The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Christ the Truth
Sermon by The Rev. Daniel W. Hinkle, Interim Rector
Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2018
Scripture: John 18:33 – 38 (NRSV)
“33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate 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?’ 36Jesus 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.’ 37Pilate 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.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”
Sermon: “Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”
In Pilate’s time, of course, there were plenty of philosophies floating around the ancient world: Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Syrian, Egyptian and more, many more. And here’s Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea, confused by the whole mess, standing before a Galilean peasant who has the audacity to challenge him, challenge his authority, but very covertly.
Here’s what’s really interesting from this particular text for us today. It’s not a question of what constitutes some sort of generic, philosophical truth. And that’s how preachers tend to read this text, myself included. What is truth? Who can know the truth? How can you know the truth? How is truth even to be known? Is there such a thing as truth, especially in today’s America? And this is the dilemma that plagues the academy. They all scramble really, really hard to try to figure out.. what is the truth? But in our Gospel, it’s already been said that the truth is not a concept. The truth is… a person.
This changes everything because it takes the category of truth out of some sort of way to divide good and evil, right and wrong, true and false. It places it right into the category of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who he is and how he lived his life. And in this text, right here, before Pilate, is going to come the key element of that which constitutes truth.
Truth is… non-violent.
In response to Pilate’s question “Are you a king?” Jesus says, “If I was a king of this world, my foot soldiers would have fought in the garden.” There’s an irony here, isn’t there? Because we know that Peter, perceiving himself to be a foot soldier of the truth, drew a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane to protect Jesus, slicing off the ear of a young man named Malchus, a servant of the Chief Priest. And it’s a good thing he didn’t just run him threw. He just managed to miss this poor guy’s head. Peter was looking to behead the man. Think of this in terms of our world today. At that point in the garden where Jesus was arrested, Peter was no different than someone in ISIS or one of our many domestic terrorists who have been murdering innocent Americans with AR-15s. Peter thinks he’s going to protect Jesus by taking his sword and chopping the fellow’s head off. Thankfully, he misses. The guy only loses an ear, which, according to the text, Jesus immediately heals.
But when Jesus stands before Pilate, he’s very, very clear that his foot soldiers, that is, his true followers… do not bear arms. His followers will not take up weapons to protect him. Now there’s a double irony here. Not only does Peter take up the sword, but Christian preacher after Christian preacher and others have said unequivocally that we have to take up arms against these foreign and domestic terrorists. But the follower of Jesus does not take up arms, because his reign is not of this world.
Jesus is a substantively different leader than any other world leader. Every single leader on the planet that runs a nation state or any government, with few exceptions, has a standing army. There is no way a leader with a standing army or the power to push a red button and drop nuclear bombs or to command drones that kill innocent civilians,.. there’s no way they can call themselves a follower of Jesus without compromising the very essence of what he taught and lived. They are just kings of this world just like Pilate, and they don’t understand that truth has nothing to do with retaliation, nothing to do with violence.
When Christians come to the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, our tendency is to say “Oh. The people rejected Jesus because they wouldn’t accept his divinity, they wouldn’t accept his claim to be God.” But that is not the case. What they specifically rejected was his claim to represent a non-violent God, a non-retaliatory God, a God who would have nothing to do with “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” kind of justice. That god doesn’t exist. That god is an idol. That’s the god that was believed in by the Judaism of Jesus’ day. That’s the god that was believed in its many forms by Rome. The only God to ever claim non-violence is the God and Father of Jesus, so much so, that this God alone of all the gods… forgives. “Only the God of the Gospel forgives.” (Rudolph Bultmann)
Forgiveness is not a category that’s used of figures like Zeus or Odin. Only God forgives. Only the Maker of heaven and earth loves, forgives and chooses to lay down God’s own life, and in the resurrection, not to come back as a retaliatory figure. And that’s what absolutely scared the pants off the disciples on that first Easter Sunday morning. They were waiting for vengeance. They had fled, they had betrayed, they had denied Jesus; it was their own people that crucified the Messiah. And surely sitting in that room behind that locked door that night when Jesus appears to them, all they can think of is the structure of their theology which requires justice, which requires vengeance, which requires god to satisfy god’s own honour. And so, Jesus’ first word to them is the last word that will ever be spoken. “Shalom. Peace. Don’t be afraid. My Papa does not respond to violence with violence, and neither do I.”
And that is the truth that Pilate had standing right there in front of him, and that is the truth that confused him. “What is truth?” How could this person claim to be a king and yet not take up arms? How is that truth? How is it? How is it that for the seventeen hundred years since Constantine, we Christians have managed to merge and mingle that which the Gospel has kept apart: God and violence? How is it that we as Christian theologians, as Church, as Christianity have married the two things that God has rent asunder: life and retaliation?
