(a sermon for March 20, 2016, Palm Sunday; last in a series, based on Luke 19:28-40 and John 18:28-38)
Jesus said, “’For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’’’ And in one of the most reflective moments of John’s gospel, Pilate answered, “’What is truth?’”
Understand that Pilate – the Roman Governor of Judea – world weary and jaded from years of having sought to keep at least a tenuous peace between the occupying forces of Rome and Judea’s powerful religious leadership (to say nothing of seeking to squelch all the various and sundry extremist groups who were always out there trying to stir up revolt amongst the people), was not really all that interested in negotiating what should have been a wholly religious matter. But here they were, outside of Pilate’s door very early on this Friday morning, this religious delegation of the High Priest (!) bringing the “criminal” Jesus of Nazareth to him, an “evil doer” as some of the older translations put it; and the bottom line is that they wanted this man Jesus killed, and better for the Romans to do their dirty work for them!
In just about every way, for Pilate this was a lose-lose situation: refuse to intervene and he would most definitely raise the ire of Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin; choose to execute Jesus and there would likely be an uprising of the people, made all the worse in that this was the Passover and the streets of Jerusalem were filled to overflowing with the potential of very quickly becoming an angry mob! So when Pilate begins questioning Jesus as to whether he really is “the King of the Jews” in some furtive hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be some way out of this, and Jesus answers with words about how his kingdom was “not of this world,” that he had come “to testify to the truth,” and that “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” you can just hear the heaviness of Pilate’s sigh: Truth? “What is truth?’” To quote Frederick Beuchner here, “Truth was for people who had time to worry about truth. Pilate was a busy man.” Oh, maybe back when he was a little younger and a lot more idealistic; back when he had the luxury to sit back and reflect on such matters; but not now. Not now when negotiation, compromise and a fair amount of complicity with the enemy was the only way of keeping the lid on an already volatile situation; not now when all these political and societal factions are out there competing for his allegiance; and certainly not now, when his own influence and power was at risk because of it!
Truth? What is truth?
I actually kind of hate to say this, but in many ways we can actually understand Pilate’s dilemma here! I mean, truth is a wonderful ideal, but to wholly embrace that truth amid the million and one things that are always and ever clamoring at us in this life; well, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? You’ve got your family to consider; your spouse and your kids and your grandchildren, they always play into how you approach your life, and well they should. And then there’s your workplace; they’ve got a philosophy they expect you to follow, at least if you value receiving a paycheck. There are your friends, who you want to keep as your friends; there’s the community of which you’re a part and the rules, both written and unwritten, that govern your place in that community; and then there’s politics and primaries and election cycles, and don’t even get me started on that! And then, of course, there’s church… your religion, your faith (!), and that’s got to count for something (Speaking as your pastor here, I’m really hoping that counts for something!).
Years ago my uncle, who was an engineer with IBM for the better part of his career, was involved, along with many others, in the development of technology that was not only used on the Apollo spaceflights in the 1960’s (a fact that was extremely cool to me as a kid!), but later on in the guidance systems of a variety of short and long range missiles; which, come the 1980’s and a greater concern for nuclear proliferation, put IBM in the realm of some controversy. He was also a man of deep faith, and an elder in his Presbyterian church; and I remember talking with him at the time about how it sometimes was difficult for him to hear sermons or to do Bible Study around the topic of peace (Jesus the “Prince of Peace,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and so on); for how do you reconcile this biblical truth with this worldly reality that not only represented his livelihood, but that of his family and his entire community? My point here is that truth can be a tricky thing for any of us in the places where we live and dwell, especially when there are so many powerful forces that all compete for our loyalty and affection. I absolutely love what the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, says about this: “Some days it seems like there is a bad committee meeting going on [your] heart. Anytime you get a little spare time, everyone holds up a hand and says, ‘Me, me. Pick me!’ Like Pilate, you do the best you can to negotiate your time among them all, trying to keep the peace.” Ultimately, however, you discover that this never really works.
Truth? What is truth?
