Delivered for Noon Prayer, 2.19.2020, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Okla., in observance of the Feast of Frederick Douglass (20 February).
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
That line, from our very brief Gospel reading today, is one of the most popular quotes from Scripture. But, what does it really mean?
What is truth?
The Man in Black, Johnny Cash — I’ve been on a bit of a Johnny Cash kick — wrote an entire song on this subject: “What is truth?”
“This old world’s wakin’ to a new born day / And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way / You better help the voice of youth find / ‘What is truth?’”
So, what is truth? And how do we, as Christians, advance it?
A little later in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the answer, in response to a question from Thomas.
Jesus, trying to comfort his disciples — and us — tells us: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas, always the practical one, replies: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Let’s read again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Christ is our source, our destination, and the way in between those two points. Christ is both truth, and the means of achieving truth. In other words, truth is Christ and Christ is the way of knowing truth — and no matter how many times, or how furiously we run in circles trying to find another meaning of or path to truth, we always will come back, sweaty, tired and frustrated, to the foot of the cross.
It is there, at the cross, that Jesus places the exclamation point on his statement of truth. The truth and the path to it lies in self-sacrificial, radical, senseless love — a love that cannot be comfortable, and we are assured will bring us pain and tears. A love that demands we pour out ourselves, as a living sacrifice, in love of God and our neighbor.
And there’s the rub. Are we willing to take up our cross, and follow a way of truth that leads directly and immediately outside our comfort zones, to the feet of those we’re least comfortable loving? We see the path to truth. Will we walk it?
Jesus makes this distinction – between those willing to walk the painful path of truth, and those who merely sit by and say, “Yup, there’s the path … it sure is nice.”
Again, from our Gospel reading: “As Jesus was saying these things, many believed in him. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’”
There’s a distinction there between those who believed in Jesus, and those who had believed in Jesus. In some translations it uses the phrase “believed on him,” which takes the connotation further. To “believe on” something, in its original context meant more than just believing something to be true. It meant being personally invested in that truth. It meant having skin in the game, as it were. You were willing to stick your neck out, to walk the difficult path, to not just affirm truth, but to step out of comfort and live it.
Jesus, then, is speaking to two groups: those who are willing to step out in courage and faith to actually walk the truth of Christ; and those who know the truth, but hesistate to step into that difficult path, that leads to the cross.
Jesus encourages, and admonishes, the latter group to get off the bench, and step into truth — because it’s only in actually walking that path that truth will set you free. Jesus calls us to make that choice — to just know truth, or to actually follow it, and be free.
Frederick Douglass, whose feast day is tomorrow, had little choice but to walk the difficult path of Christ’s truth. He was born smack in the middle of the path of the suffering, the Way to the cross. Born in 1814, Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland, and went on to become perhaps the most widely known abolitionist of his day — a leader of tremendous intellect and courage who pursured the truth in ways that confounded and overthrew the lies of oppression, racism and slavery.
Frederick Douglass walked the difficult path of truth — the path of Christ — to oppose oppression and advance justice, for all people.
Unfortunately, that work remains unfinished. Slavery remains very much a part of our world. Today, there are as many as 40 million people enslaved in the world, according to the 2018 Walk Free Foundation World Slavery Index, including an estimated 403,000 in the United States.
But, there are far more people today — perhaps the vast majority of all people — living in a far less literal sense of slavery.
Jesus tells us He is the way, the truth, the life. He is truth, and truth sets us free. The opposite of that — to be a slave — means to reject truth, to be trapped in a way of life that doesn’t follow The Way, that doesn’t reflect the Love of Christ. Put another way, Jesus came to reveal to us God as Love. When we live contrary to love, we live enslaved.
When Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees they were blind to their own slavery. They couldn’t see they were enslaved by the Romans. They were enslaved by sin. They were enslaved by an ungracious, unforgiving interpretation of the Law.
We are just as shackled in slavery today — if not worse. We live enslaved to greed. We live enslaved under lies that separate and oppress some in poverty so others can live in grotesque excess. We live enslaved in fear. Fear of the other. Fear of losing our stuff. Fear that the needs and suffering of those around us might encroach on our comfort zones.
We hold onto our shackles, we worship them, because our shackles, our slavery, are comfortable to us.
If we are to escape those shackles, if we hope to lead others to escape them, we must have hope — hope in the redemption of Christ, hope that finds solace in the hard wood of the cross and the difficult steps to Golgotha. We must have hope that springs from getting outside our comfort zones, to encounter the marginalized, the downtrodden, abused, poor, hungry, reviled and forgotten. It is there, with Christ, amidst the least of His children, that truth sets us free.
Contemporary theologian and social justice advocate Ched Myers expresses this in words both eloquent and crass.
“After all the heavy breathing we do about God, it’s quite simply where one places one’s body that really counts,” Myers says. “In other words, what part of town you live in, who you hang out with, who you work alongside. And above all how many social boundaries you cross in order to be with Jesus.”
Myers boils it down to something far more direct: “Hope is where your ass is.”
How many social boundaries will we cross, how uncomfortable will we make ourselves, to find hope? To find the truth of Christ? To break our shackles, and to free ourselves and those around us?
You see, it not enough for us to know the truth. Or to repeat it eloquently and frequently here, safe within our sanctuary. In order for that truth to set us free, we must have the courage to follow the truth. We need the courage to step outside our comfort zones, and find Christ — find truth — in the tears, the wants, the pain and suffering of those trampled and forgotten by our broken world.
That is a hard path. And if we’re doing it right, we will never be comfortable. But outside comfort, there is truth. And the truth will set us free.
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.