Good Friday April 22, 2011

John 18:1-19:42                                                                                                                                                                   

I’ve never watched one of those reality TV shows, where people are cast on tropical islands to fend for themselves, voting one another “off the island” until an ultimate winner is left. Maybe in retirement I’ll come to that, but in my ministry I find there is quite enough “reality” just in everyday life. Because I have only a vague, hearsay notion of these “off the island” shows, I don’t know whether you’re allowed to take anything with you to the island. But supposing you are, what would I take? What one thing?

 Well, narrowed down to just one thing, I would have to say the Bible. (A choice that would no doubt ensure that I would be the first person voted off the island!) And if I were pressed to choose just one part of the Bible, it would be the Passion according to St. John, what we just read. As one commentator has said of John’s Passion narrative:

From beginning to end, artistry and ideology have consciously shaped traditions grounded in historical memory for purposes unique to this particular story of Jesus. Numerous details have been included that are nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament. Precise descriptions and electrifying dialogue merge to produce one of the most compelling and powerful stories of courage and commitment, betrayal and fear, politics and passion known to humankind. If we have not learned to find the importance of each word and phrase . . . , we will largely miss the carefully nuanced message of the Johannine Passion narrative. But if we do pay close attention, the story will lead us to the heart of humanity’s most compelling questions, to a forked road down which we must choose our own path[i].

Thus the reason I would choose John’s Passion to take to my desert island. For if there is one thing in life we all need, it is a story that guides us in choosing the right fork in the road of life.

In John’s version of the Passion, Church and State are not opposed, but rather united in their opposition to Jesus. Both a company of Roman soldiers and also a detachment of temple police come out in the night to arrest Jesus. There is not one but two trials: before Caiaphas the high priest and before Pilate the Roman governor. In other words, Church and State together comprise “the world,” as in Jesus’ statement, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

“The world” is arrayed against Jesus and he stands alone in his Passion – his trials, suffering and death – alone, that is, in worldly terms. I say alone in worldly terms, because of course in John’s portrayal Jesus is not alone; he stands surrounded by the saints and angels, secure in that other “kingdom,” the kingdom of his Father, the kingdom of God. The fork in the road which this high drama illuminates for us is the fork at which we must choose which kingdom to give our allegiance to: that of this world or that of God.

The key point in the drama comes when Pilate asks the question, “What is truth?” Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said helpfully that truth is what connects us to reality.[ii] If you think about that a bit you will see what the Archbishop means. We seek, all of us, for something or someone that will help us make sense of the reality in which we live: make sense, understand, come to terms with, who we are, where we are, what life is about. We seek the truth that will “connect” us, by which we can live our lives, which will “save” us. For the religious authorities, Caiaphas, truth was the power system or “kingdom” over which he presided (and you can easily translate that into the religious authorities of today, whether Christian or otherwise). For Pilate, truth was the Roman imperial power system, the Roman “kingdom,” its world view (and again, you can transpose that into today’s political and economic power systems).

Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king. He is trying to determine what power system Jesus represents, and whether it is a threat to Rome. Jesus answers him, “You say that I am a king.” In other words, you are thinking in worldly terms. But “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.” And then Pilate’s response: “What is truth?”

Imagine the various ways great actors might read that line: cynically, wearily, with disgust, impatience. Maybe as though they were truly interested in the answer, but I think not. The point here, dramatically, is to underline the irony. For Truth is standing right in front of Pilate, in the person of Jesus Christ. In him is embodied, as all of St. John’s gospel has been working to show us, both the truth of God and the truth of we ourselves, of humankind. Jesus is the Truth that connects us to reality.

Let’s take a quick trip back to our desert island TV reality shows. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that these programs are called reality shows. In a way they’re little Passion dramas, aren’t they? They’re designed to give us vicarious experiences of forks in the road, decisions in life. Because they’re a modern American version of Passion dramas, they exalt sex and popularity, money and power over others – the things our culture values, the “truths” of the kingdom of this world. And they work by voting people off the island – symbolically putting them to death.

Which, coming back around the circle, makes us realize that this is exactly what was going on with Jesus too. He was being voted off the island of this world by Church (Caiaphas), State (Pilate) and the crowd – us “viewers” who shout “crucify him.” So off he goes, death on the Cross. And the implication is that we survive – we and the kingdom of this world to which we give allegiance.

And yet, of course, we realize – or I hope we realize – that there has been a whole other, parallel, trial going on: the trial before the throne of the Father, in the kingdom God. And in this trial the world and its values are condemned and Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God. In this kingdom it is love that counts, not power. Self-giving, non-violence, inviting in rather than casting out. Trust, not fear. Hope, not despair. Cooperation over competition. A different kingdom. A kingdom of Truth, offered to us in Jesus the Christ.

So here, on Good Friday, is our fork in the road. The heart of humanity’s most compelling questions. What is Truth? Which path do we choose?


[i] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994) p. 371.

[ii] I can’t immediately locate where I discovered this helpful observation, but I believe it is somewhere in a wonderful essay, “Anglican Approaches to St John’s Gospel,” in Williams, Anglican Identities (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2003).

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