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Home » Sermon – 29th March 2024

Sermon – 29th March 2024

    Good Friday

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    The Passion story as just related starts with the events of Thursday night, but Good Friday morning sees Jesus taken from the headquarters of Caiaphas, the high priest, to Pilate. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas, but it does give a lengthy record of what took place between Jesus and Pilate. Caiaphas was a religious leader: Pilate a political one. The religious charges against Jesus would not have interested Pilate very much. The Romans allowed the Jewish religious practices to continue, so long as there wasn’t any conflict with the homage and tribute due to Caesar. So to be rid of Jesus some political charge would need to be found, for the Jewish authorities had no right to execute anyone.

    When Pilate begins to question Jesus, he soon finds that he is out of his depth. One can imagine a blank look on Pilate’s face, as there might be on the faces of some of the world’s power-hungry rulers today, when Jesus said, “My kingship is not from this world.” He was even more at sea when Jesus continued, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And then, out of despair, anger or contempt, Pilate asks, “What is truth.”

    People have been asking that question ever since. I suspect that if I handed round paper and pencils now, and asked you to write down your answer to that question, there might be quite a long pause before anything was written down. Of course, we all know what it is to tell the truth – something probably instilled into us long ago. But ‘what is truth?’ is rather different.

    We are dismayed when we look out at world affairs and see the truth so often ignored, covered up or misrepresented. President Putin, for instance, claiming that the 87% vote in his favour recently showed how the great majority of Russians are solidly behind his policies and actions. We are used to the phrase ‘being economical with the truth’ and, of late, another often used by politicians, about having ‘mis-remembered’ something.

    But ‘What is truth?’ remains a difficult question. The ancient Greek philosophers called truth “the sum total of the reality of the universe of God and the correspondence of the known facts of existence with that reality.” I’m sure that’s what you were going to write down! But in the New Testament, and particularly in John’s gospel, truth is represented in the life and person of Jesus. In spite of his silence when Pilate asked the question, Jesus is seen as living truth: truth-in-the-flesh.

    In the opening chapter of John, in the great prologue which starts “In the beginning was the Word…” the writer says “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son – full of grace and truth”, and a little later on – “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

    Later on in the gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life”; by which we might understand that he was, at one and the same time the goal of our perfection, the way by which it might be gained, and the reality undergirding that life.

    On Good Friday, it is easier to focus on the Cross and put our trust in the one we see hanging there – a vision of grace and truth. Jesus told Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate did not belong. Truth stood before him, bruised and bleeding, but Pilate did not see, or could not recognise truth, innocence, integrity, goodness and patience in front of him.

    As we follow the events of the Passion, we note that very few people come out of it with their reputations enhanced. Not Caiaphas, not Pilate, not Herod; not the soldiers who so shamefully mistreated Jesus even before he reached Calvary; not Peter, who denied Jesus three times; not Judas. Jesus, by contrast, shines through the web of conspiracy and deceit and betrayal. In his patient and exemplary conduct we surely see truth personified.

    Earlier in the gospel, Jesus promises the disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

    Today, and indeed throughout human history, lies and falsehood surround us, while truth is at a premium. The world understands those who compromise. In our increasingly complicated modern world, few of us do not compromise to one degree or another; in fact compromise is not always a bad thing, when we have to decide which is the better of two options in a difficult situation.

    Pilate found himself in an admittedly unenviable situation. He had made mistakes as Governor and indeed had to make a U-turn over the issue of his men using shields bearing the image of the emperor Tiberius. These shields were offensive to Jews when carried in the Temple precincts. Pilate had to back down. Caiaphas took advantage of his weakness, and said “If you release this man (Jesus), you are no friend of the emperor.” Pilate could have released Jesus, but feared that if he let him go, Pilate himself would have to pay the price. As someone says, “Integrity does not come cheap, and Pilate can’t afford it.”

    Are we not sometimes like Pilate in our dealings with Jesus? We find ourselves intrigued by his claims, recognising that there is something different, something special about him that we cannot pin down. We might even call it the Truth. We feel the force of his demands on our time, our loyalties and our lives. We want to take our stand with him against the crowd and the world, but counting the cost of doing so we find it to be too high. So, rather than turning him away we seek to make our excuses, or to adopt a morally noncommittal if uncomfortable neutrality.

    May we have the grace and strength not to compromise about our faith. The world doesn’t generally understand us; we who find the truth in Jesus, though the sign of the cross does have deep meaning for many people. But in an age when everyone is encouraged to follow their own individual path and not be challenged, Christians who stand up for their beliefs are often misrepresented, ridiculed, vilified or cold-shouldered. Many Pilates wait to meet us with the sneering question, “What is truth?”

    If we can answer the question for ourselves, by looking at the figure on the Cross, and seeing “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, we shall be in a better position to lead other questioners to him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; and Pilate’s question will not have been asked in vain.

    A reflection :

    Holy Father, you sent your Son into the world to be our Judge, and thereby our Redeemer. Today on the Cross we see the cost of his perfect sonship and patient obedience. But we prefer to set our own standards, determine our own values, frame a pattern for our own lives and be our own judge. Like Pilate, confronted with the true meaning of kingship as seen in Jesus’ weakness and humility, we find it difficult to take our stand with him. The forces of the world ensnare us. Help us never to seek to wash our hands of him, but make us as firm in our commitment to him as he is in his commitment to us. Amen.

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