Sunday, Nov 25th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 18: 33-38
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
- John 18:38
The rulers of this age are often more obsessed with holding on to power than using the power vested in them for the good of society. Often, it can seem as if the goal of politics is to assume power, rather administer justice and truth for the good of the people who delegate power to them in the first place. In the political sphere, justice and truth are often the very first things that are sacrificed on the altar of power. We have witnessed in the recent presidential campaign to the south candidates of all persuasions attempting to create truth, manufacturing realities that would project them (or return them) to power. It no longer seems to matter if the truth I peddle has no relation to the facts that are clearly documented. If I say enough times “this is true,” if I shout loudly enough, “this is true!” if I get enough people to believe that “this is true,” then by God, it is true!
What is truth?
Why was Pilate so deathly afraid of Jesus? In St. John’s Gospel we confront a conflicted Pilate, one that paces the room, one that goes in and out to the crowd, taking a poll as it were, or perhaps convening a focus group. Pilate seems concerned to do the right thing. But what is the right thing? He has no inner resources make the right decision. He allows fickle public opinion to sway him. He fears the mob outside his window. He fears the Emperor. He fears what people will think of him. He fears Jesus, a potential revolutionary. And he fears losing his grip on power; his grip over his small little piece of the kingdom.
It is said that Jesus is a king. Pilate wishes that this claim had not been made, for if it is true, then he must be rid of this man. No leader relishes making difficult decisions like this. No leader wishes to have the life of a person in his hands. To administer justice is a great responsibility, and in the context of the Roman Empire, it meant meting out the death penalty to the seditious. But Jesus has not claimed that he is a king. “Are you the king of the Judeans?” Pilate asks. Jesus obfuscates. “Where did you hear this? Did someone else tell you?” He avoids the answer, which surely frustrates Pilate. But Jesus also asks, “Do you ask this on your own account?” What possibly could this mean? It must only mean that Pilate has some deep suspicions of his own. But where would these suspicions come from? Does Pilate recognize something intrinsic in Jesus? Does Pilate somehow have an inkling that standing before him is the true King, not some pale earthly imitation, but the true King of Kings? Does Pilate know true kingship when he sees it? Is this what Jesus is asking: “have you heard rumours about me, or do you recognize me for who I am?”
Pilate in turn obfuscates, “I am not a Judean. Your own people have handed you over. What have you done?” But really, it is not what Jesus has done that makes him threatening, it is who he is. Pilate knows he cannot execute him if he has not done anything seditious. If Jesus led an uprising, if he claimed to be a king, Pilate could condemn him. But does Pilate really wish to condemn him? It seems Pilate vacillates between a desire to do his duty, to cling to power, to protect the kingship of Caesar, and a recognition that true power stands before him and he must desperately seek to release this man.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” Aha, so he admits he is a king. Pilate has him. “You are a king!” To which Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king.” Is Jesus a king or is he not? This is the dilemma before Pilate. Has Jesus claimed the treasonous title or not? Pilate is torn. And then Jesus explains who he is. In a skillful circumlocution, Jesus explains the nature of his kingship. His kingdom is not of this world. He is not a ruler of territory, but the ruler of truth: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus is the King of Truth. To which Pilate responds, “What is truth?”
Is Pilate’s question rhetorical, or does he really fail to see the Truth of God standing before him? In the end, Pilate decides to wash his hands of Jesus, to release him to the mob, but the mob insists that Pilate crucify him: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar,” they cry. Pilate chooses his truth. He chooses the truth that has been fabricated by Rome, the truth that has been fabricated by an angry mob of religious zealots, the truth that has been fabricated in the tortured indecision of his own soul, and he crucifies God’s truth. Truth stood before Pilate, and Pilate embraced falsehood.
What is it that drives us to embrace falsehood? Is it fear? – the fear of losing control, the fear of losing power, the fear of the unknown? Are we afraid of the change that will come in our lives when we realize we have followed false gods and idols of our own creating? Are we afraid of the change that comes when we embrace the truth? When we embrace Jesus, when we turn to Christ, our lives change, but Jesus is the Lord of that transformation and his promise is that he shall see us through all the changes of our lives. When we embrace Jesus, he continues to embrace us, even when we feel we cannot hold on any longer. When we embrace Jesus we embrace the truth. And when we embrace the truth, we find that we no longer need to hold on to false truths of our own manufacturing, or false truths that others have peddled to keep themselves in power over us. When we embrace the truth, unlike Pilate, we learn who our real ruler is, to which kingdom we truly belong, and we learn that to serve the King of Truth is to live in perfect freedom.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves