Today we continue with John’s story of Jesus’ arrest and trial with no break from last week; today’s scene with Jesus before Pontius Pilate comes right after Peter denies being a disciple of Jesus. And the central question that this scene revolves around is, “What is truth?” This is a question that seems to reverberate down through the centuries to our society today, with “fake news” and “alternative facts”. But lest you think this is a new problem that has come up within the last few years, I found a clip online of Stephen Colbert from 2005, when he was still doing “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, where he coins the word, “truthiness”. What Colbert mocks in this clip is how we define truth in our society: whether we believe that something is truth based on the facts before us, or whether we believe that something is truth based on the feelings we have in our gut. And this should give us pause to think. When presented with facts, evidence-based facts, that are contrary to our world view, do we believe those facts? Or do we immediately cry out, “No, that can’t be right. It’s fake news, and I’m going to go find some group who will reassure me that it’s wrong so that my view of the world will not be broken.” No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we all do this to some extent. But these days it seems more pronounced than ever. We don’t know what truth really is anymore, and so we echo Pontius Pilate’s disdainful, sarcastic question, “What is truth?”
But let’s go back to the first century for a moment and find out a little bit more about Pontius Pilate. After all, if you look at our creeds, there are only two human beings named in them besides Jesus: Mary, the woman who gave birth to Jesus, and Pontius Pilate, who was the one who gave the order for Jesus to be crucified. We hear a lot about Mary in the Scriptures, but not so much about who Pontius Pilate was outside of being the Roman governor who authorized Jesus’ death on the cross. And in order to understand his question, “What is truth?” I think we need to know a little bit more about the man.
The first thing to understand is this: Romans, in general, did not understand the Jewish devotion to one God. They also did not understand why the Jewish faith prohibited making images. In all of the other cultures that the Romans conquered, those cultures simply added the Roman gods to their own, and made idols of the Roman gods to put next to their own. But the Jewish culture and faith was different: the Jewish people insisted on worshiping one God alone and on not making images. When Roman officials discovered that entering Jerusalem with images could cause the people there to riot, they made an exception in their usual practice and removed the images from the shields and other paraphernalia of Roman soldiers. Pontius Pilate, however, decided not to follow this practice, and he allowed the images to once again come in to Jerusalem. He did not relent until he discovered that the Jewish people were ready to die rather than allow the images in their city, and he finally had them removed. So, already he was off to a bad start in his rule of the people. Furthermore, Pontius Pilate had a reputation for being cruel and for insulting the people that he ruled. So it is rather confusing, given his reputation, that he would try to let Jesus go free rather than have him crucified.
But, I think that we miss something in this scene if all we see is a Roman governor who is bewildered at why the people would want to have Jesus crucified. In the first part of the conversation, we see a Pilate who is utterly bored with and dismissive of these people that he does not understand. “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The only reason that Pilate continues on with the conversation is because the Jewish people, under Roman law, are not allowed to put anyone to death. But after questioning Jesus, Pilate finds no reason to have him put to death. Jesus has not admitted to leading an active rebellion against Rome, which is all the Roman officials were really concerned about. But, in the end, Pilate goes along with what the people want, simply because he does not want to be blamed for causing another riot. Rome is watching him, after all, and if Rome doesn’t think he’s doing a good job, then he could be removed from his position of power. And he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t think Jesus is innocent because he’s convinced by anything that Jesus tells him. His sole concern is this: What action of his will keep the people under his control from rioting and making him look bad to Rome?
That is the truth for Pilate: he is a man who doesn’t want to be removed from his position of power. And so, when Jesus says to him that he came into the world to testify to the truth, Pilate asks him that famous question, “What is truth?” Because for Pilate, the truth is that he is enslaved by the power structures of his day and he can see no way out of them, but instead must do what he can to try and survive. But what Jesus testifies to is a different truth: the truth that God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son. And Jesus is that Son of God, the one who John names as the Word, the one who was in the beginning with God, and the one who brings abundant life to his disciples. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep, the one who is the light who overcomes the darkness. That is the truth that Jesus testifies to, the truth that the world cannot see.
In a world that asks the same question that Pilate did, “What is truth?”, how do we see that Jesus is the truth? And what does it look like for Jesus to be the truth in a world where even Christians of different persuasions seem to disagree on how to live by what Jesus taught? I’d like to share with you about the movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is out in theaters now and is adapted from Madeleine L’Engle’s book of the same name. In this story, three children are charged with traveling through the universe to find their father, who is trapped on a planet that has given in to evil. Their angelic helpers give them the command to fight the darkness with light. And when Charles Wallace, the youngest of the children, is caught up in and trapped by the evil, Meg, his sister, discovers that the only way to rescue him is by giving him her love. And I think that goes along well with how the Gospel of John describes who Jesus is. And that is how we determine what the true voice of Jesus is amidst all of the competing claims in our culture: Jesus is the voice that brings light and love.
The love that Jesus shows for the world is the sacrificial love that would do anything so that the beloved might live. In our society, true love for one another would mean that, even though the government gives us the right to own guns, we would be willing to sacrifice the right to own certain types of guns because we love our children so much, that we want to give them the best chance we can to help them live a full and abundant life. Sacrificial love would mean that, even though immigrants may have violated the law of the United States by the way in which they came here, we as Christians have mercy upon them, try to understand why they felt they had to flee their own country, and do what we can to help them to live full and healthy lives. The truth that Jesus testifies to is that God loves the world and every single life that is within the world: from the baby conceived in the mother’s womb, to the single mother with three kids trying to make ends meet, to the Mexican immigrant family fleeing gang violence on the desperate chance that they might be safe in the United States, to the children in our schools wondering if they will come home from school or will be shot that day, to you and to me. Jesus stands in front of Pontius Pilate and says, “Don’t you think I could command an army to come and free me? But I’m not going to, because that’s not how God’s kingdom works. God’s kingdom works on love, and even you, Pontius Pilate, the one who will sentence me to die on that cross—even you are loved by God. And that is the truth to which I testify. And that is the truth for which I will give my life.”
One final thought: Jesus is taken from his hearing with the high priest to Pontius Pilate right after the cock crows, and just as morning is breaking. He testifies to the truth of God’s love for the world right as the sun is rising, bringing daylight to the world after a long, dark night of sorrow. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” When we follow in Jesus’ way, the way of sacrificial love for one another, we do not stumble about in the dark, but rather, we walk in light. And as we show love for one another, we also bring light to the people and to the world around us. So, as we go about our daily lives this week, let us walk in that light, remembering that we are beloved by God, and so is everyone we meet. Let us show that love and that light to everyone we meet. Amen.