“THE EXCELLENT WAY, 14: LOVE REJOICES IN THE TRUTH”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 15; John 18:33-40

“Pilate asked [Jesus], ‘What is truth?’”
John 18:38a

It’s a contest of sorts. A war of words. Two powerful personalities, mano a mano.

In this corner: Pontius Pilate. Roman government functionary and social climber.

And in this corner: Jesus of Nazareth. Carpenter and self-styled religious reformer.

Of the two, Jesus is definitely the worse for wear. He looks like he’s been up all night. Because he has. He’s got a split lip, where a soldier gave him the back of his hand — supposedly, for talking back to the High Priest. He’s just finished a perp walk. His hands are bound.

But you wouldn’t know any of this if your eyes were closed, and all you could hear was his voice. That penetrating voice: penetrating, but gentle at the same time.

“My kingdom is not from this world.”

“So you are a king?” asks Pilate. (He’s learned to be wary of men who aspire to kingship. In his experience, most of them are fools. Or lunatics.)

“You say that I am a king. 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.”

“What is truth?” asks Pilate. Truth, he has learned from his years of government service, is of little practical value. Far more important is appearance. Politics is where you fake it until you make it. (Keeping a squad of reliable soldiers at your right hand doesn’t hurt, either.)

*****

1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Pontius Pilate is not exactly rejoicing in the truth as he asks Jesus that question. Nor does he expect an answer. For him, truth is beside the point. Far more important is expediency.

And so it is with the utmost expediency that the Roman Governor steps into the corridor outside his audience-chamber, where the Temple religious leaders are waiting, eager to learn of his judgment.

“I find no case against him,” he declares: staring all the while into their faces, deriving secret joy from their consternation.

“But…” All eyes are now on him.

“…you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Shall it be this man, this ‘King of the Jews’?”

“Not this man, but Barabbas. The bandit.”

“The bandit. I thought so.”

They know, as well as he. It’s not about truth. It’s about expediency.

*****

It’s a remarkable thing, but Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has been all over the news lately. Maybe not in so many words. But the reporters and political pundits have all been asking that question, in one form or another.

President Trump’s Press Secretary, Scott Spicer, got himself in trouble with the White House press corps for making statements that couldn’t easily be verified. So, Kellyanne Conway, the President’s advisor, came to his rescue. Mr. Spicer, she explained, was working from a set of “alternative facts.”

Alternative facts. Let that phrase sink in for a little bit. I believe there can be alternative opinions. I believe there can be alternative interpretations. But I’m not at all sure that alternative facts are even a thing.

Because facts, by their very nature, are true. Maybe not self-evidently so. But, with a little evidence, they can be proven. And if you have a fact that’s been proven, there’s not a lot of space left for alternative facts. A fact is either true or it isn’t.

The “What is truth?” question has been part of our national dialogue for some months now. Everyone active in social media — Facebook, Twitter and the like — knows there’s been an explosion, recently, of “fake news.” For years, major news outlets — trusted sources like newspapers, magazines, radio and TV — have been losing ground to homemade blogs and websites. In appearance, these websites look pretty substantial, just like those belonging to major news organizations. But, in reality, they come and go as quickly as a 3-Card-Monte dealer on a New York sidewalk.

You wouldn’t know that, though, when some of their more notorious postings show up on Facebook or Twitter feeds. They’re posted or retweeted endless times by people who desperately want to believe what they’re reading, and can’t be bothered to check the facts. It’s the old gossip fence on steroids.

There was an especially notorious example during the election campaign. I first saw it on Facebook, reposted by a surprising number of my social media friends. This purported news article claimed “tens of thousands” of fraudulent ballots marked for Hillary Clinton had been discovered in a Columbus, Ohio warehouse.

The article was built around a supposed interview with one Randall Prince, a local electrician. According to the story, he’d been doing some work in that warehouse, and stumbled upon a back room filled with stacked plastic tubs, each of them clearly labeled “ballot box” in block letters. Inside, he declared, were all those printed ballots. The election hadn’t happened yet. Those ballots were obviously all ready to be slipped into the stream of legitimate ballots, in order to throw the Ohio electoral votes to Hillary.

The article included a photo of Mr. Prince, middle-aged and bespectacled, standing behind his stack of pre-stuffed ballot boxes.

The article caused a great deal of consternation online, until somebody did a little research. They discovered the photo wasn’t from Ohio at all. It was from England, and it was several years old. It belonged to a legitimate local news story about a parliamentary election. The man in the photo wasn’t a Columbus, Ohio electrician at all, but a British government clerk.

Eventually, the story was traced to a 23-year old Maryland man named Cameron Harris. He’s a recent college graduate — from Davidson College, one of our best Presbyterian schools (I’m sorry to say), and an aspiring “political consultant.” When a New York Times reporters contacted him, he readily admitted to making the story up completely. The Times reporter sensed that Mr. Harris was of a divided mind: a bit sheepish to have been found out, but also proud of his handiwork, how his little fiction had gone viral.

Mr. Harris found the English news photo on the Internet and invented the character of Randall Prince to go along with it. He created a website that resembled a legitimate news outlet, naming it “Christian Times Newspaper,” or “CTN” for short. The fact that CTN sounds a lot like “CNN” is no accident. There he posted his ballot-box-stuffing story, alongside a set of other, legitimate news stories he’d copied from other places.

It wasn’t the only fake news story Mr. Harris had created, in a similar fashion, but this one — for whatever reason — went viral, big-time. It was reposted hundreds of thousands of times on social media, causing more than six million visits to his new website.

