“What is truth” - this was the question posed by Pilate during Jesus’ trial (John 18 vs. 38). It is not a theoretical question, the search for truth is something we are confronted with every day.
Over the past few days I have watched with fascination as the story of the Air Egypt 767 disaster has been presented by the American media. If you have missed it, let me explain the situation. A couple of weeks ago an Egypt Air 767 carrying over 200 people suddenly plunged into the sea around 1 hour into its flight from the US East Coast without obvious cause.
Everyone is desperate to know the truth, in the meantime speculation abounds as different theories are suggested as to what could have occurred.
· May be it was a terrorist act given neither the US nor Egyptian governments are popular with Islamic militants
· Or a fundamental fault in the construction of Boeing 767s, other airlines have reported problems, and some planes of a similar age were recalled;
· Or poor maintenance, dangerous cargo,
· or finally the theory which seems to be favourite at the moment that the back-up pilot deliberately put the aircraft into a dive with such fatal consequences.
Every party has a vested interest in pointing the finger at someone else, the consequences of either the plane manufacturer being shown to be at fault, or lax security identified as the reason for the tragedy could be catastrophic as the travelling public could lose confidence in their safety when flying, and the accused party served with a writ claiming damages given the litigious nature of US society.
A similar pattern unfolded on our shores with the hunt for the black box recorders of the 2 trains involved in that terrible accident at Ladbroke Grove.
The search for truth is not restricted solely to the objective facts leading up to a tragic accident, truth can also be implied. A few weeks ago my eye was caught by a headline in the Times which purported to reveal the “truth about John F Kennedy junior who died when the light aircraft he was flying crashed into the sea off Martha’s Vineyard.
The article written by a journalist who had talked to JFKs friends and colleagues, told of his strained marriage and alleged infidelity - neither of which the “accused” is in a position to refute.
If you watched the BBC documentary on the John Major years then you may remember the marked contrast in John Major’s and Norman Lamont’s interpretation of events leading up to the decision to remove the pound from the exchange rate mechanism after the government failed to keep sterling within its approved trading range. Who was right ? What was the truth of the situation ?
And staying with politics, wouldn’t you really like to know what happened during Michael Portillo’s student days at Peterhouse?
Even at home it is difficult to get to the bottom of things. On occasion Joshua will rush in with the news that Nathaniel has done something naughty, perhaps thrown a ball over the fence, or broken a toy, but on careful probing it becomes apparent that the reverse is the case, Nathaniel is merely the scapegoat for his elder brother who realises that we could be angry.
Truth has become a relative concept. There are now shades of truth, we even refer to white lies as though there is an aspect of falsehood which is acceptable. It is ironic that in the past few days we have heard an example of this, with Jeffrey Archer withdrawing from the race to become London’s first elected mayor after admitting that he and others had misled people when he was accused of seeing a prostitute.
The problem is we do not really know the truth about each other. Even in this Church how well do you know the person sitting next to you, or even me for that matter. Amitai Etzioni, an eminent sociologist, wrote a book titled “The presentation of self in everyday life” in which he put forward the theory that what we see in each other is only what that person wants us to see.
During our lives by a process of positive and negative experiences we start to identify those things which people appreciate and those which they dislike, and as a consequence we alter our behaviour accordingly. So rather than seeing the real me, perhaps all you are seeing is that part of my character which I know that you want to see, the real me could be quite shocking. Alternatively the real me could be more appealing but it entails a risk, I have to let my guard down and ask you to accept me for who I really am. This exposes me to the risk of rejection and pain.
Now this may all sound social science gobbledegook for some, but before you dismiss it out of hand pause to reflect on some aspects in your life which you would prefer others not to know about. Why do we keep those aspects hidden.? I guess it is because we are afraid of the consequences, can we handle the “shame”, the rejection, the pain : in contrast we are reasonably confident that we can plaster over any cracks.
In English there is a saying “the truth will out” yet for those of us out of the public eye it is relatively easy to keep things hidden for a long, long time. Some years ago I had a friend who one day mentioned that her grandfather had fathered an illegitimate child and kept it secret until his death when the two parts of his life met for the first time. Can you imagine the hurt that resulted from this deception, for years he had lived a double life, with one daughter knowing that she could never have the father she really wanted, and the other suddenly realising that she never knew her father fully.
Now we shouldn’t be surprised that situations like this can arise, after all we live in a world which is fatally flawed. The Fall of man resulted from a lie, a deception. Do you recall what the serpent said to Eve when she explained that they were free to eat of any fruit except that from the tree in the middle, which they were not even allowed to touch or they would die.
“You will not surely die.. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”
The serpent held out something that was so tempting, so tantalising that Eve couldn’t resist, she was prepared to put all she had in jeopardy because of a lie.
If you read the Gospels carefully then you will discover that Jesus didn’t criticise the Pharisees for their piety, even though some parts of their worship missed the mark, no it was their hypocrisy which he really objected to and sought to expose. In the Sermon on the Mount he challenged people
“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother “Brother let me take the speck out of your eye” when you fail to see the plank in your own eye?” Luke Ch 6 vs39-42
It is easy to delude yourself and others, but the lie has to be confronted, before you can alter things. Jesus said in John ch8 vs.31-32 “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”
It is impossible to be set free if we are deceitful, as it becomes a barrier between us and so much of our energy is diverted into protecting the secret lest others find out.
The truth about Jesus, who he was, and the accuracy of what he said will be revealed to everyone at the end of time, a point when the old world where people can hide things will be swept away. We are warned that in the last days many will come claiming to be the Messiah, leading people astray but Jesus said
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” John ch.14 vs.6
Just like the prophet Isaiah who fell before the throne during his vision of someone entering God’s presence, it is the moment that our lives will be exposed, all will be revealed, and no doubt there will be a few surprises.
That person who was always in the limelight, who said all the correct words, attended services regularly, was generous in their support of God’s work, and you may have looked up to, could have skeletons in the cupboard: whereas the shy retiring person, who has truly turned their back on their past may have been working away feverishly on other’s behalf in private.
The old order, where truth is turned on its head, and moral standards are judged relatively rather than absolutely will disappear as Jesus’ return will herald the new age of truth. In our Old Testament reading for today Isaiah prophesied that it will be a time of
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter .... who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent” Isaiah ch.5 vs. 20 & 23 In contrast for those who know the truth, and have lived according to God’s word, it will be a time of rejoicing as the prophet Ezekiel foresaw
“My servant David will be king over them .... They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. I will make a covenant with them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them: I will be their God, and they will be my people” Ezekiel ch37 vs.24
So where does this leave you and I today ? First of all we have to bring this matter before God in prayer, in a spirit of humility and penitence asking him to expose those aspects of our lives which are not true, and seeking his guidance on how to make things right again. This may involve going back many years to events which we have tried to forget, yet which still burden us.
Secondly it means we have to be prepared to take a risk, the risk that we could be rejected by those who are unable to accept the reality of who we are. For many of us we have already taken that step privately when we acknowledged our sinfulness before God. Perhaps now is the time for this to be shared more openly.