What is Truth? (The Reign of Christ)
“What is truth?”
Today is the Sunday we call the Reign of Christ, or sometimes, Christ the King. It’s a curious feast day. It’s only been around for a hundred years, not very long at all in the life of the church. The chosen gospel reading just drops us without warning right into the middle of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. And doesn’t it seem a bit odd that on this Sunday, the one we call, Christ the King, we get to the last line of our readings and the question asked is “What is truth?”
Wouldn’t it make more sense to be asking “What is a king?”
But here’s the irony of this Christian festival. On the day that we celebrate Christ as King, Jesus himself refuses to claim the title of king. Instead he redirects Pilate, and all of us, to the question of truth.
Is Jesus king? Well, yes - and no.
Our scriptures use the image of king for Jesus, especially in the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Revelation that we heard. But Jesus never claimed the title of king for himself. I think that he knew that claiming the title of king was just too dangerous - not for him, but for us. Because the image of king can lead us in the wrong direction. In our world, and even more so in the ancient world, the title of king is all about power structures and power dynamics. The king is the one at the top of the pyramid, the one who dictates what others below him must do, the one who preserves his power at all costs, the one whose followers will fight to save him from defeat. When we start to think of Jesus as king, and even more so, if we ever start to think of the church as his kingdom, well history has taught us that that doesn’t work out so well.
Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, knew all about kings and emperors. He had been appointed by the Roman Emperor. Pilate lived and breathed power dynamics. He was a schemer who could never have survived as a regional governor in the Roman Empire without knowing the ins and the outs of the power structure. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, it’s no innocent question. He’s making a power play. He sees this as an opportunity to humiliate Jesus and his followers, and more importantly, to intimidate and demonstrate his power over his Jewish subjects by crucifying their alleged king.
But Jesus refuses the title. It’s not the first time. Back in chapter 6 of the gospel of John, after Jesus has fed the crowds, the people want to make him king. “But,” John writes, “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
It’s not that calling Jesus ‘king’ is entirely wrong. Jesus is indeed the one sent by God, and God is indeed the Creator of the universe, sovereign and powerful. But to use the title of king for Jesus would take so much deconstruction that it’s probably not worth it. His kingdom after all, is not of this world. It’s not like the kingdoms of this world. It has nothing to do with the power dynamics of an earthly kingdom. And if we think it does, then we, and the church, tend to get ourselves into a whole lot of trouble.
It is interesting to me that Jesus does take the title of Son of Man that we found in our first reading in Daniel, the one who comes from heaven, the one at the side of God, the one to whom God’s glory and dominion are given. But he has to deconstruct that title as well. In Daniel we read that all peoples and nations should serve the Son of Man. But Jesus himself tells us in the gospel of Mark that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. A deconstruction. A reorientation.
Jesus does the same sort of thing in his trial before Pilate.
Pilate asks “So are you a king?”
Jesus redirects, reorients:
“That’s what you say, you say I am a king. But here’s what I say: for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Then he adds a curious thing: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
What does it mean to belong to the truth?
What is this truth to which Jesus testifies?
What is truth?
Sometimes we think of truth as the facts, as true statements. 2 + 2 = 4. The earth is round, not flat. These things are true. But are these truths that you can belong to? What does it mean to belong to the truth? That sounds kind of relational to me. Can I have a relationship with the truth?
I can if the truth is a person.
On that last night that Jesus spends with his disciples, just before the trial with Pilate, on a night when his friends are starting to feel lost, he says to them, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
“I am the truth.”
The truth is a person.
When Pilate asks, “What is truth?” he doesn’t realize that the truth is standing right in front of him.
To say that Jesus is the truth is to say that Jesus embodies truth, lives out truth in his very being, in his words and actions. The truth of what God is like. The truth of what it means to be fully human. The truth of how we are to live.
What is God like? Look at Jesus. We see grace and compassion and forgiveness. We see the one who on the night he was betrayed, tied a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet, including the feet of the one who betrayed him. We see the one who forgives even those who crucified him. We see the one who was sent into the world so that we might know that God loves us, the one who embodies and incarnates God’s love for us.
What does it mean to be fully human? Look at Jesus. It means to be fully alive, to be in loving relationship with God and with neighbour. It means to serve others, to create community, to be at peace with one another, to act justly, to embody grace and compassion and forgiveness because that’s what it means to be created in God’s image.
How then are we to live? That same night, Jesus gave his friends one last commandment: we are to love one another the way that God loves us.
Jesus embodies all of this and more for us. In so doing, he is the truth and he testifies to the truth. It is for this that he was born, for this that he came into the world. To testify to the truth.
The kingdoms of this world are all about power structures. Who’s on top, who’s in charge, who makes the rules, who controls the resources. But the reign of Christ is all about a community of loving relationships. A community to which we belong. We belong to the truth, and we become a community of witnesses that testify to the truth. And this is the truth: that we are loved by God, and we are to love one another.
It’s not what Pilate had in mind. It’s not the power that kings and rulers exercise in this world. But make no mistake, there is power here. There is a power in love. It is the power that when faced with the world’s cruelty and contempt takes the form of a cross and then goes beyond. It is the power that overcomes death. It is the power that raises us up. It is the power that heals us and transforms us. It is the power that enables us to become the people we were created to be. It is a powerful movement of love and service.
Jesus came to testify to the truth. We are loved by God, and we are to love one another as God loves us. And nothing can separate us from the love of God made known to us in Christ. This is the reign of Christ.
This is truth.
Homily. Yr B Reign of Christ, Nov 21 2021, Trinity
Readings: Daniel 7.9-10,13-14; Ps 93; Rev 1.4b-8; John 18.33-38