PROPERS: LAST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR B
TEXT: JOHN 18:33-37
PREACHED AT ST. PAUL’S, MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2018.
ONE SENTENCE: The truth to which Jesus bears witness changes life.
The gospel lesson today is from John – the poignant, final exchange between Jesus and the man who will order him crucified, Pontius Pilate.
Except, it is not quite complete. One short verse is left out. A question from the Roman Governor.
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Today is known as Christ the King Sunday – the Last Sunday after Pentecost… the Sunday before the start of Advent and the new church year.
And the gospel lesson packs quite a punch. One would be justified in seeing the bitter irony of Christ the King being subject to the whims of a man who rules ruthlessly over some far away Roman province.
Listen to the words again:
Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.”
This is just moments before Pilate presents Jesus one last time to the raucous crowd, arrayed in a mocking purple robe – imitating royalty. And it is just before Pilate washes his hands – in an attempt to cleanse himself of the deed.
All that is to come. But six words are left off the end of the lesson: “Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’”
Jesus gives no response. The author of the gospel lets the question hang in the air.
What is truth?
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I hope that we can agree there is objective truthin this world.
We each have had a mother and a father.
At this moment, we are here in this place, St. Paul’s Chapel, Magnolia Springs.
This day is defined as Sunday.
Looking up from the ground, the sky is blue.
We are living, breathing human beings.
These, and other statements, are objective truths. They are not matters of opinion. They are not subject to debate.
In the world today, many other things are up for debate.
You may feel that your political opinion is a matter of truth. You have reasons for that belief and, to you, those reasons are quite clear and beyond debate.
If I can go from preaching to meddling, you may believe that your allegiance to a school or a football team is a matter of truth. You have your reasons and, to you, those reasons are beyond debate.
There are many other examples of such personal truth.
So, we have objective truth and personal truth. There are those facts which are apparent on the face of it, and there are those matters that issues of preference, strong though they may be.
What was the truth which Jesus exemplified – and which he did not define to Pilate?
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I would call it confessional truth. It is truth which we claim as our own – something of which we could not be convinced unless it becomes part of us. It is something which grabs hold of us.
An example: No one can convince an alcoholic that he or she needs help until they admit it to themselves. It is the key, the foundation, the first of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Deep, inner healing cannot begin until that confessional truth becomes part of the self-description of the person in the wrestling match with alcohol. The person may pay lip service to the idea. He or she may attend meetings. That person may acknowledge the personal truthfor some people. But it lacks power until it is knit into the fabric of the soul. Named and claimed.
The first word of The Apostles’ Creed – the baptismal creed of the Church – is Credo– I believe. In that statement, we are laying claim to the confessional truth of God’s transcendent, personal, related being to us. In the Nicene Creed, we say something quite similar – We believe. It is the community’s statement of faith. But I want to focus on the personal. That is where the rubber meets the road; where lives are changed.
Even though we repeat the creeds, they don’t take root until there is that moment when we say, like Thomas, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
In a significant sense, confessing our faith in Godis similar to an alcoholic hitting bottom – we knowthat we are utterly dependent on something beyond ourselves for wholeness. We may not understand, but we are grabbed by something beyond us.
The great 20thCentury theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote of being grasped by the ultimate concern. In an actual moment of confessional truth,we find ourselves embraced in something beyond ourselves that allows us to release the brokenness of our past. Life pivots. It is like being struck by healing lightning.
In fact, Paul Tillich spoke to this being grasped in one of his most famous sermons, published in the book, Shaking the Foundations. He speaks of the painful, exhaustive striving that many of us attempt, in an effort to find personal worth or, more difficult, to prove ourselves to God.
You may have experienced that striving, and the ultimate frustration it presents. It is like perpetually reaching for the brass ring, but coming up short. Tillich acknowledges that pain and frustration. But he says that we reach the point where we place ourselves in God’s hands and depend on his grace to make us worthwhile people.
Hear his powerful words:
It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
It is to that encounter with faith… that encounter with the transformative truth… that Jesus came to bear witness.
It is that truth which stands out above all others.