|Fresco c. 1220 from the Apse of Saint Clement's, painted by the Master of Tahull, currently at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya.|
The Oxford English Dictionary has decided that its word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth”. It’s defined thus: “Adjective. Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In a world of dubious referendum campaigns, climate change denial and President Trump, in a world where bombs are raining down on Aleppo but everyone denies dropping them, it seems that people are turning away from evidence and facts. For 21st century society truth seems both too demanding (you might have to change your mind) and too boring (if it doesn’t give you what you want).
There’s nothing new in this, of course. Today’s gospel reading shows us a “post-truth” situation: an innocent man dying on a cross. The Roman authority, which has put him there, knows he is innocent, but truth has been trumped by political expedience. The crowd want this man dead, and Roman authority is under threat. Better give the crowd what they want, then.
In John’s account of the trial of Jesus it is made clear that it all hinges on this question of truth. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, and Jesus answers, “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.” To which Pilate cynically replies, “What is truth?”.
Truth is intrinsic to whatever it means to say that Jesus is king. Jesus the King is the one who testifies to the truth. And if we ask with Pilate, “what is truth?”, we have Jesus’ own answer: it is himself. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the truth about God, in person. As St Paul puts it in the reading from Colossians this morning, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God”.
In other words, God in his essence is unknowable; but God’s image of himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, has become flesh and dwelt among us. Therefore, God is knowable, because he makes himself known in his Son. And the way in which he makes himself known is as an innocent man dying on a cross.
This is how Jesus testifies to the truth. Here is love, God come into the world, suffering what the world inflicts when it turns away from the truth and from love.
One person in this scene sees the truth. A criminal, hanging with Jesus. We often think of this person as the “good thief”, but the word Luke uses simply means an evildoer. It’s quite non-specific. He could be anyone. He could be one of us. He has become the victim of the violence by which he has lived. But in Jesus he sees a new reality breaking in, even in the last moments of his life.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, says Jesus. And the “good thief” listens. The truth about God is that the innocent victim will be raised from the dead to the glory of the Father. The truth about humanity is that all the scapegoats and victims we have ever made and cast out are entirely our doing and have nothing to do with God.
To put it in a more traditional way, the truth is that God wants to save us from our sins, and does this by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In him we both see the truth about God and ourselves, and are set free into the truth of God’s kingdom.
This is what is described in our reading from Colossians. Jesus has truly “made peace” by his death on the cross. He has made possible a new way of living in peace, leaving behind the violence which has controlled human beings from the beginning. In him, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. He has delivered us from darkness and made a place for us in his kingdom.
Jesus has reconciled all things. To be reconciled means to be at one with God and one another. It means to be at one with the truth. All who belong to the truth listen to the voice of Jesus. And his is a voice that echoes in all things, for he has the first place in everything, as St Paul says.
Faith in Jesus, then, entails a radical commitment to the truth. This begins with the truth of God which is made known in Jesus. But is embraces the truth of one another, the truth of the world, the truth of all things. The Word who made all things is true, and the universe reflects his truth.
We who are being saved by Jesus and given a place in his kingdom are therefore called to live according to the truth. This means being personally truthful in word and deed, so that life and word march in step. It also means being attentive and respectful to the truth around us, the truth of other people and the truth of the universe that reflects God’s truth and creativity.
Much will be under threat in a “post-truth” world. The idea of human rights is founded on the truth of every human person being made in the image of God – no matter who she or he is or what they may have done. Christians need to be at the forefront of holding that truth before the eyes of those in power.
The truth of the created world demands that we see and respect its limits, that we safeguard this good earth for all generations to come. But the inconvenient truth about climate change and pollution is increasingly being questioned and ignored. We are being invited to forget about the future. Those who are attentive to the truth must remember it all the more.
Integrity and probity in public life are vital if we are to trust the society in which we all take part. Those too are under threat, both by those who don’t practice them, and by false accusations and cynical suspicion when those in public office say something we don’t like.
But all this is nothing new, as today’s gospel reminds us. Our call is to confess the truth shown to us in Jesus Christ, and to respond in faith. The Kingdom belongs to Christ. We are members of it now by his gift, even in this passing age. The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. If the world turns darker, then we must hold the flame of truth up higher and more boldly. For that light will in the end illuminate and transfigure the whole creation in the age to come when Christ will fill all things.