Sermon, John 18:33-37.
To begin, I ask you to spend a few seconds thinking about Pontius Pilate. What do you think he really wants? …..My guess is he would like to be somewhere else. The Jewish establishment wants the execution of Jesus, but under law, they don’t have the authority to do an execution. So their only option, if they want Jesus executed, is to get Pilate to do their dirty work. And Pilate sees no good reason to order an execution. In fact, in the verse that follows the reading today, Pilate says to the crowd,“I find no case against him.” But the crowd is insistent that Jesus be killed. And in a stunning lack of courage, and to avoid a possible riot he fears, Pilate responds by ordering the crucifixion of Jesus, even though he cannot see a valid reason for it.
But before he orders the execution, Pilate had engaged in what he must have hoped would be a successful cross examination of Jesus. But, of course, it is not Jesus who is cross examined but Pilate himself who gets cross examined by Jesus. Jesus takes control of the colloquy between them. And it is this discussion between Jesus and Pilate that I find fascinating.
Pilate is a practical man. He asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews, and he means this in a practical way — that Jesus may be trying for a power grab from the Jewish establishment. He probably imagines this to be the reason that the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, wants him killed. Pilate never expects the answer he gets from Jesus: “my kingdom is not from this world.”What could this mean to an administrative boss, a Governor as Pilate was? And Jesus goes on: “ You say I am a king. For this I was born into the world, to testify to the truth.”Pilates only response is a lame one. “What is truth?”
And Pilate goes out to the crowd to say he finds no good case against Jesus. And he will be unable to.
The Gospels are full of the word truth, or the older term “verily.” I tell you the truth, or “verily” I tell you…. this is one level of the truth as spoken by Jesus. But in his discussion with Pilate, the truth to which Jesus refers is of a more fundamental kind. He says his whole life is meant to testify to the truth. And let us explore what kind of truth is that?
Let me move to a completely different scene. You are probably familiar with Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk at Gethseminy monastery in Kentucky. But he was more than a monk; he was also a mystic and a well known author. One day while instructing a group of young monks, Merton asked them “Did you get what you wanted when you first came to the monastery?”
Not at all a simple question to answer if one looks deeply. In fact, it is kind of a Pilate question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” It can be answered on a practical level, as probably the new monks did. “Yes, I wanted to become closer to God” or “I wanted to learn how to pray.” Answers like that. Practical, relative answers that are truthful to the best of their ability. Not at all like the answer Jesus gave. He refused to answer on Pilate’s practical terms, His answer, “My kingdom is not from this world”turns Pilate’s question upside down. What is Pilate to do with that kind of an answer? He may have wondered, probably did wonder, at the mental stability of Jesus.
Merton, of course, was no Pilate, no practical man of affairs, but one with deep mystical understanding. I’m sure he knew what he was asking, that the answers could be both practical and also much deeper than that. And I imagine he was hoping for the deeper ones. What might they have been? I will leave that your imagination.
Pilate was, of course, not hoping for the mystical, the answer from a divine perspective which he got from Jesus. He wants the practical one, yes or no. He is puzzled: “what is truth?”
As we all know there is much discussion of truth today. Are our leaders and politicians telling the truth? Can I rely on the media to tell the truth? What about social media? In fact, the Robert Mueller investigation revolves around the question of tangible truth. Practical questions looking for relative answers. Just like the question asked by Pilate, and the answer he hoped for.
So, what is the truth as Jesus answers. “ Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And he has given us hints at what he means by truth earlier in his preaching.“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be be given to you as well.”“All these things” refers to the worldly things we may, or think we may need.
Is it any wonder that Jesus and Pilate cannot speak of the truth in a way in which they both mean the same things by it ? When Jesus speaks of the truth his truth is not just what he says, but that he isthe truth. As he says in John, 14, “I am the way, and the truth and the light.” “I am in the world to testify to the truth.”
He answers Pilate, but Pilate does not understand.
I ask you also to consider if the truth to which Jesus testifies is only what he has said and who he has been in his career. Does it, even more importantly, include what will happen to him in his death, and resurrection? What would be the truth of Jesus, the truth of God if he had lived to a ripe old age? Have you ever considered the lives of Lincoln, of Gandhi, of Bonhoeffer, of Martin Luther King, of Oscar Romero, of Jonathan Daniels, had they not suffered their early deaths, and their resurrection into eternal life? Were their early deaths not a testimony to the truth of God, the truth that often evil strikes those who bring goodness into the world.
And what does all this have to do with our lives? Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom of God first, and then the superficial will follow. Or do we seek first the superficials of life, putting the truth, the Kingdom of God in a secondary place? Well I imagine that is how it is for most of us, as it is for me. I try mightily to place the Kingdom of God in first place in my life, but my ego usually gets the better of me.
And yet, despite our failings, there is through God’s grace, mercy for us too. When Jesus came out of the water after his baptism by John the baptiser, a voice was heard, “You are my son, with you I am well pleased.” Is God pleased only with Jesus? Can God be pleased with each of us too? Is God’s love and mercy available only to the elect, to Jesus, to Bonhoeffer, to Gandhi, to the spiritual heroes of our world?
Jesus has answered that. We are taught by Jesus in several parables that each of us may receive God’s mercy. Isn’t this integral to the truth of Jesus, the truth that applies to us all?When Jesus ends his discussion with Pilate, he says “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” He is speaking of us. We to whom God will be merciful.
May it be so.