Friday, April 18, 2014

What is Truth? (a sermon for Good Friday)

Note: this sermon has been strongly influenced by chapter three of Brian Zahnd's book Beauty Will Save the World.


A couple of years ago some of us here at St. Margaret’s did a group study on Brian Zahnd’s wonderful book Unconditional? It was a challenging book about the power of forgiveness, based on Jesus and his life and teaching. Brian showed us pretty convincingly that grace and forgiveness are right at the heart of Christian faith – God’s forgiveness of us through Jesus, and our call as Christians to be people of forgiveness ourselves, passing on the blessing we’ve received to those who have hurt us. In other words, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’.

Brian has returned to this theme recently in a new book called Beauty Will Save the World. The title doesn’t mean what you think it means. The ‘beauty’ that Brian talks about in the book isn’t the beauty of a work of art or a piece of music or a wonderful landscape; it’s the beauty of the love of Jesus, that led him to offer his life on the cross rather than resisting his enemies and defeating them in a military confrontation. In other words, we’re back with the message of grace that Jesus demonstrates as he stretches out his arms on the cross; he accepts the worst that the world can deal out to him, and he responds with love and forgiveness.

It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it, that the cross could ever be seen as a thing of beauty. It’s an amazing thing that the Christian religion has adopted the cross as its number one symbol. Just look at our church today! Right at the front, the centre of everyone’s attention, is the Cross, and sometimes if the light is shining just right you can actually see the shadow of the cross on the wall on either side of it, so that it looks like three crosses together. Outside on the cell tower we have a cross, and we have a large cross on the corner of the property as well. There must be hundreds of crosses on churches in Edmonton, and some of the churches are even built so that their floor plan resembles a cross. The cross is also one of the most common items of personal jewelry. You can buy solid silver or gold crosses costing hundreds or thousands of dollars; crosses seem to be part of the required uniform of heavy metal bands, and many artists who aren’t particularly Christian still seem to feel the need to paint crucifixion scenes.

How did this happen? When you think about it, it seems quite strange, as strange as people wearing little guillotines around their necks, or churches decorating their buildings with gold and silver hangman’s nooses! In a few minutes we’ll sing ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’; imagine if we sang ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Electric Chair’? But that’s how it would have sounded to the early Christians. When Paul said, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14), he was referring to a form of execution that the Romans reserved for traitors against the empire. ‘May I never boast about anything except the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was executed as a rebel and traitor against the empire’! More than a little weird, don’t you think?

What has happened, in fact, is that Jesus has changed everything. By his death on the cross he has not only changed our relationship with God; he’s also changed the way we see death, the way we see the cross itself, and the way we see the world. Up until the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world was organized on the principle of power: God is on the side of the big battalions, might is right, and the way to solve the problems of the world is to use war and violence to impose your will on others.
Of course, we can still live that way if we choose to do so: the vast majority of people in the world still seem to make that choice, and probably the majority of Christians do so as well. But the death of Jesus has opened up a new possibility for us: we don’t have to live by the principle of power and violence any longer. Instead, we can choose to live by the principle of sacrificial love. In fact, we’d be wise to make that choice, because at the cross of Jesus the old way of violence and power has been tried and found wanting in the court of God, and it now stands under his judgement.

What do I mean by this? Well, turn with me to John 12:31-32. Jesus is speaking:
“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
‘Lifted up’, of course, is a figure of speech for crucifixion. Jesus is making it clear that he understands how he’s going to die – in the open, for all to see, judged and condemned as a traitor against the Roman empire.

But Jesus also says some more mysterious things in this passage. He says that somehow his death is going to drive out Satan from being what he calls ‘the ruler of this world’. When the world organizes itself on the basis of power and violence and the cycle of revenge, then the world is making Satan the de facto ruler, and giving its allegiance to him. But if the world is reorganized around a new principle – the principle of forgiveness and self-sacrificial love – then Satan’s way of doing things has been rejected, and he’s been kicked off the throne in favour of a new ruler, one who exemplifies the new way of doing things.