That website happened to include advertising. Mr. Harris admitted that the ad revenues compensated him about a thousand dollars an hour for the work he’d put into building the website and writing the article — which, he said, would be a big help to him as he paid off his college loans. His only regret was that he hadn’t sold the website immediately. He had an offer to sell it for over a hundred grand, but he decided to wait and see if the price would climb any higher. Once the story was busted as fake, and the advertising goose stopped laying her golden eggs, the potential buyer disappeared.

What Mr. Harris did is probably not illegal. He could always claim it was a creative writing exercise, or some kind of satire. Maybe the Clinton campaign could sue him for defamation of character, but getting a successful verdict would be difficult. He never named them or anyone else as the ballot-box stuffers. Even if he had, it would be hard to arrive at an accounting of financial damages. And even so, Mr. Harris is a recent college graduate whose pockets are not very deep, as they say.

On the contrary, this young man probably has a bright future in his chosen profession as a “political consultant.”

Now, let me be clear: there were examples of fake news stories like this one, created by both sides in the recent election. My point in mentioning it is in no way partisan. I only want to point out that Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” is alive and well in 21st century American society. More and more people seem to regard truth as something pliant and changeable, ever ready to be manipulated for purposes of expediency.

It just goes to prove the old saying: “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on.” That saying, by the way, is attributed to Mark Twain, even though the Twain scholars have scoured his writings and have never been able to find it. Ironic, isn’t it? That quotation — about a lie traveling halfway around the world — is very likely a lie itself.

See? Truth is easily bent to serve all sorts of purposes.

*****

But that’s not how God wants it. You and I know that. So does the Apostle Paul, who writes to those Corinthian Christians, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

I find his choice of verbs highly interesting. Paul could just as well have said, “Love speaks the truth,” or “Love values the truth,” but he doesn’t. Instead he says “Love rejoices in the truth.”

Think about what it means to rejoice in the truth. Think about what a difference it makes for two people in relationship — in a marriage, in a family, even in the church — to rejoice in the truth. Think of what it means for the keeping of a marriage vow, or a baptismal promise, or even a business contract, to be cause for rejoicing!

So often, lies get all the attention, don’t they? Lies seem so much more interesting to us than truth. They’re notorious, even salacious. A politician, caught red-handed in a blatant lie, is the stuff of newspaper headlines. A husband or wife, exposed for lying about an adulterous affair, becomes the chief topic of water-cooler gossip.

On the other hand, a politician who quietly and faithfully keeps the public trust is barely newsworthy. And reports of a couple’s 50th anniversary party spark little interest among the water-cooler crowd. “That’s nice,” they say, filling a second cup. No real excitement there.

What if more of us actually rejoiced in the truth? What if we gave more attention to those who keep covenants than to those who break them? What if we stopped admiring people for their glib shrewdness in manipulating others with lies and half-truths? Wouldn’t our world be a better place?

*****

There’s a famous story from the scriptures about a man who had a truth problem. His name was Peter. At the Last Supper, Jesus says to Peter, “You are going to deny me three times.”

Peter responds by saying, “No, Lord, it can’t be. I would never do that!” But it happens just as Jesus predicted. After the Lord has been arrested, three different people see Peter on the streets of Jerusalem and say to him, “I think I know you: I saw you with the rabbi from Nazareth, the one who was arrested.”

And three times Peter responds, “No, you must be mistaken. I don’t know him!”

The story is significant for today’s topic because it has so much to do with both truth and love. Peter loves Jesus, no doubt about it. But he doesn’t rejoice in the truth as much as he could, and that diminishes his love for his Lord. That is his downfall.

There’s good news for him, though — and good news for us as well — because Peter’s story doesn’t end with his denial. There’s also that blessed scene, a few chapters later in John, when the Risen Lord shows up on a beach, near where Peter and several other disciples are fishing. When Peter realizes who it is standing there, he leaps into the water and swims to shore. Jesus has a fire going, He cooks them all a breakfast of broiled fresh fish. Afterwards, he turns to Peter and asks, “Peter, do you love me?”

Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”

“Then, feed my sheep.”

Two more times Jesus and Peter repeat this exchange, or something very close to it. It’s as though Jesus is slowly and deliberately walking Peter back through his traumatic memories of his threefold denial, and forgiving him.

With forgiveness comes healing. And with that mighty healing, Peter’s love for his Lord is made even stronger. The thing that strengthens that love is truth. By sheer grace — by walking Peter back through his denial and allowing him to undo it — Jesus transforms a lie into truth. He allows Peter to rejoice in the truth once again, and therefore frees him to love magnificently.

The same is true for our love-relationships. The more we cherish truth at the very heart of those relationships, the more love will flourish. And, should it ever happen that there is a denial of the other’s value as a human being — or even a betrayal — the good news is, there’s always a road back.

Truth is an eternal value. It can be damaged: but it can never be destroyed. By the grace of God, and with the good will and hard work of both parties in the relationship, there’s always hope of resurrection. Whenever love is resurrected, through the restoration of truth, it’s a miracle. It’s God’s doing. And that, my friends, is cause for rejoicing!

Let us pray:
Lord, we are used to rejoicing in love.
All the world does that.
But we confess that it does not come so easily to us
to rejoice in the truth.
Sometimes we try to convince ourselves
that we can play fast and loose with truth,
and that love will flourish anyway.
But we only delude ourselves.
Forgive us for the times when we have not valued truth
as highly as we should have.
Transform our intimate relationships,
and even our life together in the church,
into temples of divine truth.
We pray in the name of Jesus,
who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.