A sermon delivered on Sunday Nov. 22 at Christ Church (Tara).
Texts: 2 Samuel 23.1-7; Revelation 1.4b-7; John 18.33-38a
“What is truth?”
Although Pilate posed this question to Jesus during Jesus’ first trial with Pilate, it is a question that echoes some 2000 years later. Indeed, the question ‘what is truth’ is one with which humans have wrestled with throughout human history. Despite the seeming simplicity of the question, it continues to challenge and confound us. One need only consider the myriad of answers suggested by various philosophers and theologians over several millennia to underline how difficult a question ‘what is truth’ truly is.
Of course, there will always be those who insist that truth is simply the way things are and have always been. Others will challenge this by suggesting that truth is always a matter of perspective, that truth depends on how I see the world from within my particular place in the world. Still others will assert that since our finite minds simply cannot grasp the complexity of the world, truth is merely an illusion.
So, the question remains: what is truth?
While it is possible that Pilate is genuinely interested in seeking an answer to this question, it seems more likely Pilate’s response to Jesus is born of entitled cynicism, the same kind of entitled cynicism that one often hears intoned today by those who can afford to leave this question unanswered insofar as the answer does not threaten to change their way of life. Pilate’s tone, I think, is rooted in his own entitlement as a political ruler, one who has the power to bend the truth favorably in his direction.
We know very little about Pilate. Outside the Gospel accounts, there is scant archaeological and textual data to flesh out Pilate’s identity. We know that he was a Roman prefect; his primary job was, therefore, to provide military control over Judea, including the collection of taxes of the subjugated residents of the area. You can imagine how and why taxes were such a contentious issue at the time and why Jewish tax collectors were seen as traitors. Pilate also had limited judicial oversight; Jesus was sent to Pilate by the high priest under the pretense of Jesus being a traitor, someone who not only refused to give proper fealty to Rome but who also had revolutionary aspirations of driving out the Romans by force.
Pilate was well aware of the Zealot faction and other revolutionary groups that would be more than happy to get rid of the Romans. And although their concern was with ritual purity and zealous piety, the Pharisees also reviled Roman rule and saw here an opportunity to manipulate a fragile political situation to their own end: getting rid of someone who posed a direct threat to their teaching and publicly ridiculed them on more than one occasion. This is precisely why Pilate’s first question to Jesus is “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18.33). Are you the King of Israel? Are you the heir to David’s throne? Are you a political and military threat to Roman rule?
In today’s Gospel reading, we are witnessing a direct confrontation between two rulers, between two kingdoms.
On the one side, we have the Empire of Rome, an empire whose conquests, military prowess, civil engineering, and duration of rule has few historical rivals; if we were to compile a top-ten list of the most powerful empires in human history, Rome would almost certainly hold the top-spot. Pilate has all the power in the world on his side; he can be rid of Jesus with one simple word or gesture.
On the other side, we have a kingdom “not from this world” (John 18.36) lead by an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker, who has a core group of twelve followers, with at least one of whom has some serious misgivings about Jesus and the rest who are confused about what exactly Jesus is doing and what his kingdom is like. This is hardly a recipe for world domination.
Is Jesus a deluded madman, as seems to be the case with the rather ridiculous answers he offers Pilate? Is Jesus a genuine threat to Roman rule in Palestine? Although Pilate’s motivations are never clear, he seems amused and, perhaps even intrigued, by Jesus. After all, craziness is not a punishable offense and Jesus offered no resistance when he was arrested, hardly the behavior of a revolutionary bent on overthrowing Rome. Although Jesus’ aspirations for kingship were laughable to Pilate, nevertheless, Pilate sees to it that there is an inscription placed on the cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jesus”, written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, the latter two being the lingua franca of the time. When some of the leaders of the temple read this, the rejected the word, demanding that the sign say “This man said, I am Kind of the Jews” (John 19.21), a demand that Pilate immediately rejected. Pilate uses his power to unwittingly to publicly underline the truth of Jesus’ identity.
The irony in these events is thick: Pilate asks ‘what is truth’ to the one who is the embodiment of truth; the truth of God’s kingdom is most clearly revealed on the cross. Indeed, the military might of Rome, cruelly displayed through the crucifixion of political insurrectionists is unveiled as utter weakness on Easter Sunday when Jesus’ tomb is found empty. The power of the kingdom that is not of this world is revealed to be the power over life and death itself. The cross and the empty tomb demonstrate that the truth of the world is utter foolishness.
The question is, therefore, not what is truth, but who is truth? Truth is not a matter of correct and verifiable statements; truth is not enforced through physical power; truth is the person of Jesus Christ, the God-made-flesh who came and died to set us free from the curse of sin and death and promises to return to establish his kingdom on earth where justice and peace will reign. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life not in an abstract way, contained in propositions about him; rather, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life insofar as he is the God who calls us to repentance and offers us forgiveness and new life. Jesus is Truth because he is Lord over all creation, the one who by death defeated death.
The entirety of the Christian faith can be summarized in the simple phrase: Jesus is Lord. Indeed, it was this phrase that the early Christians used as confession of faith. Moreover, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. Pilate did not realize just how Jesus truly is a revolutionary. Though the Roman Empire had power over life by the means of death, it did not have the power over death; this is a power that no human empire can or ever will have.
Today the Church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. Aside from Easter, Christ the King is probably the most counter-cultural feasts in the church calendar. The focus of this feast is the claim that Christ is King and Lord. Moreover, this claim runs counter to and challenges everything else that lays claim to my life, be it my family, my work, my hobby, even my church.
If Jesus is Lord, then nothing else can be.
If Jesus is King, then I am not.
If Jesus is Lord, then death and sin are not.
If Jesus is King, the kings and rulers of the world are not.
However, if Jesus is King, where is his kingdom?
Christ the King Sunday is the final Sunday in the Christian calendar, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. During Advent, we prepare for the arrival of King Jesus. We prepare for his arrival in the straw-filled manger of Bethlehem, hardly the birthplace of a king. But during Advent, we also prepare for the second coming of Christ, when he will return to establish his kingdom on earth.
In the Lord’s Prayer, one of the petitions is: your kingdom come, your will be done; we are asking for God’s kingdom to be manifest in our world. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible in the transformed lives of forgiven sinners as they extend forgiveness to others in Jesus’ name. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible when the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the stranger is welcomed in Jesus’ name. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible when the church, a community of broken and restored people, gather together around Scripture and sacrament to be united with our risen and ruling King who promises to meet us in the opening of the Word and in the breaking of bread. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible as Christ’s ambassadors who proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is Lord!
When the Church prays “thy kingdom come”, we are praying for Christ’s second coming. We are also praying that the church would, through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit, anticipate and prepare for Christ’s coming through the way the Church is and acts in the world.
This requires that the Church, both local congregations and individual believers, continually ask ourselves: is Jesus the King of the kingdoms of our lives? Does he alone reign in our hearts and minds? Is Christ’s kingship reflected in our decision-making, in our budgets, in our relationships with others, and in our day-to-day lives? Are we witnessing to the reconciling love of the King who hung upon a cross, defeated death itself, and promises to return again to reconcile all things in heaven and earth?
Come, let us worship the king of kings and be ambassadors of the one who is the Truth, publicly proclaiming the good news of his kingdom. Amen.