The Gospel text for today is so loaded with irony that if we look at our own historical situation right now as Church, all we can do is repent, because it is in the Name of Jesus that our leaders take us into war. It is in the Name of Jesus that Christian preachers on the radio and on the TV would have us sacrifice our young men and young women in the fires of war, our precious children. And for what? So that the wealthy can continue to get wealthier while the poor and the rest of us get poorer?
We don’t know the truth, yet, my friends. We are so far from the truth in American Christianity, we’re no different than Pilate, or Peter in the garden, or James and John who would call down violence on a Samaritan village. And like them, we, too, are confronted with the Risen Christ who does not come back with revenge. Jesus didn’t come back with revenge and retaliation on that first Easter Sunday morning, and, no matter what the crazy preachers say, he’s not coming back in the future with revenge and retaliation either.
Some years back, where I live in Lancaster, a friend of mine drove by a church sign out front that said, “Jesus is coming back and boy is he pissed.” I don’t know that Jesus. I would never go to that church. I don’t worship that Jesus. The Jesus I worship is the Son of the Father. The Jesus I worship is homoousius, of the same substance, of the same reality as the Father. The Jesus I worship is non-violent. The Jesus I worship is forgiving. The Jesus I worship is loving, and nurturing, and compassionate, and merciful, and generous. And so is his Abba our Father.
The God who now looks down upon you does not look down upon you with hatred and never has. The God who looks down upon you now doesn’t look at your life and demand or require some atonement from you. The God that makes heaven and earth looks down upon you as His precious children. And He looks down upon all domestic and foreign terrorists as His precious children, too.
Like our Gospel scene of Jesus before Pilate, we are all on trial today in American Christianity. We are all on trial. It’s not for us to sit and equivocate about the nature of the truth. Some say, “Well, you know, Jesus got angry when he cleansed the Temple, and he said, why don’t you buy a sword.” Well, he also said that those who take up the sword will die by the sword. The Greek words for anger and wrath are nowhere to be found in those stories, and he used the whip to herd the animals and save them from bloody sacrifice. Nowhere does the text say that he used the whip on people. We read our own wrath into these stories, but when we go back to the text, we can not find it there. Jesus didn’t “cleanse” the Temple; he shut it down forever in an act of prophetic drama. God never wanted bloody sacrifices. God doesn’t need bloody sacrifices. We keep trying to find a way back to the kingdom of this world, when we should be listening only to his voice and recognize that he alone, Jesus alone reveals the character of God. And he alone is the one who comes in that revelation and reconciles us by being crucified on a Roman cross.
How many crosses do you reckon there are in or on this church building, its windows and artwork? And from that cross (point to the hanging cross over altar) he prays, “Father. Don’t forgive them! Get them back! Send some bombs on them! Kill them!” Does he do that? Does Jesus say that? (Wait for an answer from the congregation) No. He says “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And that is our problem. We don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to the issues of violence and justice, retaliation and revenge.
If we are going to follow Jesus, there is only one way, only one way. And that way is the same way he went. “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross.” To take up your cross does not mean to suffer. It means to learn to live with the same measure of forgiveness that Jesus himself preached and taught and lived his whole ministry. Over and over again from that cross as he died, he was saying “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” (repeat three times)
Rene’ Girard, the great thinker and anthropologist who just passed a few years ago, said “There are only two things that can reconcile: violence and love.” Violence does reconcile, my friends. When we take our anger and hostility out together against someone, when we as a group blame someone for our wows, when someone in our family systems we perceive is the trouble, we blame them for all the wows in the family, when we scapegoat others,.. we can be reconciled. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Right? Violence does reconcile… at least temporarily. Our leaders try to unite us against a common enemy over and over again. But Jesus has taught us to see right through their tricks to their lies.
But that’s not God’s way. Love is God’s way. Love reconciles. Love absorbs the pain. Love absorbs the violence. Love says “You can kill me, but I believe in a God of love. I believe in a God that raises the dead. I believe in a Kingdom to come.” Our Prayer Book liturgy is suffused with this language, the language of truth, the language of the reign of God. Listen to what we just said in our prayers this morning. Listen to what we’re going to say next in our worship.
God is good. And this is the Gospel of the Lord. Christ is truth and he is our King. Thanks be to God.
Source: A Sermon by Mr. Michael Hardin, PreachingPeace.com
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingsville, MD
The Rev. Daniel W. Hinkle, Interim Rector
Christ the King Sunday, November 22, 2015