The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth . . . AMEN.
“What is truth?” this is Pilate’s famous question from the verse that directly follows today’s reading. What is truth? A good question, when asked sincerely. This week we will be reading a script of the children’s tale “Pinocchio”, and examining that question of truth, of morality, humanity and mystery. This is not just a story for children; these topics trouble us, today, in life and in leadership.
They are good topics to consider on this, “Christ the King Sunday”. To what kind of leadership, what kind of governing, does God call us? The books of Samuel 1 & 2 explore that theme — they examine the importance and the challenge of good government, as well as the importance of relationships, with one another, and with God, and how these two things are connected. Remember that God both chose and then rejected King Saul. And that King David, the fullest Biblical example of both the “glory and tragedy” 1 of the monarchy, makes mistakes in his relationships as a husband, father and King, mistakes which affect the people of Israel. Yet God, as David concludes at the end of his life, is still able — able to do good for the people, despite those mistakes. And from the line of David, Jesus is born, the Christ, the one who embodies the reign of God. 1 The New Interpreters’ Study Bible, pg. 440
We hear from two different “John’s” today: in Revelations, written sometime in the first century of the Jesus Movement, written by a Palestinian Christian, living in exile on the island of Patmos, during a time when Roman Emperors were oppressing Jews and Christians. This John uses the language of “apokalypsis” — a literary form meaning “to reveal what is hidden”, using symbolic language to describe what is seen as the end times in dualistic terms. We hear that the Christ will rule and have dominion, but how? Differently than the oppressive imperialists, we know, but how so?
The writer of John’s Gospel “fleshes out” the story of Jesus’ leadership by making room for both incarnation — for real, flesh and blood stories — as well as for the
breadth of mystery. Written from around the time after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, John’s Gospel broadens the perspectives of the previous Gospels, and describes Jesus as a leader who is both in this world, and not of this world; as one both fully God and fully human, journeying beside us.
When Pilate interrogates Jesus, asking him to proclaim himself a “king”, he is doing so as a politician, baiting Jesus to commit treason against Rome. Jesus directs the focus to Pilate’s motives: is he truly asking the question, for himself? Jesus is not letting Pilate off the hook, asking him to look within. This is a dramatic moment, full of possibility, and Pilate, concerned mostly with power and manipulation, simply shrugs. “What is truth?” he says as he shifts the blame.
In a world run by power and politics, the truth can become very, very “relative”. We can give up on our quest — however imperfect — to pursue what is right and true. My favorite process theologian, Catherine Keller, in her book “On the Mystery — Discerning God in Process” 2 , talks about pursuing a middle way,
between being “dissolute”, saying “eh, its all relative, what does it matter?”, and being “absolute”, thinking, “there is only one truth, and only I and my group have it. We see many examples of both those ways of being in today’s world, don’t we?
Keller instead suggests a way that she calls “Resolute”; one in which we dig deep, ask the tough questions, and pursue the answers. One in which we enter into the Mystery, rather than trying to deny it or put it in a box and label it. Jesus says “I am the Way” not “I am the Wall”; he invites us to follow him, telling us that the Truth, that the journey, will set us free. And he creates that middle way when he is crucified, nailed to the twin arms of the Dissolute and the Absolute — between the relativism of the Roman Empire, and the absolutism of religious fundamentalism — Jesus invites us into the mystery. Knowing that it will require courage from us, that it will require process, and self reflection, that it will ask us to give up what we think we know, and try a new way, a new movement: The Jesus Movement.
So often in John’s Gospel, Jesus is willing to talk about the hard questions, and to wrestle with others to finding a new way. Say for example, at the well. 2 Keller, Catherine, On the Mystery, (2008: Fortress Press, Minneapolis), “Pilate’s Shrug”, Pgs. 27-45
In his very long conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus debates the “truths” of two different ways of worship and tells her and us that we may all worship God in Spirit and in Truth. The Spirit moves and we cannot control it. The Spirit does not belong to any one person, or gender, or culture. Jesus models for us the way of finding the truth — of belonging to the truth – through relationships, through conversations, talking and truly listening to others.
The Truth cannot ever, ever be found through violence. The next things that happens to Jesus is that Pilate has him flogged; tortured so that he would tell “the truth”. Pilate could not look within, he could not accept a difficult truth, and so he killed it. How often in our world, even today, do people oppress, marginalize, or even kill those whom they do not understand, rather than doing the hard work of looking within, of self-transformation and relationship?
Later today, we will join with our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions to pray and sing and give thanks to God. We will celebrate the many truths that we share and which connect us, rather than putting up walls that will divide us. We will embrace the way of Jesus, a leader, a King, who rules through relationships, never insisting on “his way”, but inviting us to journey with him along the way — the way to truth, to peace, to connection, to love and to freedom.
And all of God’s travelers said together, AMEN.