On a lined Post-it sitting next to the wood slab desk my husband attached to our bedroom wall in the beginning days of the pandemic, I have written the words, “Tell the truth. Always tell the truth.” I wrote those words on that Post-it after a conversation with a dear colleague and friend. I had called him for wise counsel. It had fallen to me to deliver some hard news to a people not expecting it. “What do I tell them?” I lamented aloud. And along came his reply: “You tell them the truth. Always tell the truth.”
It seems an odd phrase to need to write down and post on the wall. I wrote it not because I’ve ever had any problem telling the truth. but because sometimes I need an anchoring word when I know the truth is going to be hard to tell. And sometimes the truth is hard to believe.
In today’s reading from the gospel of John, we hear Jesus say, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” And after a bit of discourse with his disciples, Jesus continues, “if I make you free you will be free indeed.”
This is the capital T truth: in the work of God in the person of Jesus Christ we are made free. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel of John. And at the end of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus say, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” before Pilate’s infamous retort, “What is truth?” There is no irony lost on the fact that the Truth embodied, capital T truth, is standing right in front of him in human form.
But still, it seems a fair question. What is truth? – perhaps an even more pertinent question in an age when we have come to talk about personal understandings and experiences as personal truths. We are encouraged to speak our truth and give others a space to speak theirs – and those, of course, are words we must speak and hear.
Yet, for the sake of today’s gospel lesson, I want to invite us as followers of Jesus to think about the fact that all our truth comes to be rooted in what my friend Bishop Leila Ortiz has called the capital T truth, the person of Jesus the Christ.
The Truth of what Christ has done and what that means for us individually and collectively is a truth that subsumes all others. It does not negate our personal stories or lives, and yet, the capital T truth is bigger than our individual parts.
In one of my favorite quotes, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy wrote, “our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are.” [Edward M. Kennedy, True Compass (New York: Twelve, 2009), 465.] If you know the story of Ted Kennedy’s life, you may know that he might have been a man who could be, in the public eye, wholly defined by his sin, his folly, and the mistakes that he made. That there is a public definition of him at all has mostly to do with his family name, and I can’t help but wonder if the truth he offers in those words isn’t in part an effort to refuse to have his life summed up by tragedy and indiscretion. If Mr. Kennedy were still alive today, I should like to call him and ponder aloud, “It is true what you say: our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are, but grace does.” And I like to think he would agree.
And this, dear friends, is the capital T truth. That we are defined not by our sins, our shortcomings, or our wicked past. We are, as beloved and baptized children of God, first and foremost defined by grace – and this is the Truth. It is a truth that is sometimes hard to believe. Almost as though it is too good to be true. It is a truth we need reminding of again and again until it takes root and forms us from the inside out.
I’d be remiss, as a Bishop in the Lutheran Church, if I failed to somehow mention Martin Luther on this Reformation Sunday, because the truth is, this is the great gift of our Lutheran heritage – an unshakeable understanding that who we are is first and foremost defined by grace.
When I was a girl of ten or twelve years, I had a life-changing encounter with grace. I can’t really describe it other than to say, in a moment filled with the work of the Holy Spirit, led in prayer by a preacher on a stage, I felt, in the aftermath of a word of forgiveness and grace, a sudden change, as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders and I had, in some way, been saved. From that moment on, my life has never been the same. I have found myself, since that encounter with God’s grace as a young girl, living in a freedom I can only hope to describe.
When Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” I know some of what he means. I have experienced, as I have learned to trust more and more who I am in Christ, a profound freedom in the Truth that defines me. The Truth that defines each of us and all of us as children of God through the work of Jesus Christ.
It is true, as the late Senator Kennedy said: our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are – but grace does. And living in that grace we are made free. Not free to go on sinning, as the apostle Paul teaches us in Romans, but to live in the abundant life Jesus came to give – to live as those who have been made free, to live grounded and defined by the capital T truth of who we are because of who we are in Christ.
This grace is in so many ways so unfathomable that we can forget it is true. We can, in our worst or weakest moments, fail to remember who we are, fail to believe that grace defines us and that the truth of the work of Christ is a Truth that consumes all others.
For ELCA Lutherans this leaning into our true identity begins in baptism. That is, essentially, what baptism is – a public claiming and proclaiming of who we are: children of God. In our liturgy for baptism, parents, godparents, and congregation all make promises in relation to the newly baptized and the lifetime journey of discipleship on which they are embarking. It’s a really big deal and, at the end of the liturgy, I always ask the congregation to make one more promise.
After the water has been poured, the candle has been lit, and the child is in the pastor’s arms, the liturgy goes like this:
The world will call you many things. The world will try to rename you. But today we echo the voice of the Triune God. Today we call you beloved child.
And the congregation responds: When we see you begin to wonder if this new name is really yours, we promise to remind you – you are indeed a child of God.
I wrote this part of the liturgy, and when I did, I had two things in mind. First, I wanted to find words to help my congregation understand what exactly their role in baptism was. I wanted them to remember, with every baptism we had, that they were themselves a child of God and that they were, as fellow believers, called to help one another remember this.
The second was the image of a middle school kid – that age, for so many of us, when we are trying to figure out who we are in relation to our family and friends – an age in which our identity seems so perilous. I wanted to create a culture within my congregation of reminding one another of the truth of who we are, especially when it’s hard for us to remember ourselves.
The unfathomable gift of grace is that you are a beloved child of God – even when you can scarcely believe it. This is the capital T truth. This is who we really are. We are not defined by our past, our mistakes, or our sins. We are defined by the wholly healing grace of God. This is who you are and this is the Truth that makes us free.
We have been set free from the sin that binds us and clamors to define us. And instead, we are defined by the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. This knowledge of who we are, when we really begin to understand it – to believe it – is a freedom unlike any other. And this, I think, is a foretaste of the freedom of which Christ speaks in the gospel of John.
This is the good news of salvation, dear friends, that in Christ, and in the truth of who Christ is, we are made free – no longer defined, or owned, by what we have done or left undone, but wholly defined by what God has done for us in the salvation known through the Son.
When this truth becomes our subsuming Truth – our capital T Truth – we are set free indeed.
In the name of Christ. Amen.
Let us pray.
Holy and Gracious God, you are so good to us, making us and calling us your own. And yet, we sometimes forget who we are, we sometimes forget who our neighbors are. So, give us eyes to see that each of us and all of us are made by you, to bear your image in the world. Give us hearts that live in a way that remembers and reminds us and those around us of our truest and deepest identity. Help us be a people who claim our truth in the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.