Text: John 18:33-40: Contemporary Reading (included at the end of the sermon)
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost, the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin Advent – a time of preparation and anticipation for the birth of the Christ child. But first, today, we pause to read from the gospel of John the prelude to Jesus’ crucifixion. I have always found this Sunday to be a bit jolting. Today we contemplate Jesus’ crucifixion as “King of the Jews” and next Sunday we enter the drama of birthing the baby Jesus.
Barbara Lundblad, one of the professors with whom I am doing an independent study at Union Seminary in New York, tells the story of one of her colleague’s memory of growing up in the South and attending church on this Sunday. She recalled how the service would begin with the minister shouting out, “Who is Jesus?” To which the choir would respond in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” Then, she recalls, how little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang – KING OF KINGS…Poor little Mary’s boy. Barbara’s colleague noted, “It was the Black church doing theology.” Who is Jesus? “King of Kings” cannot be the answer without seeing “poor little Mary’s boy.”
Barbara writes of this story: “The images clash. One is big and powerful, the other small and poor. Christ the King Sunday is a dissonant day.” She goes on to say, “Some congregations have changed the name to Reign of Christ Sunday to avoid the male image of ‘king.’ But that doesn’t make much difference if we forget that Jesus is ‘poor little Mary’s boy.’” (I haven’t told her that here at Pullen we just avoid Christ the King Sunday all together.) Barbara says that, “The ancient creeds got something right when they remembered Mary and Pontius Pilate almost in the same breath. Though ‘king’ is male, the word is important because Jesus turned that word on its head. This king is in handcuffs, standing before Pontius Pilate who has the power to condemn him to death or set him free. This Sunday honors Jesus Christ as King, but soon the religious leaders will shout, ‘We have no king but the emperor!’” Barbara concludes, “There is dissonance on this day and in this text.”
For me, this question of what kind of king is Jesus is not the only point of conflict in this text. Another place of disconnect is when Pilate asks Jesus the question, “What is truth?” and for whatever reason, doesn’t stay to hear the answer. Pilate has already asked Jesus other questions, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and “What have you done?” and he has engaged in these questions with Jesus. So why, then, does he pose this final question, a much bigger question, and walk away?
It is tempting to hear Pilate’s question as a world weary, sarcastic jab. After all, Jesus has just made the sweeping statement that, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” and yet, his own people were handing him over to be executed. But we must wonder if Pilate’s question isn’t on some level an honest one since he then goes to the crowd and confesses that he can find no case against Jesus. Surely Pilate was curious about Jesus’ use of the word truth. For the question of truth is not a new question. It wasn’t new to Pilate, to Jesus; it is not new to us. The human spirit, although not always willing to hear truth, or to follow truth, longs for truth.
So what is truth? In a recent survey, 65% of Americans said that there is no absolute truth. 73% of those between the ages of 18 and 25 said there is no absolute truth. There seems to be now a public affirmation of what we have long suspected: that truth is not owned, it is not static, it is not finished. Truth is as dynamic and fluid as the ongoing, continuing and continuous revelation of God’s presence in the world. I say what we have long suspected, because here at Pullen, the phrase, speaking our own truth has become a powerfully resonant one. In fact, we are considering including that phrase in Article 3 of our Constitution, which states our purpose as a community of faith – speaking our truth in love.
As we’ve had this dialogue at Pullen around this phrase, “speaking our own truth,” the basic question of, “What is truth?” has been at the center. It is also at the center of public discourse around religion in our country – what is the truth? who has it right? and who are the gatekeepers to truth? What I believe we mean and value at Pullen when we say speaking our own truth, is that we all have access to truth, and we all experience truth individually. Our very perspective in this world means that we see from a distinct place, and that place holds value and meaning. By expanding those who hold truth, and not constricting them, we believe we achieve a greater truth than any singular, monolithic dogma.
My own truth: love is bigger than hate. Hope is stronger than despair. No one, no matter how much good they’ve done, or how much bad they’ve lived, is outside of God’s grace. Our greatest response to God’s love is to be ourselves. I wonder if truth is best understood not as an abstract principle, or a moralistic concept, but as a person, living fully and completely into their true self. Maybe this is what Jesus was trying to say when he said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…” Truth has to do with who we are and how we are in this world.
It seems to me that there are two take-aways from Pilate’s question of what is truth. One is that sometimes, when faced with truth, we’re not ready to hear it. The second is that truth, whatever that is, is the thing that sets us free. Let me now speak part of my truth and explain how I have learned these lessons through my own life story. Some of you know that I attended college in my hometown. Actually, my father had worked at the college I attended when I was younger, and even after he left that job, many of his friends remained employees of the college. As a freshman, I was no stranger to the campus or to the Gardner Webb community. And yet, like all freshman, I was making new friends, feeling some degree of freedom, and, shall we say, experimenting. As I was completing my freshman year in the spring of 1982, my parents paid me a visit. They too had a question of truth on their minds. My mother took the lead and just laid it all out, “Nancy, are you gay?” I, of course, said, “No! I’m not gay. Why are you asking me that?” You see, I knew what that question and my answer meant. If I had told the truth at that moment, I would have been pulled out of college and likely “rehabilitated” at a facility not of my choosing. Can I get an amen? In all seriousness, it was a painful moment. I knew the truth, and I cannot help but believe that my parents knew the truth as well. But neither I nor they were in a place to trust one another with what the truth would mean. Like Pilate, whether cynical or sincere, on that day the question “What is truth?” was simply too much.
Now, fast forward to the fall of 1992, ten years later when I had been at Pullen Church four months. I went home to try again to answer the question, what is truth. And while my parents no longer had the authority or financial control to change the course of my life, I knew that telling them I was, in fact, gay, would change my life and theirs. But that is what truth does to us, it changes us. And finally, at 29, I was ready for that change. That afternoon, standing in my parent’s kitchen, was a hard afternoon. Being honest didn’t make the truth easy, to say or to hear. It was in that moment, as my mother received my news with grief and despair, that I realized once again that truth can hurt, maybe even more deeply than lies. But here is what else happened that day. Beyond the hurt and beyond the grief, beyond the hardness of that moment, in telling my truth, I was set free – set free to be who I came into this world to be. And, I choose to believe, so were my parents. That’s the other thing about truth – it is the thing that Jesus pointed to in our text. The truth sets us free to be all of who we are called to be.
We can ridicule and criticize Pilate for walking away from Jesus and from truth, but we all do that. It is part of the human condition. But as we leave this story, we prepare for the Advent story, the story of how that walking away from truth gets redeemed. Not in a King, but in poor little Mary’s boy. The gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory. Full of grace and full of truth.” Jesus was the embodiment of truth, and the beginning of our understanding that we, too, are the embodiment of truth. Often it is hard to speak truth, and even harder to hear truth, but this I know, it is truth that sets us free.
Nancy: There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.
Laura: If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. – Mark Twain
Nancy: The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. – Flannery O’Connor
Laura: In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell
Nancy: If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people. – Virginia Woolf
Laura: If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get
either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
– C.S. Lewis
Nancy: You never find yourself until you face the truth. –Pearl Bailey
Laura: Whenever you have truth it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will
be rejected. －Gandhi