Jesus, Pilate and the How of Truth: A Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday

Jesus Before PilateChrist 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

 

 

 

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At Table, Together: An Advent Reflection

Advent Cover 2018

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more”                                ~St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

What’s the most important piece of furniture in your house? Is it your bed? Maybe that recliner where you do all your binge watching? Or is it your table? I hope you say it’s your table. The table is important. It is there we gather, not only for physical nourishment, but also the emotional sustenance of human contact. Around the table we break bread and we open ourselves to others. We let down our guard and let others in. The table is the most important purchase your family will ever make.

Sadly, research shows that we don’t eat together nearly as much as we used to. We spend less time cooking and even less time actually sitting together and eating. In our fast-paced world we have sought ways to make the table more efficient, quicker. Meals are now ready-made by your local grocer, delivered to your door via an app or brought to you at your favourite restaurant. The table has become wherever you can find a place to sit down. The results show in our bodies and in our relationships, both of which are just not as healthy as they should be.

Jesus understood the importance of the table. He never passed up the chance to eat and drink with others. That earned him a reputation as a gluttonous drunkard. He also ate with everyone regardless of status, gender, nationality or religion. That probably got him killed. The early church carried on his practice of table fellowship. Still today the central act of the majority of Christians is the Eucharistic meal. Although it often gets lost in all the pomp and ceremony, at the heart of the Eucharist is a simple meal shared among friends.

Everything we do as a church flows from our gathering around the table. This is the essence of what Paul is saying to the Philippian Christians when he prays that their love would overflow (1:9). From the abundance of God’s love overflowing into the Eucharistic meal, may that same love overflow from their table to the community and world around them.

We know, too, that Advent is a time of looking ahead and getting ready. Yes, we are preparing for the coming of God in human flesh in Jesus Christ, but we also look ahead to a time when all things are made new. Even this is envisioned as a great gathering together of the human family to feast at God’s table (Rev. 19:9). Our table fellowship now is a sign of that great gathering. On a regular basis we pray, “That we, with all your people, of every language, race, and nation, may share the banquet you have promised.”

So this Advent and Christmas season, as we gather around the church table, and as we gather around the tables of our homes, may we be mindful of the needs of those around us. As we are blessed with the nourishment of God’s presence and the fellowship of those we love, may we share those blessings of food, comfort and presence with a hungry, hurting world. And may we do this together.

The Temple Will Fall: A Sermon for Pentecost 28

broken church

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. Mark 13:18

A young woman dressed in an unassuming hoodie, jeans and canvas shoes stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange and with fist raised in the air calls out “This great building and all of its markets and profit margins will be wiped away. Nothing will be left.”

An old wizened man, with a heavy grey beard stands on a homemade wooden box in front of the Parliament Building in Ottawa. He holds up a sign that reads: “The end is near. All of this will disappear.”

A priest nervously steps into the pulpit. She gulps hard in order to swallow down the rising anxiety of what she will preach. “All of this, all you see, all we do will not last forever. It is coming to an end. What will take its place?” The congregation shifts nervously in their pews.

These modern day examples give you a glimpse of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel. Jesus has just exited the temple – the religious, cultural, and even political, centre of his own Hebrew people. It is a magnificent building, one that is symbolic of God’s presence among God’s people. In fact, it contains the Holy of Holies, the very residing place of God. It is the liturgical heart of Judaism, where sacrifices are offered up to God. One of the disciples marvels at the architectural grandeur of the temple: “What large stones! What an amazing building.” Jesus’ response is shocking. “Do you see this this building? It will all be cast down, reduced to rubble.” I don’t think Jesus means just the building. I think he means all of it – the institution, the structure, the sacrificial system, the priests, the scribes, the whole religio-economic system will fall.

What’s got Jesus in such a rotten mood? Chapter 12 ends with the story of the widow placing her last coins in the temple coffers. The irony of the scene is stark. The one for whom the temple, the whole religious system, is meant to care, instead props up the system. Jesus sees this and it doesn’t sit well with him. He is also in the final days of his earthly ministry. It seems as though he has something to prove. He repeatedly goes after the religious leaders and their hypocrisy. Chapter 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s passion narrative, the story of the cross, Jesus’ own ending.

Chapter 13 of Mark is what referred to as the little apocalypse. Just one chapter that seems to echo the larger apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. But remember, when Jesus gets apocalyptic he is not talking about the future end of all things, but about the present. He is talking about seeing the present in a different way. Former American Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says that when Jesus uses apocalyptic language he is talking about the “precariousness of the present”. Things are the way they are, but they won’t always be that way. Apocalyptic occupies the space between the fading away of the old and the emerging of the new. That is always a precarious, nerve-racking place to be.

