All we have is a man hanging on a tree

John 18:28-40

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (Read the whole passage)

It has been quite the journey through the lenten wilderness. We began not in the wilderness of temptation, but the wilderness of grief, loss and death with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And then we skipped forward to Maundy Thursday with Peter as objected to Jesus’ washing of his feet. Last week, we saw the parallel stories of Peter and Jesus as each was put on trial – where Jesus stood firmly rooted in the face of the moving target of truth, and Peter denied his master and teacher to save his own skin.

These stories have not been the usual stories of Lent – the Narrative Lectionary that we are exploring this winter is taking us through a different lenten wilderness than normal. And today we skip ahead again to that chaotic time between the Last Supper and Crucifixion as Jesus is arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

Today, we go along with Jesus to see Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The crowds and temple authorities demand that Jesus be put to death for the crime of heresy. And the interaction that follows is one we will hear again on Good Friday… as part of the passion. We know where this is heading, each trial, each set of questions marches Jesus and us forward to the cross.

But it is not Good Friday today, we are still in Lent. There are still a few weeks left in our lenten journey. So we hear this story not as just one step on the way to the cross, but rather with lenten ears listening out in the revealing wilderness.

As Pilate and Jesus’ speak today, their exchange is unusual. Unusual in the sense that Pilate’s approach and reaction to Jesus is unlike what has come before. From the moment that Jesus processed into Jerusalem on a donkey, to his arrest and questioning before the temple authorities, the anger and rage against him builds. The crowds and mobs are out for blood, and the temple authorities are stoking the rage in order to rid themselves of a threat to their power.

So when Jesus finally ends up before Pilate, it is the top of the food chain. There is no one in Judea with more power than Pilate. Pilate might answer to Caesar, but Caesar is far away in Rome.

Knowing his power, Pilate seems nothing more than mildly curious about Jesus, if not annoyed by having to deal with someone the local religious zealots call a heretic. Pilate tries to figure out who Jesus is,

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Not a question of religious doctrine, but a question of political power. Pilate’s concern is whether or not Jesus might represent a threat to peace in Judea. But Jesus turns the question back on Pilate and steers the conversation back to matters of doctrine and faith. Jesus states he is has come into the world to be a king but not an earthly king, and not king of an earthly Kingdom.

Certainly listening to Jesus, Pilate must have wondered why he had been woken from sleep to deal with this guy. Pilate could care less about Jewish religious beliefs, yet here he is dealing with some zealot who claims to be the King of the heavenly kingdom of truth. Pilate probably thought that Jesus was nuts.

“What is truth?” he asks.

Pilate, a good son of the empire, would have been schooled in greek philosophy. He would have believed that truth is not something found in flesh and blood, in the abstract unknowable things of the universe.

But Pilate isn’t debating philosophy. He is dismissing Jesus.

Pilate isn’t asking what truth is, but pointing out Jesus’ predicament,

“What does the truth really matter here buddy, you are about to die.”

It is often the case that we can see ourselves in the people around Jesus. Whether it is disciples who sometimes struggle to get it, people who are in need of healing and reconciliation encountering Jesus, or religious folk who get upset with Jesus as he upsets our ways to doing things.

But Pilate’s apathy and dismissal of Jesus is probably not something we easily see ourselves in. Yet, there is something familiar about it.

As Pilate seems to be asking Jesus, “Why does any of this matter, what good will it be to you when you are dead?” we know what it is like to be asked that question.

As 21st Century Christians, our world has been pushing back on us with that question for a while now. And just as Jesus appeared like a nut to Pilate, Christians too have begun to seem a bit nutty to a lot of the world.

Whether it is the culture wars over morality questions that the rest of the world seems to have settled, like gender roles, abortion, same-sex marriage and so on. Or whether it is our propensity over the past decades to condemn and judge non-believers. Or whether it is how many Christians these days have abandoned all those strongly held beliefs in order to cozy up to power…

And while we as Lutherans night not identify with that kind of Christianity, our credibility is equally challenged when it comes to the core parts of our faith, like Jesus being God, and the resurrection and salvation.

The world is saying just as much to us as any Christian group, “Why does any of that stuff matter, what good is it to you when you are dying?”

It is easy for us to wonder what our role in the world is anymore. It is easy for us to feel as though this faith of ours has no impact, that we are gathering together in order to proclaim things that no one cares about.

And all of a sudden, this lenten wilderness journey of ours, the one that strips back all the covers that hide our flaws and failings finally reveals to us our own questioning, our own doubts, our own apathy. If the world says that our message, our truth doesn’t matter because we are dying… maybe all the trouble we go to believing this stuff isn’t worth it. Maybe Pilate is right.

Pilate tries to send Jesus away, to make him disappear, to suggest that those overly religious jews should stop caring about this guy who claims to be king of a heavenly kingdom.

But mobs and religious authorities won’t allow it…. they want blood. And they will have it.

Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate’s question, but they both know that this situation is leading towards one end.

Jesus’ silence is an answer to Pilate’s dismissive comment,

“What does this truth matter if you are going to die.”

It is as if Jesus is saying,

“The truth matters precisely because I am going to die.”

In fact, it is what Jesus has been saying all along.

He is going to die for the truth.

And Jesus is going to die because everything is going to die.
Pilate, the mobs, the disciples.
The Jews, the Romans.
All humanity and all creation.
All of it is going to die.

The truth matters precisely because Jesus is on the way to the cross.

The truth of God’s love and mercy and grace given to dying people, given to a dying creation.

The power of death that the mobs and temple authorities cry out for.
The power of death that Pilate holds over Jesus’ head.
The power to kill that is humanity’s greatest power… isn’t really power at all.
The power to kill isn’t truly power when we are all dying anyways.

But God’s mercy.
But God’s forgiveness.
But God’s love.
But God’s life.

That is the truth that matters.

Because, as Martin Luther said, all we truly have is a man hanging on a tree.

Because the only thing that means something to the power of death, is the new life that God brings into the world.

So what is truth, even when we are dying?
It is truth of empty tombs and terrified women.
It is the truth of fearful disciples meeting their master behind locked doors.
It is the truth of lost and lonely followers recognizing the risen One in the breaking of the bread.

And on the days when we almost might agree with Pilate, when we feel like giving up to a world that doesn’t think we matter.

Jesus reminds us that the church is dying indeed.
And that we are dying, and the world is dying.

But Jesus reminds us of the only truth that matters,
The only truth that means anything to a dying world,
The truth revealed to us in the Lenten wilderness.
The truth of God’s mercy and absolution given to sinners like us.
The truth of God’s Word of life proclaimed to the walking dead like us.
The truth of Christ’s body given to a dying a church like us.

What is truth?

Christ crucified and dead with us, with all of creation.
And Christ risen and alive with us, making all creation new.


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