A sermon, based on John 18.33-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 25, 2018
The encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, is one of the most intense in all of scripture; laden with those great and grave tensions between being and meaning, history and destiny, opportunity and choice, life and death.(1)
Jesus is brought before Pilate. Jesus’ accusers, the local religious authorities, know that to condemn him as a blasphemer, one who claims to be God, is a theological, ideological issue of no concern to Pilate. However, to accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king has political implications that Pilate, as a ruler seeking to keep the peace and the favor of the Caesar, cannot ignore.
To set the scene, Jesus’ accusers stand outside of Pilate’s praetorium, his headquarters. Jesus, inside. Pilate, in an act of shuttle diplomacy, moves back and forth, talking with Jesus’ accusers, and then Jesus, desperately desiring to appease an angry crowd and to find a way to let an innocent Jesus go.
Pilate’s praetorium is a place of judgment. For Pilate. Pilate, the captor, with power over life and death, is challenged by the captive Jesus in whose face he might behold something about the truth of life, the truth of his life. Will Pilate look and see or turn away?
I paraphrase their conversation…
Pilate, revealing both concern and fear, asks, “Are you a king?”
Jesus, answers with a question, truly inquiring about Pilate. “Is it you or another who asks?”
Pilate sputters a defensive rejoinder, in effect, saying, “How would I know?” then struggling to stay on point, demands, “What did you do?”
Jesus responds to the original question. “My kingdom is not here.”
“Aha,” trumpets Pilate, “You are a king!”
“As you have said it,” replies Jesus, “then it is truth. All who know truth listen to me.”
Our gospel reading ends before what I consider to be the most decisive aspect of this encounter. “Pilate asked (Jesus), ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he (left the praetorium).”(2) Pilate asks about truth, but before a response can be made, he departs, escapes. He asks, but neither wants nor awaits an answer. In the face of truth, his own, Pilate turns away.
As the story unfolds, Pilate cannot satisfy the crowd and save Jesus. There is no win-win outcome. Nevertheless, finding no evidence of a crime, he condemns Jesus to die. And for two millennia, history has remembered that Pilate, who wielded the power to do what is just, sacrificed Jesus and his own integrity and fidelity to his best self on the altar of political expediency.
We may not encounter (aye, let us pray we never encounter!) such a singularly compelling moment when the judgment of history and our own self-judgment fall heavily on our shoulders. We may not experience that great and grave instant described in the hymn:
Once to ev’ry (one) and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side…(3)
However, in our current day’s light or, depending on your point of view, shadow of the heightened strife – political, social, and racial – vexing our nation and ourselves, in an effort to share counsel on how to navigate these turbulent waters, I offer two propositions and one question…
If Truth with a capital “T” can be described as everything about God and everything about what is existentially real and ethically right, then, by that definition, Truth is impossible for us to grasp and to know in its fullness.
If we, as individuals, through the lenses of our histories and memories, personal experiences and observations inevitably form individual perspectives and opinions about what is true, with a small “t”, that is, our individual truths, then, also inevitably, we, from time to time, will disagree with one another about what is Truth with a capital “T”.
When, not if, that happens, will we continue to listen to another and with others with whom we disagree and, perhaps, discover something about Truth with a capital “T” we did not know or will we, like Pilate, turn and walk away?
Now, that question was…is the original close of this sermon. However, in this moment, something else occurs to me…
All of us have disagreements with one another. And if we, in our relationships, never or rarely disagree, then I submit to us that either we have not been our relationships for a long period of time or we are not relating to one another deeply and honestly enough to get to down to things that truly matter, things that are the heart of our convictions, things about which we dare not compromise.
Now, as for these sorts of things, I am an opinionated person. I have an opinion about anything and everything. Pick any subject and ask me about it and I’ll tell you what I think. And for precisely the reason that I am opinionated, o’er the years, I have learned to do two, for me, live-giving things.
First, if…when you and I disagree, I will listen to you on the chance, on the possibility that you possess an element or facet of the Truth with a capital “T” that I do not, that I cannot possess because I cannot hold all Truth. And after I have heard you often I will repeat back to you, in my own words, what I believed you said, and then ask you, “Is this what you mean?” And if or when you answer, “Yes,” then I know that I have understood you.
In this, secondly, I have discovered that if, when, later, I disagree with another about the same subject or issue about which we have disagreed and about which I have listened to you and your point of view, then I will carry your perspective, being for me another and new element of Truth, into that subsequent conversation.
Now, if a sinner like me can do that, then so can you.
(1) The full narrative of the encounter: John 18.28-40.
(2) John 18.38a: Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out.
(3) From the poem, The Present Crisis, by James Russell Lowell (1845), adapted into the hymn, Once to ev’ry man and nation by W. Garrett Horder (1896).
Illustration: Quod Est Veritas (What is truth?) Christ and Pilate (1890), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)