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?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)
In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.Good evening, good evening. It’s good to be back with you again.
You know, sometimes, when I look at the readings for a given Sunday, my first thought as a preacher is “There’s just not much there to talk about.” That is definitely not the case with the readings for tonight. Rather, this is like trying to get a drink from a firehose. So, I want to highlight just a few passages from this story of Jesus’ Passion. As we read the Gospel for today, we cannot help but wince as we recall Jesus’ words: “This is my body. This is my blood.”
So, we talked yesterday about the wonderful observation of Jürgen Moltmann, who said that all of our thinking about God, especially our theology of hope, must be accomplished “within earshot of the dying Christ.” Well, tonight we can hear Christ all too clearly. In fact, we may want to plug our ears, but we mustn’t do that, or we’ll miss something very important.
Now, I love my friend John’s gospel. John is a poet, and everything is his Gospel is laden with layers of meaning. In this Gospel, there are no accidents, and there are no coincidences. So, we all remember the fabulous story of Moses on Mt. Horeb when he encounters the burning bush. God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s standing on holy ground and tells him that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses asks him his name, God replies, “I am that I am.” We call this the Great I Am, and it implies that everything that has existence, everything that is, exists because of and through God.
Now, let’s see what this poet John does with that idea. When the soldiers and Pharisees come to the Garden of Gethsemane asking for Jesus, he replies, “I am he.” As Jesus hangs on the cross, dying, he says, “I am thirsty.” Now let’s look at how John treats Peter, Jesus’ close friend. You’ll recall that Peter had sworn, “Even though they all fall away, I will not leave you.” And Peter does follow Jesus—right up to the courtyard of the high priest. But when a woman asks Peter if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples he replies, “ I am not.” I am….not. Again, as he tries to warms himself, the crowd asks if Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Peter again says, “I am not.” Peter’s repudiation is actually a denial of his association with God.
I don’t want to judge Peter too harshly. There have certainly been times in my life when I walked away from God, even pushed God away. Sometimes, we all find our fears to be overpowering. This is especially true when confronted with the power of empire, especially an empire as brutal as the Roman empire. You may recall we talked on Maundy Thursday about Jesus and the great commandment: the notion that people would know we follow Jesus by our love.
But a love like that will stick out like a sore thumb in a place like the Roman Empire. Whether it’s Pharoah or Caesar or Vladimir Putin, empire only wants one thing: more—more bricks, more oil, more guns, more land. Empire concerns itself with expansion and self-preservation. Love is concerned, fiercely, with the other.
We see this distinction exposed in the discussion between Pilate and Jesus. Revealing his primary concern with empire, Pilate begins by asking Jesus if he is a king. Jesus doesn’t answer the question, or rather, answers the question with a question of his own. Pilate then asks “What have you done?” And Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Rather, he now goes back to the first question, and says that he is a king in another place. Jesus tells Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Now, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Later, Pilate asks, “Where are you from?” And Jesus doesn’t answer. In frustration, Pilate then demands, “”Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Do you not know that I have the power to hang you up on a tree like a scarecrow?
Does it seem to you that these two men are having a failure to communicate? Although they may be speaking the same language, they don’t share a common vocabulary or a common point of reference. Pilate asks the question, “What is truth?” He doesn’t seem to know and I’m not sure he really cares. In reality, the Truth is standing right in front of him. The Truth is about to be beaten and crucified—because in a world dominated by empire, truth and love will stand out like a sore thumb. Empire doesn’t have any use for truth, but Pilate reveals his real concern. His concern, and his last question, is about power. That is the nature of empire.
Fear and violence are the principal tools, the fundamental weapons of empire. And the Cross was just such a tool. You know, it’s said that for the first century or so, the fish and not the cross, was the primary symbol of Christianity. And I think that’s because no one who had actually seen a crucifixion could bear to see the Cross used in that way, they could not yet imagine it as an avatar of faith. For them, the Cross marked only terror and brutality. Those forces can only be overcome through the strongest force known to humanity. Only love can overcome them.
We see that love demonstrated as Jesus hangs on the Cross, dying. He looks down upon his mother and the beloved disciple, the only ones who remained with him, or the only people who could bear to watch this horror show. And as he’s dying, he says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” He tells his disciple, “Here is your mother.” It is a moment of unbelievable tenderness, a moment of redefining family as a community of love and loss, an expression of God’s concern for those left behind even in these final moments of agony.
So, what does this story mean for us as Christians in the 21st century, some two thousand years after these events? Well, among other things, I think it means that God intended to share in the entire human experience: pain, hunger, thirst, weddings, joy, glory, sorrow and loss, and even shame and death. God reached into the entire human experience, knew it firsthand, touched it, and made it sacred. It means that there is no part of our lives that God does not understand and will not share with us.
I want to suggest to you that it was not iron nails that fastened Jesus to the Cross. Rather, Jesus was held there by the love of God for all of humanity. In a real sense, the Cross is God’s statement to the world: do your very worst. You can beat me, mock me, scorn me, betray me, deny me, hang me on a tree like a scarecrow, and even kill me. Do your very worst, and I will still love you. And thus, the Cross was changed, transubstantiated, from an instrument of torture and shame into a symbol of hope and love. God’s love overcomes empire, terror, and death. And that’s got to be “good news.”Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022