I am reading my way through Charles Raven's 'Shadow gospel.' As I mentioned before, I have never covered a book in so many scribbles and underlinings. You can not help but get the feeling that he is reading Williams to fit his own agenda; that he is quick to see the holes in William's apophatic theology but not in his own proposition based advocacy of the Jerusalem Declaration, Clause 2 of which is in serious need of qualification and explanation, but I have blogged about that before.
I am wondering about my own theology. Williams' theology in its neo-orthodoxy is often very Barthian in temperament. I am aware, of course, that my training contained teaching from a Barth-inspired faculty with two members of the teaching staff particularly well versed in the dogmatics with our principal's doctorate exploring Barth. We also had members of faculty quite averse to him however and frustrated in the face of this theology that is an exploration more of the what is not, than the what is, the conversation than the declaration, the ongoing revelation that reads us rather than our ever reading with absolutes, although absolutes there are, but expressed with a kind of humility.
So some of these things were at the back of my preach today. They probably did not come across too strongly. And I suspect on the whole that I said little that was overly radical, many will believe that the truth of the Bible resides in its witness to Truth the person: Jesus Christ. I wonder how I feel about the Anglican church and its tendency at times to a kind of 'Pontius Pilate' syndrome. There is this over emphasis on doctrine and proposition but there is also, of course, the danger of a church that does not know what it is and for whom it is living.
I hope to be the kind of preacher who is only too aware of our own mess-ups as a church - mine included. I hope to communicate something of the power of the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit brings scripture to life so that the words become the Living Word. Who knows what God does with our words? We can only trust that because he is such a generous God and chooses to use us despite and even because of our inadequacies that he will use our thoughts to reach his people.
So to flesh out our reading a little, Pontius Pilate is posted in Jerusalem to oversee the time of the Passover festival with thousands of Jews visiting the city for this event. Perhaps picture in your mind the crowds visiting London for that Royal Wedding earlier this year. Similarly, people would have travelled, but to Jerusalem, from miles around, setting up their tents to sleep in as they waited for the festivities to begin.
Have you ever been to a party where everyone around you seems to be having fun but you. At the latest one I hosted I enjoyed it up until 2 o'clock in the morning when 8 young children having their first sleepover were still awake!
Everyone in Jerusalem is getting ready to party apart from Pilate who really wants to be home in Caesarea-by-the-sea, with its Coliseum and amphitheatre, its tasteful developments, as the place has undergone Herod's latest renovations, its sophisticated sewer system even. Jerusalem, by contrast, is crowded, dusty and oppressive. Jerusalem, quite literally, stinks. Pilate just wants to get it all over and done with without incident. He has serious crowd control issues to face!
A crowd do indeed press in on him the very next morning and early! - a crowd determined to get rid of Jesus. They bang on Pilate's door, rude enough to suggest he come outside to enquire after their needs, else they will become ritually unclean for entering the property of a Gentile. This would prevent them from celebrating the Passover – an event they did not want to miss.
At this festival, they celebrated their ancestors' release from captivity in Egypt back in the days of Moses. It was always an exciting time because it was also believed that if the promised Messiah were to set them free again, this time from Roman oppression, he would choose Passover to do so.
Oh the irony – they do miss the entire point of it – they miss the fact that the very promised Messiah stands before them. As they prepare to feast on lamb, they prepare also to offer up to death the very lamb of God himself. There is much we can learn from them about missing the point.
Pilate, from whom we have as much to learn and my focus for this morning, needs to get to the bottom of what is going on. He wants to get home, remember. So he seeks the truth behind charges levelled at Jesus by these very priests who have woken him up so early. Of course, he looks for truth in all the wrong places as well. It is truth that I want us to explore this morning.
Pilate's morning visitors charge Jesus with blasphemy – he claims to be the Son of God- but this merits stoning, not the death penalty. They need Rome who can administer the death penalty on their behalf. It is important however that Pilate does his job properly: he must establish Jesus' identity. Pilate has friends in high places and his career means everything to him.
We face these kinds of tests on a daily basis too, between aspiring to better ourselves, or so we think, and our part in the Kingdom. When I was nine years old I distinctly remember having aspirations of my own. I wanted to join the girl-gang in the street where I lived and for some strange reason (but then we were only nine) the qualifications for entry were – Favourite football team – Man United, favourite colour: red and belief in God: none. So I approached Julie, so trendy –a full year and a half older than me, and allowed to watch Top-of-the Pops when I wasn't, and did the right thing by each criterion. I then scurried off into a corner though, to tell God as I understood him then, that I hope he understood, I loved him really, I did not mean it and surely he knew how much I wanted to be in the gang. As I spoke earnestly and pleadingly, God, in his own way, revealed himself to me that day, for I suddenly became acutely aware that there I was talking to God – 'I must believe in you' I said – 'Wow – I believe in you'. And I ran off happy and also joined the gang. God can also be very generous!
As Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, he reveals that his only interest is in power but to challenge this Jesus talks about his kingdom rather than his Kingship. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he tells Pilate. It is not OF this World because it is not FROM this world but it is FOR this world – it is very good news FOR this world because it is a Kingdom of Truth.
This past two weeks we have all been exposed to the way the News of the World has contaminated the truth through deceit, manipulation and corruption. More interested in story at the cost of truth, the damage done has been lasting and widespread. Jesus' truth in contrast – a truth told in story available to us through the Bible becomes meaningful when we understand that the Bible points to to the person of Jesus – the Living Word, the Living truth. In relationship with Jesus – the Way, the Truth and the Life, we discern the truth of the Bible.
Where Pilate is interested in power “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus is all about truth: “King is your word, not mine. .... My task is to testify to the truth.” Two worlds clash – one obsessed with power and another with the establishment of truth. Worlds that clash today as much as they ever did, whether we are adults or children. We must pray that we do not value power more than truth even in our daily walk of faith.
How might we do this?
We do this by ensuring that Pilate's final question is not our own – 'What is truth?' says Pilate. 'What is truth?' and 'What is truth?' seems reasonable enough. But it is the stuff that makes for the competition that exists between faiths. Jesus wants us to contend with truth the person – truth the person that is Jesus Christ and it is when we begin to do this that any other truths we profess come to life. Truth is not only thought, truth is felt and truth is acted upon. It’s a way of life. “What is truth?” is completely the wrong question to ask, when we should be asking “Who is truth?” and find that the answer is Jesus.
We have a responsibility to not repeat Pilate's mistake and reduce Christianity to a set of truth statements that are grasped with the intellect. Truth is not a set of propositions, truth is a person. We will be looking carefully at our creed in church in the Autumn. In the creed we hear that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate but perhaps it is not too radical to say that the church can suffer to this day a kind of Pontius Pilate syndrome. When we reduce following in the way of Jesus Christ to a subscription to a set of propositions, we only set up words that divide. If we are to recite the creed, a set of truths, we must do so from the perspective of relationship which will become the focus of our journeying through the creed together in the coming months. When the Spirit breathes his life into our words we can encounter the Word. When we reduce following in the way of Christ to wordy propositions, we create words that divide rather than unite.
The Jews failed to recognise their Messiah, we might fail to recognise the Christ in one another if we compare truth statements with our neighbour, and ask who is the most right - we might miss the truth altogether.
Jesus asked Pilate whether he enquired as to whom Jesus were of his own volition or not. Jesus' was an appeal to Pilate, if Pilate were really asking, Jesus would reveal himself and does so in the cross and his resurrection. If people ask us who Jesus is, they will see who he is through our lives, through the way that we worship and through the welcome that we create. We must ask Jesus to reveal himself in us and through us, by engaging with Jesus at a heart level and a head level.
I do not love my husband and children because I state a set of beliefs about who they are, I love them in relationship with them and hope to express it with my whole self. It is the same in relationship with Jesus – we need to seek to love him with our whole selves so that our lives tell it out, we are not afraid of showing emotion as we worship him and we seek to grow in understanding too.
In the Greek the idea of knowing also has connotations of being intimate with. We would do well to consider this as we seek to know more about this Jesus who loves us so much as he knows us.
In explaining what his kingdom is and is not, Jesus says that, if his kingdom were of this world, his disciples would have risen up and fought to keep him from being arrested. In other words, the truth of Christ’s kingdom can be seen in the behavior of His disciples.
What does our behavior say about God’s Kingdom?
The Church begins to heal when we encounter truth the person that is Jesus Christ and we see Christ more obviously in one another. But there's more.
Pilate missed the truth. He got the “what,” but he missed the “who.” He got the proposition, but he missed the person: the Person of Jesus Christ. The One standing right before him. The One who was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. This is a Truth that comes from listening to Jesus' voice and being in relationship with him. In such a relationship we also discover the truth about ourselves, about Christ’s call on our lives and about what God might be calling us to do. We actually become our truest selves because Jesus' truth brings freedom. Pilate in contrast was obsessed with what everyone else thought about him.
Jesus will continue to encounter the wrong kinds of questions, Pilate walked away from the question, but Jesus does not. Jesus does not walk away from us and our questions. He wants to reveal himself as the answer to our questions. What we need to do is live our way into the answer, journey with the answer, allow the answer to unfold in us – be patient with one another as we watch our transformation together. Pilate learned what he wanted to know, settled for that and walked away.
What about us? Do we settle for just learning what we wanted to know? Or do we brave the question and stick around to meet with the real answer.
Anne spoke at the end of June, when you looked at the beginning of John's gospel, about how the Word is not just an abstract concept, the Word is Jesus and his is an invitation into relationship. The truth is not an abstract concept either even though our tendency is to make it so. The truth is a person. The truth is Jesus. He invites us into a relationship with himself. From there he reveals himself so that we become also our own truest selves.
Live the question in relationship with Jesus Christ. Allow Him in His timing to reveal himself as the answer. He will also reveal to you the new things he is calling you to.