But there’s something else here too. Jesus says that his crucifixion in some way judges and condemns the world; “Now”, he says, “is the judgement of this world” (v. 31). In other words, in the mind of Jesus there were actually two trials going on in our gospel reading for today: Jesus was being tried in the court of Pontius Pilate, but at the same time the world was being tried in the court of Jesus Christ, its true ruler. Let’s think about these two trials for a few minutes.

The gospels tell us that Jesus went through a religious trial before the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, his father-in-law Annas, and the Jewish ruling council. That council convicted him of blasphemy for claiming that he was the Son of God, and also calling himself ‘the Son of Man’. That, by the way, is a mysterious reference to the book of Daniel, where ‘one like a Son of Man’ comes before the throne of God and is given power and authority and a kingdom that will never end. Jesus said to Caiaphas: “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). In other words, Jesus claimed that he was establishing the Kingdom of God and receiving God’s authority to rule over the nations. This was why the Jewish ruling council condemned him as a blasphemer.

But the Jewish council needed to make the charge stick with the Romans in order to get Jesus executed, and the charge of blasphemy was of no interest whatsoever to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. So Caiaphas played a different card before Pilate: he pointed out that to claim to be the Messiah wasn’t just a religious claim; it was also political. The Messiah was the king God was going to send to free his people from injustice and oppression. Jesus was claiming to be the true Jewish king, and that was a political matter. Potentially, he could be a threat to Roman rule.

So Pilate was forced to take an interest. Jesus was brought into his headquarters for questioning, and Pilate challenged him directly: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). Jesus gave a rather cryptic answer, and then he explained himself:
“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” (18:36).

The old King James Version translated those words as “My kingdom is not of this world”, and generations of Christians heard that as meaning, “My kingdom is not in this world”. But that can’t possibly be what Jesus meant; if it was, Pilate would have lost interest in him and let him go. A purely heavenly kingdom would be no threat at all to Rome. No: Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world”, or, we might paraphrase, “my kingdom is not like a worldly kingdom”. What’s the difference? Worldly kingdoms tend to be established by violence and defended by violence – “my followers would be fighting” - but Jesus is now establishing a new kind of kingdom in this world, based not on violence but on sacrificial love.

Well, now Pilate is confused. How can Jesus’ kingdom be a real kingdom without an army to enforce its rule and to defend its king? So he says, “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?” (vv.37-38).

Jesus is then taken away and flogged, and then brought back to Pilate with a bloody back, a crown of thorns on his head. Pilate tries to question him again, but Jesus is silent. Eventually, frustrated, Pilate says, “Do you not know that I have power…to crucify you?” (19:10). This, you see, is Pilate answering his own question. What is truth? Truth is power: the power to kill is the ultimate truth in Pilate’s world. And it’s the ultimate truth in the world today too. The principalities and powers, as Paul calls them, have organized this world in such a way that power, especially violent power, is the bottom line, the ultimate truth. This is why Jesus refers to Satan as ‘the ruler of this world’.

In this encounter, you see, Pilate and Jesus are both witnessing to their truth. For Pilate, the ultimate truth is that the world is run by men of power, who have the power to enforce their will by killing people. If you want to get ahead and live successfully, you have to organize your life around this basic fact: don’t annoy the men of power, because they can do bad things to you. So you’d better do what they say, whether you like it or not. What is truth? The truth is the cross, Pilate says: “I have the power to crucify you”. The cross to Pilate is a symbol of the power of the empire; it’s a symbol of the view that violence is the ultimate answer.

Jesus also believes that the truth is the cross, but not as a symbol of power. To Jesus, the cross is the way he is going to draw all people to himself. It’s a symbol of a willingness to die rather than inflict harm on others. It’s a symbol of indestructible love: You can kill Jesus, but you can’t kill his love for you. Even as he hangs there, he’s praying for his murderers: “Father, forgive them”. Ultimate truth, Jesus is saying, is not power enforced by violence; it’s love expressed through forgiveness.

