God. We know this because Jesus in the gospel says things like: “the one who sent me is true[vii]… for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”[viii]
In over words, Jesus came to reveal God and, in doing so, revealed truth. Jesus came to reveal truth and, in doing so, revealed God; God who is reliable, trustworthy, authentic and genuine.
So I’ve given you some great bible study. But, what are we supposed to do with it?
Well, do deeds that are true. Did you notice in our scripture from this morning that the opposite of doing evil wasn’t doing good as we might expect or anticipate. Rather, the opposite of doing evil is doing what is true; deeds that are done in God since God is truth. Friends, I might suggest that truth is about acting toward others in ways that are sincere and authentic, without pretense, that demonstrate faithfulness and reliability; deeds that cultivate trust; deeds that reveal to others the true nature of God as one who is authentic, faithful and dependable.
It seems truth is not so much about data and facts, concepts and ideas, but truth is the fruit of relationships that are authentic and trustworthy. Truth is not something we tell. Truth is something we live. Truth is about what we reveal… or, more importantly, who we reveal.
Here’s the bottom line: if you and I live out our relationship with Jesus, people will see truth in us. And that truth will cultivate a trust in us and, ultimately, in the Jesus whose truth they see in us. If our lives are defined by our relationship with Jesus, then our actions, our deeds, will be true; they will be genuine, faithful, reliable and authentic. Truth is something we live. It is what we reveal; but, more importantly, who we reveal.
[i] John 1:9.
[ii] John 1:14
[iii] John 14:6
[iv] John 8:32
[v] John 18:38
[vi] John 21:24
[vii] John 8:26
[viii] John 18:36-37a
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