I preach this at noon today. Peace, friends.
“Truth on Trial”
Good Friday, April 6, 2007
This passion begins and ends in a garden. This may be completely counter-intuitive for us, but not for the evangelist, for whom there is great and deliberate purpose in every choice, in every word. The passion begins and ends in a garden. In between, truth is put on trial. Political operatives stake out their territory and push their points. Bureaucrats get caught up in a fight protesting that it is not theirs, but of course it is. And there is suffering, deep, profound and tortuous. And there is death, final, absolute. All between two moments in a garden.
One scripture scholar has described the passion as having four “acts.” Act One, Jesus is arrested. Act Two, Jesus is tried before the Jewish religious authorities. Act Three, Jesus is tried before the Roman authorities. Act Four, Jesus is crucified and buried. In the gospel of John, written down perhaps 60 to 70 years after the fact, we have a carefully, even beautifully constructed passion account in which Jesus, in every word he utters, speaks on behalf of the truth. In Act One, as he is arrested in the garden, Jesus greets the detachment of soldiers with their lanterns and torches and weapons with great calm. Though our English version obscures what is happening in the Greek, Jesus affirms his identity while simultaneously stating over and over the ancient and unsayable name of God: I am, I am, I am.
In Act Two, Jesus before the high priests, focus keeps shifting back and forth from the interrogation to Simon Peter, warming himself at a fire and trying unsuccessfully to fly below the radar of various gossips and hangers on. Jesus invents nothing and denies nothing. All he has done, he has done openly, all he has taught, he has taught openly: the truth. He experiences the first bit of physical brutality and is transferred quickly to Pilate.
In Act Three, Pilate receives Jesus in the praetorium, and due to the scruples of the religious leaders, who will not enter, the Roman prefect is made to shuttle back and forth between the accusers and the accused. Pilate tries to escape responsibility for what is about to happen. Ultimately, the reality of the situation—the truth—sinks in, and Pilate questions Jesus, to find out whether he is indeed guilty of sedition.
At the risk of sounding defensive, I think it is important at this point to do some corrective framing about Pilate. As a character, he tends to be depicted in film and art as an attractive, even appealing human being, caught up in events greater than himself. In the Gibson film the praetorium is something out of a designer showroom, all soothing colors and fine fabrics, and Pilate is a kind of renaissance Everyman, quiet, intellectual, reasonable, offering Jesus a cold drink. In point of fact, Pilate was a particularly brutal military leader, present in Jerusalem to quell any potential uprising at the politically charged festival of Passover. Pilate was so merciless in discharging his duties (known as he was for the countless crucifixes lining the well-paved Roman roads) that he ultimately offended even Roman sensibilities with his brutality, and was finally recalled from his post, after which point he fades from the historical record.
Jesus is finally asked by our somewhat airbrushed Pilate, “What is truth?” Unable, in the end, to see that Truth is standing in front of him, Pilate elects to do what Pilate is best known for doing, by all accounts. Pilate decides for death. Act Four.
Act Four is the act of suffering. I don’t know about you, but I hold in my memory certain icons of suffering, by which I mean images or visions that represent human suffering, that will not let me go. Let me be clear: these are icons not only of suffering, but also of cruelty, of what the poet Robert Burns called, “man’s inhumanity to man.” Here are two of the images I carry: First, Eli Wiesel’s devastating description of his first night in Auschwitz, “…the small faces of the children whose bodies [he] saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.” And second, Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally beaten and left for dead, strung up on a fencepost in Laramie, Wyoming. I have recently added a new icon to my mental list: the haunted faces of US servicewomen, who are being deployed to Iraq in record numbers, and who are coming home with unprecedented levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result both of the horrors of battle and the private terrors of sexual assault by their peers and commanders. As a lifelong Christian, of course, the suffering of Jesus is the great icon, if I may call it that … the one in whose shadow all the others stand. The suffering of Jesus, the Truth, at the hands of those who fear that truth.
What is truth, Pilate asks? If we are to believe the Jesus of the gospels, it is the bringing of good news to the poor, the proclamation of liberty to the captives, the restoration of sight to the blind, the freeing of those who are oppressed. What is truth? If we are to believe the Jesus of the gospels, it is giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and comforting presence to those in prison. What makes the suffering of Jesus the icon of all our human suffering is this truth for which he is crucified.
Near the end of Act Four there a moment that is often thought to reflect the real humanity of Jesus: the moment when he commends his mother to the care of his beloved disciple. And so it may be, Jesus who, in addition to being Truth personified is also simply a dying son worried about his mother. But this moment carries a heavier burden of meaning as well. In this act Jesus reminds us that, in the new community of discipleship, we are no longer to act merely in service of kinship ties. This action contains the new truth, that family and tribe are overruled by the gospel imperatives, as a new family is formed around radical, tradition-breaking love and caring beyond our own borders and sensibilities. It is this truth that so terrifies the powers and principalities, who rely on tribal and ethnic identities and hatreds for the consolidation of their own power. It is this terror that convinces them that they must put truth on trial and put it to death. It is this truth that is, forevermore, made holy by this death.
As Act Four draws to a close Jesus is laid in a new tomb, in the garden which, as it turns out, was right there, in the same place where he was crucified. Because, of course, this gospel account is not finished. There is more, and the garden is redolent with suggestion of what that “more” might be. For the children of Auschwitz and Darfur, and for Matthew Shepard and combat specialist Abbie Pickett, how does that “more” play out? Can their suffering, in any sense, be made holy?
Confronted with the present reality of suffering, the gospel truth is clear: we are called to offer release, to offer healing, to offer restoration to the beloved community to those who suffer. Suffering is not, in itself, holy; let's not glorify it as such. But what is holy is God’s presence in the midst of suffering. What is holy is our every effort to alleviate that suffering. What is holy is the raising of our voices in loud, noisy chorus in protest of that suffering. For those whose agony, like that of Jesus, is in the past tense, perhaps it is our remembering that makes it holy. Perhaps it is our refusal to silence the truth that can make holy the icons of suffering each of us carries within. The passion begins and ends in a garden, and now it is finished. We know what lies buried. Now we wait for what might grow. Amen.