We know this all too well in the church, especially in the Anglican Church and in this diocese. In fact, we just had a synod about it. Anglicans from across our diocese gathered to talk about the future of the church and the church of the future. Much was said about the need to change and adapt, to shift our focus away from buildings to mission, from maintenance to ministry. We know what we have always done is just not working anymore, but we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see a different way. We are caught in the precariousness of the present, a present we know cannot last. So Jesus’ words about it all falling down and disappearing are hardly comforting. Isn’t Jesus supposed to comfort us and make us feel better?

When the disciples ask Jesus “when this will happen?” he gives them a list of occurrences that are hardly extraordinary: false prophets, political strife, wars, natural disasters, famines. Life will unfold as always. Life in a world that is always uncertain, always changing, always in flux. But this, Jesus said, is only the beginning of the birth pangs. In this uncertainty, this precariousness, is the seed of the promise of something else. What they see as an ending is only the beginning of something new in the eyes of God. Actually God is pretty good at bringing beginnings out of endings. The central story of the Christian faith is new life from death, a beginning from an ending. Perhaps you could say that in order for God to do something new, something has to die. We all know this to be true in our own lives.

In a new world we need a new church. We have a new world. So what is it that needs to die in the church? What stones must crumble in order for something new to emerge? Can we truly envision a new way to be the church or is the thought of what needs to die just too painful? Can we trust God and the story of life from death, death and rebirth? If we are willing to reimagine a future church, if we truly have faith that there is another way, then there is much work to be done. We must roll up our sleeves and sort through the rubble for signs of new life. We must open our hearts and minds and, yes, our wallets to rebuild a more flesh and blood, less bricks and mortar kind of church. Because what we thought was an ending is really just another beginning.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s

Creation Care in a Plastic Age

ocean-trash

It is hard to imagine our lives today without plastics. We’ve become dependent on them in most aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, plastics pose one of the greatest ecological threats we face today. Plastic pollution, especially marine plastic pollution, is doing incredible harm to our planet.

Plastics are incredibly durable synthetic materials that can take hundreds of years or more to break down. In 1950, approximately 1.5 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide. By 2015, plastics production had increased to a whopping 322 million tons. Forty percent of all plastics produced are used in packaging alone. Roughly half of the plastics produced in any given year are disposed of after only one use. Less than 20 percent of plastics are recycled. Consequently, about 35 million tons of plastic pollution is created each year, of which between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons wind up in the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans either as macroplastics or microplastics.

Macroplastics are pieces of plastic 5mm or larger in diameter. They enter our waterways and oceans through litter, direct dumping or inadequate waste management. Single-use plastic bags are arguably the most harmful of macroplastics in a marine environment. Worldwide we use some 500 million of these bags every year with devastating consequences. I’m sure we’ve all seen photographs of plastic bags in the stomachs of whales, sea turtles and sea birds.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter, such as microbeads, fibres from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, and degraded macroplastics. These enter our waterways though our sewage systems. Even jurisdictions with sewage treatment systems aren’t able to remove all microplastics. A number of studies have found the presence of microplastics in the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. They pose a threat to all levels of sea life. In fact, recent studies indicate that microplastics may even pose a greater threat to marine life than macroplastics. A 2018 study found microplastics in the stomachs of a majority of certain species of fish in North Atlantic waters. We’re poisoning an important part of our traditional food supply.

Clearly, we need to stop the flow of plastics into our waterways. But how can we do that? Sigrid Kuehnemund, a member of the St. Mark’s parish community in St. John’s and Vice President, Ocean Conservation of World Wildlife Fund Canada, offers seven very simple ways we can make a significant difference:

  1. carry a water bottle and coffee cup;
  2. drink tap water;
  3. carry a reusable bag for shopping;
  4. shop in bulk;
  5. say no to plastic cutlery and plastic straws;
  6. pick up litter, especially near beaches, waterways and shorelines; and
  7. let the provincial government know that you support a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags.

As a people baptismally bound to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth, Anglicans should be front and center in the effort to stop this desecration of our planet’s oceans and waterways. But are we? Have we eliminated bottled water, disposable coffee cups, cutlery, plates, plastic straws and single-use plastic bags from our parishes, our homes and our lives? Are the loudest voices calling our provincial government to ban single-use plastic bags church voices? If we’re to take creation care seriously, we need to petition all levels of government and society as a whole on behalf of our planet. But, before we can do that with any integrity, we need to take a long hard look in the mirror and address our own contributions to plastic pollution.

Father Mark Nichols is the Associate Priest at St. Mark’s. This post was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Anglican Life.

