What is Truth?: John 18.28–40

2018.3.11 thurman tooDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 11, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Today I’m going to frame my time as six frequently asked questions about this portion of Jesus’s story, concluding with a seventh, a Sabbath of reflection.

One: Why was Jesus arrested? Because of his growing movement, which became particularly visible on what we now call Palm Sunday.

Two: Why would local Jewish authorities want to squelch a movement that offers hope to their own nation under foreign occupation? Maybe because they are afraid. Maybe because what Jesus did felt heretical in some way. Maybe because they don’t want to lose the little bit of power and material comfort they have achieved under than occupation.

Three: Why have so many of us been taught that it was all Jewish people in Jerusalem who wanted Jesus dead, when John makes it clear it was just a small group of authorities? Because of the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, the common people call for execution and it is the priests who try to protect Jesus; this is the opposite of John.

Four: Why do the local Jewish authorities bring the regional Roman authority into the mess? Because under Roman rule the local Jewish authorities could not impose the death sentence themselves.1

Five: What is all the king talk about?

Under Roman occupation, allegiance to the Emperor was paramount. No one could claim an authority that might rival his. The local authorities paint Jesus as someone claiming kingship to set him up, to justify their request for execution. When Jesus asks Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?,” he is pointing out to Pilate how he and the Roman system are being played.

So Pilate responds, then what is it that you have done that has gotten your own power elite so angry? Not build a kingdom, that is for sure, Jesus says. If my movement were about a new human hierarchy, my defenders, my new subjects, would be banging at your door. My work has been to remind my people of covenant living.

When we trusted God enough that we could break free from the Egyptians, it took us forty years to learn not to make false idols of gold or charismatic leaders. It took us generations to understand that home is place where we do no harm and see that we already have enough.

But by the days of the judge and prophet Samuel we had forgotten all of that and demanded God give us a king so that we could participate in international trade and politics. Samuel warned us that kings would destroy our covenant living, that they would make our children soldiers and slaves, claiming the resources that we once shared as entirely his (1 Samuel 8.10–17).

And they did and then the Babylonians did and then the Persians did and now Rome does.

I will have nothing to do with a system that is both so shameful and so shameless.

Six: Who is Barabbas? Barabbas’s name can be translated as “son of a father” or “son of the father.” This is father with a lower case “f,” so it is not a direct reference to God using the masculine parent metaphor. But it does give pause. Barabbas is described as a bandit, but that likely meant a revolutionary or insurrectionist rather than a thief.

So, Pilate is calling the bluff of the local authorities: “This man Jesus does not claim kingship and I have another fellow who has been trying to overthrow Rome. Shouldn’t I execute him instead?”

2018.3.11 ThurmanTRUTH
Seven: What is truth? This is the question Pilate asks Jesus and to which he receives no recorded answer.

Howard Thurman, the pastor and mystic I’ve featured in our electronic devotionals this Lent, has a short piece on keeping his heart open to truth in his classic text Meditations of the Heart. Thurman describes simply and beautifully how easy it is to be mistaken in the search for truth and how even our own hopes and dreams may trick us into seeing truth as error and error as truth. His solution is to always “seek the honesty and integrity that God yields to those who lay bare their lives constantly before (God).”2

In order to receive into his heart what is true, Thurman resolves himself to look to those who go to God with the sum of their lives. Not to those who bluster with false pride about their connection with God. Not those who mewl with false piety in the performance of their relationship with God.

To those who open the shield around their soul to reveal the parts that are vital and the bruises struggling to heal—to those with no pretense of independence from the holy, holy, holy—to them God yields, relinquishes, surrenders from God’s own self the qualities of honesty and integrity from which truth may come.

2018.3.44 doubtSABBATH
This is the quality of our Sabbath: to lay our lives bare before God that in all of the other days of frequently asked questions and demanding needs, we may speak and act with honesty and integrity.

I know that I may be making that sound easy, or as if I already do it and well. I do not. It is so much easier to study God and to study religion, than to speak with God and to practice faith. I can provide answers to frequently asked questions and wrestle with interpretive differences all day long, with delight. But those are the questions of humanity, not the invitation of God.

I struggle with making God my first habit, with the doubts that I always experience when I stargaze at night or read the news in the morning. Then I hear God again: Lay bare your life before me. Tell me your doubts and your woes. Trust me enough to receive you, without qualification. Because then you will know that you do not have to qualify yourself to any other, ever.

What is truth? Jesus never answers that question, because the truth is right in front of Pilate. He’s staring right at it. [iii] Jesus lay bare his life constantly before God and did his work with honesty and integrity, revealing God’s truth. There was nothing more say.

There’s nothing wrong with studying our religion and all that comes with it, but truth, holy truth and sacred truth, is so much more than our studies and more than our religion.

Seek the honesty and integrity that God yields to those who lay bare their lives constantly before (God).

Having all of the answers about God is not the point. Being able to stand beside Jesus is.


1Levine, Amy-Jill., ed. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 191.
2Thurman, Howard. Meditations of the Heart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981, pp. 189–90.

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