A sermon on John 8:31-37
As you walk up the steps and into the front door of Kings if you look up you will see carved into the stone the words “The truth will make you free.” It is a great saying, a hopeful saying, it is the motto of this college.
Tonight as we celebrate commemoration, remembering with one another, things we may have forgotten I have deliberately taken us back to the origin of those words. They were read to us tonight from John’s gospel:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The truth that Jesus was speaking of is a truth that is connected to Jesus and is an absolute claim about the nature of truth.
I suspect though when many people read the words of the King’s motto “The truth will make you free” disconnected from origins we are probably thinking of a different definition of the word truth. I suspect a definition that we may discover does not offer us the freedom we think.
Let me briefly explore two approaches to the truth that may be less helpful than we might suspect.
The first is the idea that the truth that will make us free is knowledge. This is after all a college located in a centre for learning.
There can be no doubt that the search for fact in history and in science has lead us to make great discoveries as human beings.
Yet the discovery of so-called truth has to always be tempered by three things.
Firstly, Michael Polanyi the Chemist and philosopher in his great book “Personal Knowledge” reminds us that all truth is subjective because “we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves.”
Secondly, as the Physicist Carol Rovelli points out the notion of something being “scientifically proved” is nearly an oxymoron and that “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.”
Finally, even when science discovers something that is occurring around with the best research and evidence available science like most things now is treated as a matter of belief if that truth is inconvenient, as Al Gore pointed out in his presentation of the issue of climate change.
Equating scientific fact or knowledge with truth does not necessarily set us free: from the fact we can only tell our stories through an anthropocentric lens; from the need to continue to search more deeply for more answers; and, from the fact that even when the best knowledge and evidence is presented people still make a choice to engage in that new knowledge of reject it.
Another view of the truth prevalent within our society is the notion that the truth is about exposing lies and deception.
There is a pivotal scene in the old film “A Few Good Men”. Tom Cruise has Jack Nicholson in the witness stand and pushes him to reveal what happened. Nicholson’s angry response is well known, “You want the truth! You can’t handle the truth!” As the ugly truth comes out I don’t think anyone is set free – there are uncomfortable and incomprehensible consequences for the characters in the film.
Exposing the deception and the hidden stories does not necessarily set us free. As a student history I recall Robert Hughes significant work on early Australian history called “The Fatal Shore”. The book told us uncomfortable truths about our origins including the frontier wars, enslavement and genocide committed against the indigenous people of this land. It is a history we still struggle with us a nation despite the PrimeMinister’s apology delivered by Kevin Rudd.
The same is true for the history of this college community and even its current reality. Whilst “Men and Masters” the history book of King’s College covers some of the struggles and successes of this college there are many stories it avoids telling. Stories of what can only be described as hazing, stories of violence and bravado against other colleges, and stories that continue within the wider community of misogyny and sexism within the college. Telling these stories may be confronting, may cause us to be defensive, may be a truth we can’t or don’t want to handle – but ultimately is not a truth that sets us free.
So where does this leave us with our saying our motto on this night of commemoration of the college. We remember with one another the transcendent connection and vision that lies behind this saying.
Jesus said: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
What is this truth if it is not some sort of scientific fact or intellectual insight? What is this truth if it is not an expose of the stories we hide and avoid and cover up?
If you were to pick up a Bible and read a few pages on in John’s gospel what you would read is these words which are also spoken by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life now one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6)
In these words we discover something of a surprising idea the ‘truth’ is Jesus himself, who says, “I am the truth.”
Truth is embodied in Jesus, it takes on flesh, it is incarnated. In this claim that Jesus makes we are challenged with the notion that not only is there no inconsistencies between his words and his actions, but that he is also the source of the key to understanding ourselves, this world that we live in and God.
To be freed by Jesus is to be set free from the delusion that we can domesticate knowledge and to be set free from the self-deception and fallibilities we all share.
From a Christian perspective knowing the truth is ultimately about knowing Jesus.
This does not mean that Christians are perfect people and know everything and never lie, rather it means that instead of locating the concept of truth in an abstract idea we locate truth in a man, Jesus from Nazareth, who lived, and died, and rose again so that we might be set free to live an abundant life. As Christians we seek after the truth by following Jesus and this sets us free.
“The truth will make you free.”
On page 199 of "Men and Masters" it says that the Chapel sits in the college like a lost soul. On nights when we come and worship here together I believe the soul of the college stirs. And I pray that each one of you here might remember that we have already been set free by Jesus who is the truth. But more than that as the soul of the college stirs so too your soul might be stirred and that you will hear the invitation that comes to us from the founders of this college to see beyond any parochialism and insularity of this community and become one who knows Jesus as the truth and to follow him who came to make us all free.