Belonging to the Truth
John 18: 33-38
My friends Ed and Otis tell a story about stopping into a convenience store in Pike County, Kentucky, right in the heart of Appalachia. Though they were both living not too far away in other parts of Appalachia, they were clearly not from around there. Both Ed and Otis had long hair in ponytails then, neither had the right accents, and they were in Ed’s car with Pennsylvania plates on it. On top of that, they were trying to use a check to pay.
The clerk called the sheriff and a local board member of Habitat for Humanity, where Ed told him he was working. As Ed says, that call “determined we were the good kind of strangers.” At that point, the sheriff’s deputy was there and already examining Ed’s driver’s license. He decided he needed to do his own investigating. He looked them over and asked their names. Otis’ last name – Thornton – isn’t an east Kentucky name so that didn’t help their case. But Ed’s last name – Smith – had potential. Though they didn’t know it at the time, they were just a few miles from Smith Holler.
So at this point the officer looked at Ed and said, “Who’s your daddy?”
This was before that phrase was ubiquitous for other reasons. So neither Ed nor Otis laughed, unless it was nervously. For two guys from the suburbs in other parts of the country, this was a strange exchange when all they wanted to do was pay and leave. It felt ominous, like a challenge. Like somehow there might be a wrong answer to the question.
For the officer, he was just trying to place them, to see if they were OK. In that part of the country, if you know someone’s family you know them on a certain level. You know who they belong to. You know who they come from, if they are known as hard workers. You know if you can trust them. You know if they might need some help right now. The answer to “Who’s your daddy?” tells you more than a name or a biological fact. It tells you how to proceed.
In the end, they established that no one knew them but they left in peace and had a great story to tell the rest of us. And, believe it or not, I remembered that story again this week, reading the passage from John’s gospel.
Pilate is trying to figure out where Jesus belongs. Did you say you are King of the Jews? What have you done to be brought here to me? Are you going around telling people you are a king or what? You know that Rome has rules we all play by, don’t you? Who’s your daddy?
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus hardly says a word when Pilate questions him. But here in John’s much lengthier version, it’s a complete dialogue with so much back and forth that you can start to wonder who’s questioning who. In verse 36 Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world” and though that has been translated different ways – “of” or “belongs to” – “from” really gets to the heart of John’s gospel (People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 350). “For John, one’s origin determines one’s being and character” – where Jesus comes from (above/not from this world) is contrasted sharply with where his opponents come from (below/from this world) (People’s, p. 350). Who’s your daddy?
I included verse 38 in our reading tonight because it seems so fitting, even though the lectionary reading actually cuts off with verse 37. Even though it gives Pilate the last word, it’s a great, hanging, unresolved, question: What is truth? But, for us, it’s also a rhetorical question, isn’t it?
John is into truth. His gospel mentions it 25 times – versus 7 times in the other 3 gospels combined (People’s, p. 350). As one commentary puts it, “Like many moderns, Pilate assume truth is a ‘what,’ that truth has a definite objective content that can be clearly stated. This is not the understanding of the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus is never said to teach truth. He does not deliver truth to his disciples, who are never said to ‘have’ the truth. Truth is not an object, a body of material that can be possessed. Jesus is not a great teacher who gives his disciples ‘great truths’ to live by. He gives himself; he himself is God’s truth (14:6) …There is great Johannine irony in this scene where Pilate with apparent sincerity asks what is truth? when the one who is the incarnate truth of God stands before him” (People’s, p. 350).
In our forum Bible studies a few weeks back someone asked if the Bible is “true.” I think what they meant was “did it happen just like this? Is this a factual account?” But truth and facts, while not necessarily at odds, are also not necessarily the same thing. The facts about Jesus – when and where he was born, how old he was, what parents raised him, what languages he spoke – don’t really tell us the truth about who he is, do they? And John writes a gospel telling us that, on top of that, Jesus isn’t here to transmit truths but to be Truth. Back in chapter 14 of the gospel Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? [and Jesus says,] I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (vv. 5-6).
We want little t truths we can list and recite. We want facts we can put into bullet points. But Jesus is not from this world and he isn’t interested in those little desires and preferences of ours. Jesus is offering himself, big T Truth. A Way. An open door. A path. A Life.
This might not help, but sometimes non-linear, non-just-the-facts-ma’am things lend themselves to poetry and parable and miracle and mystery. So here’s a poem by Luci Shaw. It’s called “Wind and Window” and it’s a delicious image of God as the wind, rattling our windows. Or maybe God is both the wind and the window… Here it is (from Harvesting Fog, p. 25):
No snow, but the sleet
tapping loud on the skylight,
like stars wanting entrance.
A message keeps coming –
wind humming a tune
in the branches of cedars,
a rumor of heaven,
a whisper of God:
No snow, but a sound
penetrating your window.
You can’t see the gusts
but listen, and sense me –
I’m the spice in the air,
the cool on your cheek,
a shift of the season,
a change in your weather.
Swing wide your window,
to hear what I’m saying,
like Mary who listened,
her heart thrown ajar.
God’s whispering, insistent call rattling our windows…God as our window on the world and the breeze that changes our weather…Jesus invites us on the way and Jesus is the Way. And here we are on Christ the King Sunday looping back to Mary’s moment of deep listening and yielding before the birth of Jesus.
Christians tell weird stories. We finish our liturgical year today by remembering the night Jesus was handed over to be crucified, while we simultaneously proclaim and celebrate his reign in all of creation and all time as King. Having trouble reconciling those things in your head? No worries: come on back next week and we’ll be talking about the end of time while we prepare for the feast day celebrating Christ’s birth. Yep, we tell weird stories.
I said last week that even when the way forward is unclear and we find our lives or God confusing, we are confident that we at least know the end of the story. We know how this whole thing ends and we get glimpses here and there of God’s kingdom already come in our midst.
That’s who and what we celebrate today – a God so intimate and personal with whom we are in relationship and to whom we belong. The One who is the ultimate answer to the Who’s your daddy? question. The Truth that proclaims who we are and what our character is. The Truth that tells the world where we come from and who we really are. The Truth we can encounter in relationship and describe in poetry, but where bullet points tend to fail us.
The Truth, the very same God whose kingdom comes. The one who’s in charge, no matter who’s president or Queen of England or leader of Hamas or making tricky deals on the stock market ….This is who and how and where we belong – to Christ the king and ruler of all places and times, to Christ the Truth. The One who opens the Way and is the Way. The Truth which, when you encounter it, tells you how to proceed.
Thanks be to God!
© 2012 Deborah E. Lewis