Can I Get a Witness? A Sermon for the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls

black protest

Swedish activist Tess Aspblund bears witness to the power of love over hate as she confronts and stares down a white supremacist’s march of over 300 in Stockholm, .

Recently, I started doing something that I promised myself I would never do again. It’s something that has been a great source of trouble and conflict in my life. I still bear many scars…not physical scars, mind you…but emotional and spiritual scars for sure. I thought I had put all of this behind me, but in the last few weeks I have had to revisit all these emotions. Yes, I recently started reading the Book of Revelation again!

Revelation and I have a history that spans the first twenty years of my life. In those twenty years my young mind was bombarded with the Book of Revelation. Honestly, it wasn’t pretty. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandmother’s lap in the local parish hall for a screening of the evangelistic film A Thief in the Night. It was all about the horrors of being left behind after the rapture of the church.  Pardon my French, but it scared the crap out of me. I read all the books, listened to the sermons and sang all the hymns about being ready and being left behind. I have many memories of waking up in our quiet house with my heart pounding and thinking, “Darn! I’ve been left behind!”

It’s plain to see I suffer from Post Traumatic Revelation Disorder. In that way, the Anglican Church was a great fit for me because most Anglicans think that Revelation is just too weird to bother with at all. Honestly, you’re not wrong. It is a strange book filled with images of an otherworldly Jesus, violence, science-fiction-like beasts and creatures. Its pages are peppered with xenophobic, misogynistic and triumphalist language. The bulk of it discusses, in gory detail, a series of judgments unleashed on the earth. These judgements include natural disasters, plagues, disease and war. Many theologians have wondered how in the world we let this book into our canon.

Is there anything good that we can take away from Revelation? Or should we just ignore it like we do that strange relative at family gatherings?

Our passage today is one of those most familiar to all audiences of Revelation. It begins the last two chapters of the book and the climax of not only this book, but the entire New Testament. In the last of the visions of John he sees the breathtakingly beautiful, heavenly city of Jerusalem coming down. The old heaven and earth have passed away and this is the new one. God dwells among humankind. It’s interesting that the Message translation of the bible uses the same language here as it uses in the prologue to John’s Gospel that God has moved into the neighbourhood. No more tears, no more death. The voice from the throne declares that he is making all things new. This voice, of course, is Jesus – the alpha and omega, the A to Z, the beginning and the end.

It’s a beautiful piece of writing and one that can make us quickly forget all the pain and destruction, the death and mayhem that came before it. Most interpretations that I have heard of this passage, and for all of Revelation for that matter, have tried to do just that. Forget about your pain, your suffering, your loss, your poverty, your oppression. Sometime in the future God will sort it all out. After all, Revelation is a book about the future, right? Well…I’m not convinced. Revelation is written to Christians in what is now modern day Turkey, urging them to remain faithful to Christ, to not compromise their faith to appease the Roman authorities. It is really a tale of two cities, two kingdoms. We can choose to live in Rome with its violence and brute force approach to life. Here Rome is a stand in for any earthly empire. On the other hand we can choose the heavenly Jerusalem where peace and justice prevail, where love and healing is the way.

Notice that in this passage the heavenly city is coming down, but John never details its final descent. In the meantime God has already moved into the neighbourhood. God is here among us now, but the final culmination is a work in progress. Again Jesus says “I am making all things new”, not “I have made” or “I will make”, but even right now God in Christ is making all things new. Revelation does not present an escape from the world, but a call to the renewal of this world. But neither does it make the case for a world made better simply by human ingenuity, science and progress. What it does present is the bringing together of heaven and earth, where we partner with this God who is making all things new. The story of the whole New Testament, the whole bible, is that God calls all people to take part in this renewal of all things. We see it in the creation stories of Genesis, the resurrection of Jesus, the spread of the church in Acts, and we are reminded again in the pages of the Book of Revelation.

The word that Revelation itself uses for this is witness. It does not mean one who sits on the sidelines and passively observes. No, witnesses are ones who are engaged and active. First and foremost they are followers of Jesus who do and say and go as Jesus did. So it’s significant that on this Feasts of All Saints & All Souls that we remember and give thanks for all those witnesses who have gone before us. We have seen in their lives the light and life of Christ. Often unsung and unknown to the world, but crucial to us. They took part in the making new of all things and that’s why we call them saints. The work continues because God knows there is a lot of making new left to be done. And that it why it is also significant that we have baptism today. Little Willow, precious and innocent, today joins the ranks of the witnesses. We will nurture and care for her and show her how to follow Jesus, how to join in the renewal of all things. We will show her that in a scary world, a world bent on violence, vengeance and self-gratification, that we are called to bear witness to a better way of peace, forgiveness and self-giving love.

+ And we will do this in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s Church.