The philosopher Nietzsche thought that Pontius Pilate got the better of this exchange, and on the face of it, it looks as if he’s right. After all, Pilate was able to force his will on Jesus; he was able to have him killed by nailing him to the cross. He was able to remove the potential threat to the Roman empire. So it looks as if Pilate was right: truth is power.

We can be tempted to feel that way today. What’s the good of loving your enemies in a world where enemies inflict so much evil? What’s the good of forgiveness in a world where people inflict such heinous crimes on each other? What’s the point of trying to follow the way of Jesus when it seems so impractical? And so we can easily be tempted, as Brian Zahnd points out, to believe in Jesus but not to believe in Jesus’ ideas. In fact, I would suggest that large parts of the Christian church, throughout much of our history, have believed in Jesus without believing in Jesus’ ideas.

Nietzsche, of course, felt as he did because he didn’t believe in the resurrection, and he didn’t especially believe in love, either. So he was more than a little biased, and when he declared Pontius Pilate the victor, there were a couple of things he overlooked.

First, he overlooked the victory of love. Yes, Pilate demonstrated conclusively that he had the power to kill Jesus. But the Good Friday story also demonstrates conclusively that he did not have the power to kill Jesus’ love. As the executioners were nailing Jesus to the cross, Jesus was praying for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The gospels also tell us that while he was dying in agony, with the weight of the sins of the whole world on his shoulder, he took time to speak to one of the revolutionaries who was crucified with him, and to assure him that he would be with him in paradise.

What’s going on here? God, the creator of all things, comes and lives among us as one of us, and the representatives of all that is best in the world – God-given religion, order, and good government – conspire together and kill him. We, the people, agree with their actions; when we’re asked what we want, we yell out, “Crucify him!” But how does God respond? Not by hurling lightning bolts and frying his enemies, but by love and forgiveness. This is the sacrifice that saves the world, when Jesus allows himself to be killed rather than to respond with violence and revenge. You can kill him, but you can’t kill his love for you. This is the victory of love.

Nietzsche also, of course, ignored the verdict of God the Father, because he didn’t believe in the resurrection. For the early Christians, this was the pivotal moment. On the evening of Good Friday, they all thought that the Jesus movement was a failure; Jesus couldn’t possibly have been the Messiah, because if he had been, God would never have abandoned him to his enemies like that. But then came Easter Sunday and the incredible realization that God had raised Jesus from the dead. What did it mean? Paul, writing about it twenty-five years later, said that Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead’ Romans 1:4). Declared by whom? By God, of course! The resurrection was God’s declaration that Jesus was right and Pontius Pilate was wrong: truth is not power enforced by violence; rather, truth is love shown through forgiveness.

And this is the verdict of the heavenly court. As we said, Pilate thought Jesus was on trial in his court, but it turned out that the whole world was also on trial in the court of Christ. “Now is judgement of this world”, said Jesus (John 12:31). The story of the cross is the story of the trial of the world; we like to think we’re on the side of the angels, but when God comes among us, we choose Barabbas instead, a murderer and an insurrectionist. And we continue to choose the way of hatred and violence; just look at the movies we prefer to watch! Look at the wars that rage all over the world! But at the cross God has condemned this whole exercise, and given his heavenly endorsement to the way of Jesus by raising him from the dead.

So today we’re invited to choose, and there are no guarantees about that choice. If we live by the way of Jesus, we may well end up as he did, victims of violence and injustice. And although we believe he was raised from the dead, we have no proof of our own resurrection, other than his promise, “And I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:44).

Jesus’ kingdom is not like an earthly kingdom, but it is present, here and now, and all who want to enter it can do so, as we put our faith in him and learn the way of life he taught us. But the earthly kingdoms are still present too, of course; Pontius Pilate is still here, pouring scorn on Jesus’ truth and continuing to assert that power enforced by violence is the only real truth. One day, we’re promised, Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. But until that day, we walk by faith, not by sight. All we have to go on is God’s promise.


Is that enough? I guess that’s the question we each have to answer for ourselves. Is Jesus’ version of the truth right, or Pilate’s? And if we think that Jesus’ truth is the right one, are we going to take the risk, and make the decision to live by it?

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