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Truth? What is truth? And Pilate washes his hands. Today I want to listen to these words which seem to cry out for the Word, a word of truth and power. We are so often beset by hopelessness, by fear, by terror. Images wash over us day in and day out reminding us that there is so much that is beyond our control, so much we deeply desire to change, to have otherwise, so much we don’t understand.
Diana Butler-Bass, one of my favorite theologians, wrote recently that our questions have changed. In the middle ages, and even before, when faced with tragedy we asked what God meant by this tragedy, had we somehow caused it, was it a punishment. Job’s friends asked him these questions, what have you done to anger God? Surely there must be something? Or maybe one of your kids did something? You know how kids are, they just don’t think sometimes. After WW ll our questions changed. For the first time it seemed possible that all of humanity could be wiped out. Before this we only questioned if our line or our memory might some day be gone, but after Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, an awareness began to dawn that it just might be possible that the human race might end, and an existential anxiety was born into our culture that had not existed before. Our faith was tested as never before as we were asked to stay present to the terrible potential and still believe. Philosophers began to proclaim that God is dead, for no god worth following could allow such a terrible potential. Our faith was tested, reasonable men and women washed their hands of God, despair seemed the final answer.
Truth? What is truth? And we too want to wash our hands and just go on with our day. Today in the face of the overwhelming news inundation we long for comfort, for relief. How can we see the king of kings in a broken, shattered body, hung on a cross? How can we see a way forward through loss and diminishment? I should have paired this scripture with a reading from Job! Because at one time or another we all sit in the ashes, we all mourn and cry out with Pilate, Truth? You want truth?
So today I want to listen to Pilate, to his loss and his desire for a word of truth. I want to hear him cry out that he can’t give you a word of truth, that he too longs for a word of truth, but power, he might say, I can give you power. I can give you security and certainty. Hold on now. You brought me this disturbing, unsettling man and you ask that I kill him. I can do that. I can take him out. Every man fears another with a sword and I have one. I have many. I only live in fear of those who have more, so yes, I can give you certainty, I can give you security, I can re-affirm your status quo. I can give you death to all unsettling, disturbing questions. I can silence your doubts and with the strength of my sword arm I can bring peace, the peace of the Roman army, the peace of occupation and surrender. That I can give you. But remember only that you came to me! I did not come to you! I who cry out for a word of truth but find it nowhere. I who have, at the end of the day, only despair and fear, certainty of death and fear of the one who will bring it.
This is how kingdoms work, right? Power over, not power with. Kings are those who take power, who have armies of strong men with weapons. This is how we have experienced kings. This is a worldly kingdom! My kingdom is not of this world, Jesus tells Pilate. I am not like you. I do not live by the sword. Hanging in the air, perhaps unseen and unheard is the statement I am the Word you have been longing for. I am the Truth. Pilate, unseeing and despairing, washes his hands. I can do nothing with this man, he says.
A tale of two kings, of two rulers, but only one filled with uncertainty, with loss, with despair. A tale of two kings, but only one will live, will be exalted, will be lifted up. Too often, I believe, we have credited Pilate with some feeling, some uncertainty about Jesus. As if, seeing and hearing Jesus he recognized something he’d never seen before, as if he might have had doubts, but I’m not sure about that.
If we had asked Pilate, who rules your life? Would he have not answered Caesar? It was the correct answer at the time, the right box to check on all applications. The rabbis and leaders of the Sanhedrin who had brought Jesus to Pilate knew this answer and when questioned they quickly asserted, we have no king but Ceasar. No ruler, no emperor, no king, but Caesar.
I wanted to pull our statement of faith from the Barmen confession today, but found no soundbite worthy piece of it that would do. But I still want to talk about this, this barmen confession that arose in the wake of WWll. For if we found ourselves facing a brand new existential anxiety, an awareness of the fragility of life, for if we found that our philosophers and popular culture was washing their hands with Pilate, Truth? What truth? The barmen confession spoke boldly that our word of truth is that God is king, God rules our life, now and always.
It was not as if some pastors had not proclaimed loudly that the fuhrer was king, was the ruler. It was not as if we had not turned away from God just as the crowd had done in Jerusalem, we had. We had been co-opted by earthly powers. We had begged for certainty and security. The barmen confession is about repenting of this. It is about proclaiming loudly and for all the world to hear that Jesus is King, now and always; that Jesus rules our lives, now and always; that we will not join Pilate at the fount, washing our hands again in despair.
The barmen confession is our loud proclamation of Joy!!! Jesus is King!!! Can I get an amen, can I get an alleluia? Jesus is King!!! Death does not have the final answer, the powers of the world are not the final answer!
Pilate is the voice of reason, the voice of the world, the voice that says, this world that you can see and touch is all that there is. There isn’t anything more. You will live and you will die and the only thing that matters is to have and get as much as you can while you live, to kill before you are killed, to live as long as you can, to grasp, and hold, and fight for what you want, for as long as you can!
This is the voice that says you ought to live in terror, you ought to live in fear, because death is coming and death is final. This is the voice that says that we need certainty and security because we are alone in the world. This is the voice that rulers of this world speak with.
The barmen confession professes something else. The barmen confession reminds us that, while we are prone to listening to the frightening, terrifying voices of the world, that we have another voice, a Word of Truth, that all the powers of the world cannot silence, cannot diminish, cannot take from us. We have a Word of truth that tells us we are never alone and we are never forgotten; we have a Word that tells us death is not the end and that we can live fully, and freely and unafraid.
Let that sink in. In our world today, with all the images of fear and terror saturating our society, we can live boldly and fully, with deep vulnerability and presence to one another, as Christians. We do not need to be afraid.
Oh our fears will jump up! Oh how they will yell and shout and insist that we need to be in control, we need to DO SOMETHING! Do something, end our uncertainties and insecurities, please, end our anxiety. If we are honest, we can all admit we are prone to this. Some of us are people who like to take control when we feel anxious and some of us are people who want someone near to us to please take control and assure us that we are cared for, but very few of us, in the face of all the worldly powers that face us down, frightening us, let go of all need for control. Very few and I admire those who can even when I doubt they’re actually doing it!
Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now, not someday, not in some far away distant place which we might see and be present to perhaps when we’re dead, but now, here. Thy kingdom come, where you are the ruler and the provider of all things and we can trust that. Thy kingdom come, where fear and terror are turned over to your to manage and we don’t have to be afraid anymore. Thy kingdom, not mine, not the republicans, not the democrats or independents, thy kingdom. Please, now, please here.
Please come into the anxieties and fears we carry, please settle our souls and help us to live with the uncertainties. Our way is not Your way, but we want to learn. We will not wash our hands with Pilate, removing all the stains of our mistakes and our regrets, but with deep humility we acknowledge our hands, indeed our whole body, is dust and to dust it will return, and with hope and conviction we turn to You, the source of our life and our joy, the promise that death and loss are not the final word and we ask that Your kingdom come, meaning Lord, that we ask you and you alone to rule in our hearts today and always. We will not join Pilate in despairing for a word of truth, for we have a Word, a Word that was with God in the beginning and through whom all things came into being and not one thing came into being that did not come through him.
With the writers of the barmen confession we confess that we have been afraid, with the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem we confess that we have sought certainty and security in earthly powers, but with the whole church we confess that we repent of this and we proclaim loudly and joyfully, with deep relief that Jesus is King, death and loss are not the final answers and they do not rule in our lives and in our hearts. Jesus, the word of truth, Jesus, the way, rules in our hearts and in our souls now and always.