Tag Archives: truth

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.


5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline

Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs,  and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.

As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.

The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.

And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”

1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission. 

I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.

“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.

2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)

There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.

As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.

We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.

3 God just might be calling us to die. 

So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.

What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.

Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.

4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission. 

Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.

And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.

But the mission didn’t change.

Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.

I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.

We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.

5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming. 

Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.

We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.

Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.

Admitting the truth to our decline.

Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.

The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.

But that is okay.

The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.

And that is the most important truth of all.

Are churches really facing up to their decline? What other truths are we failing to admit? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker