A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 25 November 2018 [Proper 29]:
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14;Hebrews 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
We are told quite frequently not to mix politics and religion. Perhaps over Thanksgiving some of us have experienced the reason for this admonition. Yet, at its heart, this is precisely what occurs in today’s gospel, where Pontius Pilate interviews a condemned Jesus. Politics meets religion, which is to say life on our terms meets life on God’s terms. And observing this encounter, we are left with a decision to make. Which option do we follow: Pilate’s or Jesus’?
The drama of this scene between Pilate and Jesus quivers with so much tension that it begs for expression. In the terse course of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, his interest lies in the circulating claim that Jesus is a king. Standing before him, Jesus looks like the doomed prisoner he is, rather than an ascendant royal; but Pilate knows that any challenge to the authority and primacy of Caesar must be squelched. And so, Pilate continues to grill Jesus in an effort to have Jesus’ own words condemn himself as a terrorist.
Immediately getting to the point, Pilate issues the indicting question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” However, Jesus’ response puts Pilate on the spot, asking the Roman Prefect if his question comes from his own interest or is just scuttlebutt. Pilate explodes at the perceived impertinence: “Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?”
Then Jesus lets the cat out of the bag, using phrases such as “my kingdom doesn’t consist of what you see around you” and finally confessing what Pilate needed to hear: “Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth…”
At this point, if this were a scene in a film, the background music would thunder and then fall silent. The camera would zoom in on Pilate’s face, and Marcus Pontius Pilate would utter words for all history: “What is truth?”
If you were the director of the film, what guidance would you give your Pilate in speaking this terse yet earth-shaking line? How would you suggest his face express the question? What tone of voice should be used to communicate the meaning of Pilate’s words? For these words are not simply Pilate’s. I submit to you that they are ours, as well.
“What is truth?”
The most common sense of how this question gets expressed stems from the fact that Pilate was a two-bit politician and a government hack. As such, his inquiry would need to belie a deep weariness, a cynicism with how power politics actually work. To someone who has seen what it takes to make both sausage and politics, Pilate’s “What is truth?” emerges from a deep pessimism, born of relentless human self-centeredness. And in our own politics, we, too, experience such cynicism, where truth is manipulated to reinforce whomever seeks power. “What is truth?” Yet, the question we need to ask in such a situation is this: What is Truth’s source?
From what is admittedly a pessimistic and dark perspective, there is another point of view, another way that Pilate might have conveyed the meaning of the penetrating question. For instance, we know from other accounts (those in Matthew and Luke) that Pilate was not that removed either from the question of truth or from the one questioned.
In Luke’s account, Pilate’s initial public pronouncement about Jesus, he says that he finds “no crime in the man.” (23:4). In Matthew’s version, Pilate’s wife urges her husband to have nothing to do with Jesus, as she has had nightmares about his innocence. So, in this light, Pilate’s truth question of Jesus may indicate something of a yearning that makes this tin soldier appear more of a struggling, human pilgrim – like us.
Frederick Buechner, writer and explicator of humane Godly faith, puts Pilate in more reachable terms and writes the following about the issue of “truth.”
[To] Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” … Jesus answers him with a silence that is overwhelming in its eloquence. In case there should be any question as to what that silence meant, on another occasion Jesus put it into words for his disciple Thomas. “I,” [Jesus] said, “I am the truth” (14:6).
Jesus did not say that religion was the truth, or that his own teachings were the truth, or that what people taught about him was the truth, or that the Bible was the truth, or the church, or any system of ethics or theological doctrine. There are individual truths in all of them, we hope and believe, but individual truths were not what Pilate was after, or what you and I are after either, unless I miss my guess. Truths about this or that are a dime a dozen, including religious truths. THE truth is what Pilate is after: the truth about who we are and who God is if there is a God, the truth about life, the truth about death, the truth about truth itself. That is the truth we are all of us after.
I hope that you have wondered at least a bit about why our gospel reading today contains this judging scene, since we so readily identify this passage with Holy Week. Why now? The answer is that this is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In the last century or so, this last Sunday has been referred to as “Christ the King Sunday,” and the implicit message of this time and this circumstance is to note that you and I and all the church have completed another year of experiencing life on God’s terms and claiming God’s Christ as our own. So given this, what have we learned in this past year? What about Jesus as the one who brings into history God’s sovereign reign? It seems to me that, as with regarding Pilate in today’s gospel, there are two ways to view this last Sunday and the nature of the God-life as the source of truth.
One is to be bored with it with a kind of “been there, done that” attitude that stems from an expectation that worship should be entertaining, always new and fresh, engaging and uplifting. From this perspective, worship in the church and the spirituality that the liturgy conveys leaves many flat. (See our empty pews?) In particular, the yearly repetition of the events of salvation can become the “same old, same old.” This is what happens when our engagement with life is limited to a circle. Once you completed the circle, what else is there? For instance, next Sunday begins the season of Advent, followed by Christmas, and then the rest. (“Text me, when you get there.”)
But this viewpoint misses the point. The value of the liturgical cycle is not meant to be entertaining. It is meant to draw us deeper and deeper into the reality of the God-life. The cycle then becomes not a repetitive circle but a spiral that invites us and guides us into a deeper and deeper relationship with the God of all life.
So, which Pilate do your prefer? Which Pilate reflects your life and your expectations? Are we stuck in a life of recycling old territory, the familiarity of which provides us with an excuse not to grow as people, as Christian people? Or do we identify with a yearning, hungry Pilate, who just can’t quite get out of his own way to see what is standing right in front of him?
You and I have completed yet another liturgical year together. The piercing and haunting question is: What difference has this made for us? If at the end of the year’s journey, we are faced with Jesus as the eternal human embodiment of the God-life, then what do we see? If a “king,” then what does this king’s reign look like? What difference does it make? How does it work?
I personally appreciate Buechner’s insight, especially the one about Jesus silently standing in front of Pilate, absorbing whatever was brewing inside that desperate man. And this is the answer to our question about what kind of king Jesus is and what difference he makes in life. Jesus stands there, in front of us, silent and always present.
Without a word, Jesus stands in front of a governing Pilate, available and present – no matter what. That is the type of king Jesus is. That is the type of God our God is. Present. Available. Waiting to be invited in — no matter what.
Clearly, this is not what worldly power is about. Worldly power threatens, controls, and consumes. Worldly power will say anything, do anything in order to occupy the center. Yet, God’s power, God’s life – especially and uniquely expressed in Jesus – stands present to all the threats, to all the attempts at control, even to the point of being consumed by them, and then prevails over it all, thus demonstrating the power of love over fear and death.
We are so used to power that manipulates and causes fear that it is hard for us to see what is standing right in front of us. Jesus stands in front of us and absorbs all that we loathe and fear to reveal what we all yearn to know: That there is more to life – our life – than bluster and bullying, than manipulation and the courtship of death. There is God and God’s life, present and available to us now.
I will close with a few lines from a poem that always comes to my mind at this time of year. It comes from T. S. Eliot.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We are at the last Sunday of the year, and we face the one we call Christ, who rules over the worlds. What have we learned in this past year’s experience of following Jesus? More to the point, will we be open to starting again, moving deeper and deeper into life as God knows it? Again as Eliot says elsewhere:
If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. [For] You are not here to
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel …
Let us continue to kneel and follow and live in the truth of life with God at the center and to grow stronger in the Holy One’s Truth. Amen.
 John 18:33-38: The Message
 John 18:39
 T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding: Section V
 Ibid., Section 1