“What is truth?” John 18:38
“What is truth?” It is hard to hear the Roman governor of the province of Judea, Pontius Pilate, asking Jesus that question, “What is truth?” without some hint of skepticism in his voice. After all, Pilate is caught up in the political bind of his obligation to operate within the limits of the law and to keep the Pax Romana, the peace of the Roman Empire (which is hardly peaceful), while the provincial powers are urging this man’s death and the crowd outside the praetorium is getting all stirred up. A nasty political situation could come of this.
Pilate also suspects that there is not enough substance to the charges brought against Jesus to warrant his death and the motives are suspect. The accused Jesus speaks of having a kingdom that is not of this world and coming to this world to testify to the truth. Strange man. It is clear that this Jew is threatening the power of the religious authorities, and there have been enough so-called messiahs and political instigators messing with Roman authority and order. Messy stuff and potentially dangerous. That is certainly a truth that calls for careful handling. It is the kind of situation that can affect his career.
We know from all four gospel accounts that Pilate is torn between the truth of his perception of Jesus’ innocence and the demands of the invested religious and political powers of his time and locality. He allows flogging and the humiliation of Jesus, but is still unable to appease Jesus’ enemies. Pilate ends up making the politically expedient decision to turn Jesus over for crucifixion.
And here we begin to ponder a deeper question about truth. What does the crucifixion of Jesus mean?
Someone in this church building once asked me the question, “Where is the body?” She had Roman Catholic roots and was used to seeing a crucifix in the sanctuary of the church. For someone raised in that tradition it was an important symbol – a Good Friday symbol. Jesus, the Son of God, was treated as a criminal and submitted to having his body defiled and tortured and nailed to a cross. Then…he…died. Really.
Now, that is scandalous in all kinds of ways. It is even more scandalous than talking about an unwed mother giving birth to a baby that is also God.
Some of our people would likely find that a crucifix, a cross with Jesus’ body hanging on it, well, unsuitable for sensitive people and children. It might upset them. And I hope that it does! We are supposed to be upset! But most protestant-leaning churches sanitize things and focus on an empty cross, or a cross with Jesus robed in priestly vestments. Not a naked, dead or dying man hanging helplessly in the center of our vision.
Early in Christian thinking various people denied either that Jesus was really human or really divine. Some argued that Jesus didn’t really die (if he was God) but only appeared to do so. His death was an illusion and some sources had the real disembodied Jesus laughing at the crucifixion scene from a distance. Others argued that only the human part of Jesus died but the Spirit fled before death. Either way, it was scandalous to believe that Jesus Christ died, fully a human being and also fully divine. Does our sense of meaning have to be so earthy, so embodied, and at the same time so holy? Some can’t deal with that messiness. John Fire Lamedeer, a Lakota holy man was puzzled why people would worship a dead God on a cross. Who could blame him? It seems mad. We want a powerful God, don’t we?
Sometimes we have tried to make sense of this day and this body on a cross by saying that God, who is holy, sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins. Our hymns and liturgies are filled with this kind of language. Yet, as I sit with people in spiritual guidance sessions over many years I hear of their revulsion at such an image of God. What kind of God requires the life of his son to appease his wrath and get justice for our sins? Surely there must be some other way of viewing this cross with this body of Jesus on it.
And yet, we see human sin and evil clearly at work in the crucifixion of Jesus. And what person among us in later childhood or beyond with a conscience does not become increasingly aware of the systems of dominance and oppression that still control lives and deal suffering and death in our world? This is big sin…systemic sin and evil. The truth of the crucified Jesus surely must expand beyond simple personal piety and relief from our little sins.
The gospels all testify to Jesus engaged in ministry focused on certain things: healing people who sought it, feeding the hungry, forgiving sins, and teaching about God’s love and God’s realm breaking through in this world. He also challenged those who were in positions of authority who were self-serving and lacked compassionate responses to human needs. His ministry addressed the whole of us as human beings.
In all this we see God’s compassionate actions at work in and through Jesus. We do not get the message of a God of wrath focused on our sinfulness, but a God that works for humanity’s health and wholeness and liberation. If Jesus’ life expresses those dimensions of God’s care for us is there a way that the cross also represents this? Yes!
Just as Jesus’ life ministry challenges the powers that be that cause oppression, suffering, and death and shows the reign of God breaking through in human history – so his refusal to give in to those powers takes him to his death but also bears witness to God’s compassionate presence in the face of suffering and death. Through Jesus we see a new vision of God’s compassionate union with we who are flesh and blood. In that fateful moment of the suffering and death of Jesus, God too becomes united with us in our experiences of suffering, oppression, and death. Where is God? God is united with all who experience human frailty, hunger, healing needs for our bodies and minds and spirits, suffering, marginalization, oppression, and death. God is with us and we are called turn away from our complicity in injustice, to be with each other in compassion, and to work for upholding the dignity of all human beings and the healing of our planet.
The Episcopal Church House of Bishops recently sent out a “Word to the Church” which reads in part:
“On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right. In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us… We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else. We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.”
And now we are also only a few days beyond the bombings that occurred in Brussels. How important it is to mourn with those that mourn, and to speak and act against such violence from Islamic State without passing the anger born from anxiety on to Muslims and their communities.
Each of the four gospels presents a particular vision of Jesus and his life. Today’s gospel writer, John, has his own slant on who is Jesus and what is the meaning of the crucifixion. For John, if you want to know what God is like and what God is doing, look at Jesus. Jesus fully reveals God’s mission and presence in human history and the cross is the fulcrum of that event. Facing crucifixion, Jesus refused to use violent force and the instruments of evil to overcome evil. Instead he endured the agony of the cross and death without resorting to the ways of the corrupt powers of domination or being victimized by them. Jesus’ last words, “It is finished!” are an exclamation of triumph and victory on the cross. The grip that the powers of evil and death had over humans was overcome at his crucifixion.
This victory of Jesus on the cross opens a “third way” for us. We need not pass on the evil visited on us, nor capitulate to evil. We can follow Jesus’ way of resisting evil and acting from compassion, drawing on the spiritual strength of God’s presence and union with us.
What is truth? The Christian response goes far beyond a cynical political strategy. On this day we stand witness to the body of a tortured and dead man we dare call the Son of God – and to all those bodies of the women and men and children in the world who are tortured, oppressed, killed, and otherwise unjustly acted upon. We also stand witness to the many, many people whom God’s love empowers to confront such abuses, and to a liberating Spirit that gives us a vision that far exceeds political or religious self-interests – or even the grave.