Christ Before Pilate, early 20th Century – Jacek Malczewski
They say it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. Well, to start off this sermon, I have to do both.
First of all, I know it’s Reign of Christ Sunday, but is it ok with everyone if I don’t deal specifically with that theme? I find the conversation around Jesus as king kind of uncomfortable anyway. What does it mean for us to name Jesus king? What does that even mean in our 21st Century, democratic-minded world? And besides…I think there is a more important unanswered question in our Gospel text today. So, can we put aside our talk of Jesus as king for right now? Ok? We’re good? Good!
Now the forgiveness part. The unanswered question “what is truth?” is not actually part of the assigned gospel passage today, which is John 18:33-37. I added verse 38. The passage is supposed to end with Jesus saying he has come to testify to the truth, and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. No disrespect to the Lectionary folks, but I think it’s a mistake to end the passage there. For sheer dramatic effect and to understand what’s going on in this scene we need to hear Pilate’s response: “What is Truth?” It’s a great question and it is still a very relevant question.
But first, a little context on what’s taking place between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus had just spent the night before with his disciple friends. They ate supper together. He gave them an object lesson in servant-love by taking on the role of a slave and washing their feet. He prayed for their continued unity and love. They went out to a garden in the Kidron Valley where they were confronted by Judas and the Temple Police. The police attempted to arrest Jesus. Peter lunged at one of the arresting officers cutting off his ear. Jesus chastised Peter and healed the wound. Jesus was taken to the High Priest, questioned and roughed up by the police. Then they took him to Pilate who really couldn’t be bothered with this Jesus, but the religious leaders insisted that he was Pilate’s problem because Jesus deserved to die.
What followed was a sarcastic, if not passive aggressive, back and forth between Pilate and Jesus.
“Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
“Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?”
“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?”
“My kingdom doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
“So, are you a king or not?”
“You tell me. I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth recognizes my voice.”
“What is truth?”
It’s a brief and fascinating exchange. The scene plays an important part in the dramatic story that John is telling about Jesus. A story we know well, maybe a little too well, and I think this familiarity makes us want to rush on to the end of the story. And no doubt there is a lot to unpack in this scene and the wider story of which it is a part. But for our purposes I want to focus on Pilate’s unanswered question: what is truth?
It’s always been an important question, but one best left for tweed-jacket-wearing philosophy professors or over-eager theology students. But in the post-truth, fake news, alternative facts world in which we live this question is more relevant than ever. When all sense of truth is being eroded, there is now an urgency to this question.
So, what is truth?
Is truth just what can be replicated with experiment or reasoned with our brains? Like the stone-faced Joe Friday from Dragnet, is it “Just the facts, Ma’am?”
Or is truth just something subjective and left open to interpretation? Is it just a matter of finding our own truth?
Maybe truth should be left to the religious world, but then so often what gets passed off as religious truth is just someone’s opinion dressed up as truth.
I can’t help but wonder that maybe, just maybe, like poor Pilate, we’re asking the wrong question. Let’s flashback to earlier that night. Jesus at supper with his friends says something that raises eyebrows even today: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus has already answered Pilate’s question. Jesus is the truth. The entire New Testament is clear that the answer to the truth dilemma is not a what, but a who…a living breathing person. Huh?
That’s not how we think of truth. We want truth to be strong, undeniable, obvious. That’s why some people interpret Jesus’ words as an exclusive claim. Jesus is the only truth and only certain ways of understanding him are appropriate. Usually this is code for ‘my way’. But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus embodies truth, embodies love, embodies God. He does this in what he says and does, how he loves. That very night he left an example of servant-love for all of us disciples to follow. Jesus shows us that the answer to the truth is not a what, but a how. Truth does not come at the end of a sword. You can’t reason your way to truth. Truth is something we do and it can only come through love.
This is what makes Jesus such an unlikely king, and his kingdom unlike any other earthly kingdom. You cannot legislate it or impose it. You can only live it. It doesn’t come through overthrowing the powers of this world, or by coercion or force. It only comes through love. Put away your sword and pick up your cross. Is this a truth we can live and a King we can follow?
Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s