Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14– Daniel’s apocalypse: the son of man comes in the clouds to the Ancient One and is given dominion and glory and kingship.
Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18) – O Lord, remember David’s hardships and his faithfulness.
Psalm 93 – Ever since the world began, your throne has been established. (Ps. 93:3)
Revelation 1:4b-8– He is coming on the clouds, and every eye will see him. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord.
John 18:33-37 – Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world. I testify to the truth. Pilate: What is truth?
Famous Last Words
Christ the King Sunday, sometimes called The Reign of Christ today, is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we begin a new church year, with the first Sunday of Advent. We also begin year three of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel readings will soon focus on Luke’s gospel.
It is the last Sunday of the church year. We often focus on last things. The first reading, from 2 Samuel 23, begins, “These are the last words of David…” . Ralph Klein points out that these are the first of many “last words of David,” in the Bible. He counts ten (Exodus 23:1ff, 2 Samuel 23, 1 Kings 2:2-4, 5-9, 1 Chronicles 22:7-16,17-19; 28: 2-10, 20-21; 29:1-5, 10-19; 23:27). Even Luther had some doubt about David’s last words. That’s okay. Jesus had seven last “words.” Wherever you land, it might be a fun and enlightening time to gather together the purported last words of several famous people, and perhaps think about our own last words, our last will and testament, our legacy. What will your last words be? I’ve done a post on this here: David’s Last Words.
The Oldest Fragment of the New Testament
A few years ago Susan and I went down the Houston Museum of Natural History to see a traveling exhibit to view the oldest written piece of the New Testament in existence: Papyrus P52, found at an Egyptian market in 1920 and dated to 125 A.D. It was a bit of a fool’s errand, because, so what? You can see it online, and inspect it in closer detail. I’ll paste it here for you. But it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage for someone who has devoted his life and career to this carpenter from Nazareth who stood before Pilate nearly 2,000 years ago.
The fragment is two-sided. Both sides are from John 18, our text for this coming Sunday. On the front in the image here is John 18:31-33. On the back is John 18:37-38.
In the latter, Pilate famously asks, “What is truth?”
Below I will boldface and underline the words you can see in the fragment:
Front: John 18:31-33
31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves
and judge him according to your law.” Then replied
The Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone.” 32 So that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, that he
spoke signifying the kind of death he was
to die. 33 Entering therefore again into the
Pratorium, Pilate summoned Jesus,
and said to him, “Are you the King of the
31εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Λάβετε αὐτὸνὑμεῖς,
καὶ κατὰ τὸν νόμον ὑμῶν κρίνατε αὐτόν. εἶπον αὐτῷ
οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, Ἡμῖν οὐκ ἔξεστιν ἀποκτεῖναι
οὐδένα: 32ἵνα ὁ λόγος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πληρωθῇ ὃν
εἶπεν σημαίνωνποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν
ἀποθνῄσκειν. 33Εἰσῆλθεν οὖν πάλιν εἰς τὸ
πραιτώριον ὁΠιλᾶτος καὶ ἐφώνησεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν
καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν
Back: John 18:37-38
37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.
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.”
38 Said to him Pilate, “What is truth?”
And this having been said, he went out to
the Jews again and told them, “I find not one fault in
37εἶπεν οὖναὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκοῦν βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ;
ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. ἐγὼ εἰς
τοῦτο γεγέννημαι καὶ εἰς τοῦτο ἐλήλυθα εἰς τὸν
κόσμον, ἵνα μαρτυρήσω τῇ ἀληθείᾳ: πᾶς ὁ ὢν
ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας ἀκούει μου τῆς φωνῆς.
38λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;
Καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν πάλιν ἐξῆλθεν πρὸς
τοὺς Ἰουδαίους, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἐγὼ οὐδεμίαν αἰτίαν εὑρίσκω ἐν
The word “truth” appears one time in Matthew. Once. Twice in Mark. Three times in Luke. But the word “truth” appears no less than 21 times in the Gospel of John.
Jesus is the word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Grace and truth appear together in the Hebrew Bible, especially the psalms. Truth is the quality of Yahweh, who is faithful to his promises, the covenants. The law is filled with grace and truth in the Old Testament. John transfers this to Jesus. (St. John’s Gospel, R. H. Lightfoot, 1956)
The truth comes from above. Falsehood comes from below. The law comes through Moses, John says, but truth comes through Jesus. True worshippers worship in spirit and in truth. The truth sets you free. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth. The Spirit guides us into all truth. In John, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
In today’s passage, Pilate represents the State. The government. Lightfoot sees Pilate/The State as considering the tension between Law and Gospel, as represented by Jesus and his opponents, the religious leaders. The State has no interest in arbitrating this conflict according to Lightfoot. He doesn’t hate Jesus. He’s just uninterested.
Our text is just verses 33-37. The NRSV translates Praetorium as “headquarters” since most people today don’t know what a Praetorium is:
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[a] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.”
I think this text will preach in the current climate of fake news. A political figure asks, “What is truth?”
In a recent interview, President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was trying to explain why the president should not testify for special counsel Robert Mueller. He could be trapped into a lie that could lead to a perjury charge.
Guiliani: “When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”
“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.
“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth…”
Todd answered: “Truth isn’t truth?”
Giuliani: “No, no, no.”
The preacher can wade into the bending of truth without naming names or wading into the mud. Politicians of all brands, in all times, have played fast and loose with the truth. Truth may not be truth, but winning is winning.
The preacher could begin with a series of questions. True or false? Ask the congregation. Perhaps choose some common misconceptions. The Bible says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” True or false? A verbal response is enough. Don’t embarrass people. Benjamin Franklin said, “Pride goeth before the fall.” True or false. (He might have said it, but it was first said a thousand years earlier, in the Bible. Edelweiss is the national anthem of Austria? (False) The Bible says there were three magi. (False) Toilet water rotates in a different direction in the southern hemisphere. (False) Maybe find a few truths to toss in there.
If we are going to be honest, sometimes its really hard to tell the truth from a lie. One person doesn’t acknowledge the other in the grocery store. The second person feels snubbed and tells you. Is it true? The fact is, you don’t know. It might be true. The perpetrator may have intentionally ignored your friend… or maybe didn’t see your friend. You don’t know. You may never know. Even if they were both in the room with you for a counseling session, you may not know.
Or someone says they saw a “big” dog. Was it big? That may depend on the reporter’s experience with dogs. If all they’ve had is dachshunds, then maybe the dog was big. If you’ve only had mastiffs, the dog may be have been small. Sometimes truth is subjective. Sometimes truth is in the beholder.
For Jesus, in John’s gospel, truth may not be a dispute over facts, but something much more profound.
So what is truth? Merriam Webster says truth is,
- The body of real things, events and facts…
- The state of being the case
- A transcendent fundamental spiritual reality
It may be that Jesus is more interested in the third definition than the first two. He’s less interested in a dispute over whether there are 8, 9 or more planets, than a more transcendent truth, like God is love, or being in relationship with God is what life is about. There are larger, transcendent Truths with a capital “T” that make our myriad of truths with a small “t” less pressing. The number of planets is interesting, but unlikely to change the course of your life. Love could be a matter of life or death, for you, and for those around you. To wit: facts about this or that don’t often set us free. The truth with a capital T can set you free. It can transform your life.