A Sermon for Good Friday
Based on John 18:38
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
At the very beginning of John’s Gospel – we read it on Christmas Eve – the writer makes the statement: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is a magnificent confession, a Christian one, that claims to have witnessed what Jesus in his lifetime meant to people. Now today, on Good Friday, we hear that word “truth” again toward the end of John’s Gospel, but this time it is spoken in cynicism, “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate had the Truth right in front of him, and he still wants to know “what is truth?”
Truth was an important thing for Jesus, and he was upfront about it. Earlier in John’s Gospel he had told some of his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:32). Then a little later he tells them straight out: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). Of course, that is something Jesus’ opponents cannot see, and in chapter 5 he has a discussion with them about lying and truth-telling. They don’t want the truth, Jesus tells them; they’d rather have the lie.
So at the end of John’s Gospel a dramatic scene occurs. It is in Pilate’s headquarters, when Jesus has been taken, and a discussion ensues about the truth. Jesus is accused of being a criminal, and, like a good judge, Pilate wants to find out what his crime is. He’s heard the accusation that Jesus is an enemy of Rome, an insurrectionist who claims to be King of the Jews. So Pilate wants to hear it from the prisoner himself.
At first Pilate asks the crowd why they don’t judge him according to their own laws, and they answer, “we are not permitted to put anyone to death.” Of course, a few years later, they did execute James, the son of Zebedee, between the changeover from Pilate to the next governor. So somebody, a lot of them, when it was convenient to them, were lying.
So Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” and when Jesus answers him it is quite a different answer than Pilate expects. “Not a worldly king,” Jesus says; “if I were I’d have my armies at your gates. My kingdom is not of this world.” “So you are a king,” Pilate says, missing Jesus’ point. “That’s your word,” says Jesus, “I’m more interested in the truth. I was born for that, and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” But that subject is too much for Pilate, too irrelevant at the moment, and his actions now show it. He caves in to the clamor of the crowd. Public opinion is more important to him than the truth. He finally gives the truth over to be done away with.
So in John’s Gospel the world and the truth are at odds with each other. The world will go with lies, and crucify the Truth. There is no real discussion. The world is so locked into its own opinion, its own values, its own “alternative facts,” that is does away with the truth, even as it stands before its very eyes. So John sees Jesus’ cross as a judgment on this world: “Now is the judgment 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” (12:31-32). “I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer, (because it is the time) of judgment, when the ruler of this world is condemned” (John 16:11). Jesus’ cross was the result of the world’s lies, its rejection of the truth. So Jesus’ cross is a judgment on this world, and yet there is a promise: it will draw all people to himself.
I don’t know about “all people,” but I am drawn to that cross, and I know you are too. But it places a heavy assignment to those who believe in the cross of Jesus. We get to decide about the truth, and how to break through the world’s values and its lies. It’s a hard assignment, but the cross of Jesus calls us do to that.
For instance, we’ve seen a modest revolution going on right now, led by those who face the dangers in our schools and the right to carry weapons. Millions throughout the country, led by children, have marched about that last week. And finally someone, a former Supreme Court justice, has raised the question about whether the Second Amendment gives everyone the right to carry weapons (John Paul Stevens, New York Times, 3/28/18). In fact, he has called for the repeal of the Second Amendment, for the one reason that we have totally misunderstood it. He refers to the statement of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that says that the National Rifle Association has perpetrated a fraud on this country, with the lie that the Second Amendment gives everyone a right to own any kind of weapon they want to have. The Second Amendment – written in the 18th century – allows citizens join militias and bear arms “for the security of the State.” It says nothing about bearing arms for any other purpose, for personal self-security or even for sport. But we can’t even hear such an admonition – the argument passes over our heads – because we’ve accepted the lie that repealing the Second Amendment will take away our right to have any kind of weapon we want. So we get to decide about the truth of what the Second Amendment says or a lie about what some people want it to say. And of course, in the background, we can hear Pilate’s question: “what is truth?”
We know what he did with the truth. He caved in to the clamor of the crowds. He put Jesus on a cross, and that cross has now become a judgment on the world and its values. Yet that cross offers healing, and whenever we proclaim its healing power we are drawn into the danger of it. And tonight I remember someone who suffered its dangers, St. Paul himself, who was drawn to that cross and who said this about it: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things … in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own … but one that comes from faith in Christ…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death … because Christ has made me his own” (Philippians 3:8-12).
So tonight when we hear that question, “What is truth?” we already know the answer. We know who is the Truth, and that if we continue in his word, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free. It is not that we have found it, but that it has found us, and it made us his own.
-- Richard L. Jeske