Perhaps that’s one explanation for how it could possibly be that the same crowd of people who were shouting out their hosannas to Jesus and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” – with so much intensity that even Jesus himself confessed that if they’d been silent, even “the stones would shout out” – are just a few short days later the same ones calling out to crucify him. It’s always easier, I suppose, and probably safer to let the mob rule, so to speak; and yet you have to wonder how some of those in the crowd – the ones, for instance, who’d followed Jesus from village to village; those who’d received healing along the way; others who had sat at his feet listening to every one of his teachings; and for that matter, his disciples… Peter, James, John and the rest of them – all these in the crowd that Friday who had somewhere along the way heard the truth first hand, and yet now were either in some way complicit in Jesus’ crucifixion, or else, as in the case of the disciples were scattered and in hiding. You would have thought, especially in this situation, that truth would have trumped everything else; but like I said before, truth is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to this humble and self-sacrificial “Savior-king” now, quite literally thrown before the Roman governor by these religious leaders who are infinitely more concerned with becoming ritually defiled on the Passover than they are with truth itself.
“So… you are a king?” Pilate asks Jesus, after they’ve engaged in a little bit of discussion on this matter. “You say that I am,” Jesus answers. “I am here to witness to the truth… so that everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.” [The Message] Truth is a tricky thing, for us at least, but you see, it never was for Jesus: for despite the shifting loyalties of the crowd; amidst the betrayal and desertion of those closest to him, even in the utter denials coming from the mouth of one of them who’d loudly promised that such a thing would never happen; and in and through the mocking and defilement that had already come to pass by this time, Jesus never wavered at all as to the truth.
“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” And “for the love of it all,” he, all of Jerusalem, and indeed, all the world was about to find out.
Very soon after this exchange between Jesus and Pilate, even though he could find no case against him, Pilate sent Jesus out to the crowd and their judgment; you see, Pilate had found his way out of this situation, a custom on Passover that the powers-that-be offer up the release of someone about to be executed, and most certainly this one who was “King of the Jews” would get the pardon. But that wasn’t to be, and Jesus – after further humiliation and brutal torture – was taken out to the place of execution known by the locals as Golgotha, “the place of the skull;” and there he was nailed to a wooden cross, hoisted up on that hillside between two common criminals and left to die a slow, agonizing, excruciating death in the hot midday sun.
Later on in John, we read that Pilate once again pleads with Jesus, no doubt angrily this time, to say something, anything in his own defense “’Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’” But Jesus again was unwavering, saying only that Pilate had “not a shred of authority over [him], except what had been given [him] from heaven.” [The Message] Even in these final moments of earthly life, Jesus was testifying to the truth: the truth that this death had to happen; the truth that it was only by this death that we find reconciliation with God, and are made right with God; the truth that this glory would only be fulfilled at that moment when Jesus himself finally said, “It is finished,” bowing his head and giving up his spirit unto God the Father.
The ancient church had a name for all this, you know: they called it “the celebration of our Lord’s Pascal mystery,” which means, quite literally, “the mystery of Christ’s passion;” how it is that Christ’s death on the cross cannot ever be separated from his resurrection; how it is that our faith, our very salvation hinges on the sacrifice made on that cross; and how you and I, though undeserving, are redeemed by that act, how, as the prophet foretold, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and [yet] by his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 NRSV) And therein lies the truth of it… that in God’s eternal plan, it’s death that conquers death; and it’s the ignoble, bloody, gruesome death of God’s own Son that ultimately shows us in the clearest way possible God’s infinite goodness and his graciousness! It’s a mysterious truth, to be sure; one that very few of us, even in our most “righteous” of moments, if you will, can even begin to fathom. But it’s truth that ultimately transcends every other competing concern and misplaced priority; but moreover, it’s what gives all of that varied allegiances of our life and living focus and purpose. It’s truth that forgives us, sets us free and then sets us forth on a new pathway; one of love, and justice… and truth. As the apostle Paul would later proclaim, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
You see, by faith we know that though this truth leads us inevitably to the cross, this is not where our journey ends; as a matter of fact, it’s on the dawning light of a Sunday morning beyond the cross that our journey – and our story as God’s people – truly begins! But for now, we follow Jesus into a “holy week” as truth is revealed in its fullness; knowing that it’s only by Jesus’ unwavering faith that we can dare to call this Friday “good” and proclaim life in the midst of death, because his death is our death, and his victory our victory!
And so “let the same mind be in [each one of us] that was in Christ Jesus, who… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Truly, for the love of it all… thanks be to God. Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry