Lent 3, 20 March 22
St Mary’s Lansdowne Road and the Good Shepherd, Mitchley Road
Lent III, 20th March 2022
“What is truth?” so asks Pilate in the final moments before Jesus’ Crucifixion and I want to look at this issue today.
First, who is Pilate? He’s mentioned also in the Gospel we’ve just heard where we’re told he mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices. We don’t any more details about what happened but it was clearly a savage act. Pilate was Governor of Judaea from the year 26/27 until 36/37. We don’t know the precise year when our Lord died on the Cross, but it’s assumed to be the year 33, so it fell somewhere in the middle of Pilate’s reign. We don’t know anything else much about him other than what is seen also in the Gospels, that he didn’t get on with the Jews. Indeed, this was a constant theme of his time in office and he probably shared a lot of the anti-semitic beliefs a lot of the Romans at the time. Jews were seen as being inferior, in part perhaps of the circumcision male babies endured, which was frowned upon, and in part because of their history of being persecuted and weak. These weren’t qualities the Roman Empire looked kindly upon. We know Pilate was eventually dismissed from office because of a bad decision he made concerning a Samaritan revolt.
Sometimes in the Christian tradition he is exonerated for his part in the death of the Lord. He’s seen as weak and disinterested. When the High Priests first take Jesus to him on the evening of Maundy Thursday, Pilate says, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law,” (St John 18:31). He washes his hands of the problem, as we commemorate at the First Station of the Cross. This was perhaps a useful perspective to put on things as the first Christian navigated how they were to relate to the Roman Empire, of whom Pilate was a very visible symbol. On the one hand, God’s kingdom is not of this world and there is a division between what we owe the secular authorities and what we owe to Christ and His Church: “give to Ceasar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (St Mark 12:17). Yet our prayers are to be concerned with those same caesars and secular authorities, for St Paul bids Timothy in his first letter to him in the New Testament to make supplication “for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” (I Timothy 2:2). Our faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t bedevil the governing authorities whoever they are.
In St John’s Gospel, which we hear at length on Good Friday at the Solemn Liturgy, we particularly hear the details of Our Lord’s conversation with Pilate. Jesus is infuriating Pilate by not replying as to whether He is a King or not. Eventually Jesus explains His mission: “to testify to the truth. Everyone belongs to the truth who listens to my voice,” (St John 18:37). Pilate response is simply, “What is truth?” And then Pilate leaves the room, says Jesus is innocent and reminds the crowds outside his palace that there was a custom of releasing someone at the festival, which is the next attempt by Pilate to make Jesus someone else’s problem. But note, Pilate doesn’t say what is the truth? He’s given up caring about whether Jesus is a King or not; whether He’s done anything wrong or not; whose problem He really is. The question is deeper than that; it’s is there any such thing as the truth? Can we say, Pilate is asking, can we say anything is right or wrong.
The belief that truth is subjective, that there is no such thing as truth is becoming increasingly widespread in society. People see religion as a hobby and believe that it’s fine if you’re a Christian but that doesn’t mean there’s necessarily anything in it for me. The superabundance of information available through the media has meant people end up discussing issues which cannot be proved one way or the other and so it is increasingly difficult to say things with certainty. We in turn become less trusting, losing something of our calling to be like little children (St Matthew 18:3).
With the increasing number of supposed truths out there it is much more likely that people will live at war with each other. This permissiveness inevitably leads to conflict for if it is constantly a battle between my truth and your truth and both can be dignified with the label “truth” then they’re so strong there can only be an explosion, an argument about who can be or do or say what. Whereas if there’s a recognition that what people are arguing over is a matter of opinion: “I believe this but it’s fine that you believe that,” then there is room for good disagreement, for patience, for kindness, for diversity.
In contrast we as Christians recognise there is such a thing as truth. Jesus is the truth, the way and the life, not a truth among many, take your pick, but the Truth (St John 14:6). In our first reading we heard Moses’ first encounter with God in the bush blazing that was not burnt up. God is responding to the sufferings of His people, enchained in slavery in Egypt and He sends Moses to deliver them from these problems. Moses asks God whom He should say sent him and the response comes, “I AM who I am.” It’s a curious reply. What an odd name?! But it reveals the profound truth that God does not simply exist, He is existence. God does not simply speak truth, He is the Truth.
I want to think about just two beautiful consequences from this: the first is that evil doesn’t really exist. There’s always the danger that we think we’re caught up in some sort of comic book reality where Superman can always be weakened by Kryptonite or Spider Man won’t be as strong as Dr Octavius or whoever the latest baddie is. In such a world good and evil have equal power and there’s always the tension about who will win. In the real world, however, we know God can only ever win. At times in our lives we deny God that victory because we choose to follow an order at war with Him, but, yes, my friends, death has lost its sting (I Corinthians 15:50), salvation and power have now been won by our God (Revelation 12:10), He is our strength and our song (Exodus 15:2). When then we are tempted to commit sin and it seems irresistible, we can remember that it only looks powerful. In reality, it is empty. No glory, no hope, no happiness, not meant to endure.
When children come to visit Church on school visits from local community primary schools I always give them the chance to ask questions. One that often pops up is “Who made God?” To which, of course, the answer is that no one made God. He is existence and therefore no one existed prior to Him so as to be in a position to make Him. St John reflects on this with reference to Christ in the opening verses of his Gospel: “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being” (St John 1:3).
The second beautiful truth to flow from this fact that God is pure existence is that everyone and everything experiences God, His love and His generosity simply, through the fact of their existence. God makes the sun to rise on the righteous and the wicked alike (St Matthew 5:45). But this can also be frustrating because we see people enjoying good lives and basking in the gifts He’s given while not loving Him and maybe even saying how ridiculous it is that people believe in Him and go to Church. God’s generous love must never lead us to despair though, but always cause us to give thanks and to model ourselves on that same love. The calling to a higher standard of behaviour is there in our second read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul is considering the people whom Moses led out of Egypt and observing that they “were all baptised into Moses in this cloud and in this sea; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the spiritual drink … [and] in spite of this, most of them failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.” Ingratitude in response to the blessings of God leads only to death, to non-existence.
In the Gospel Jesus goes on to tell a parable of someone who owned a vineyard and observed, “Look here, for three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none.” Such a situation is frustrating. I’m mindful of some of the conversations I have with people, if I’m honest, encouraging folk back to Church and in other situations, and fruit there is none. You may have other situations in your mind where fruit seems to be far from coming while it is sought for a long period. There may be some significance in the length of time mentioned - three years - for this is traditionally seen as the length of time between our Lord’s Baptism and His Crucifixion, known as His public ministry. Yet, the people do not turn to Him with all their hearts. Some may have been glad to have found an entertainer, but they will not leave their worldly cares behind and follow Him.
There are plenty of examples, current and historical, where knowing Jesus is the Truth has led people to be unkind to all those who disagree. Our certainty that Jesus is the only way to the Father is not be a reason for arrogance or unpleasantness but should rather mean we follow our Saviour in all humility and service, striving for justice, modelling compassion. In his despair of the situation Pilate washes his hands and doesn’t mind much whether things are true or not he just wants a simple life. May this never be said of us so that we bear fruit in plenty, planted in the courts of the Lord and watered by His grace.