Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16 + 5:7-9; John 18:1 – 19:42
“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.”
What wondrous words have been spoken in our hearing, made all the more powerful by the fact that we have heard them together. Let us spend a few more minutes together, drawing one another to a deeper understanding and grasp of all that Jesus has accomplished for us. In the words of our Cistercian father, John of Ford, let us stand here together with hearts as one, marveling at the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus, and cleaving to him wholly. And let us stand here together using the lens of the question I proposed on Passion/Palm Sunday as our guide: ‘What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow Jesus in the context of the readings we have heard together.’
The scene I have chosen to focus on is that amazing dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that culminates in the declaration by Jesus: “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.”
For Jesus, as for St John who is telling the story, these words sum up the meaning of the narrative of the passion, death and burial. Have you ever noticed how for Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is mostly a passive recipient. For John, however, Jesus is the actor rather than the one acted upon. The whole narrative is couched in kingly terms and is meant to show Jesus as King from start to finish. The soldiers and crowd who come to arrest Jesus in the garden fall back at the words of Jesus declaring that he is the one they seek. Jesus stands his ground before the slap in Annas’ house. It is obvious that Pilate does not live on the same level as Jesus. It is Jesus who sits on the judgment seat, not Pilate. In John, Jesus carries his own cross and the inscription on it simply declares: ‘The King of the Jews’. Jesus’ last words are not a cry of anguish as for the Synoptics, but a cry of completion, a cry of victory: ‘It is finished’, it is fulfilled, accomplished, made whole. And it is only in John that we are told that Jesus keeps the marks of the nails and the spear after his rising, and the great vision of John’s Book of Revelation shows Jesus as ‘the Lamb standing as it were slain.’ Jesus is king who reigns from the Cross.
That is why the words of Jesus before Pilate are so important. They indicate the type of king Jesus is. Jesus’ kingship is not one of domination and power. As we saw yesterday when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, his kingship is one of service — a service that reaches beyond the grave. Or in the words of John, Jesus’ kingship is a witness to the truth. Jesus’ whole mission is to reveal the God we cannot see, a God who loves us so much that he has given his only son for our redemption. Jesus’ mission is to go out from God and to return to God, with us in tow. In John’s words, to gather together all the dispersed children of God.
Jesus‘ words to Pilate have many resonances in John’s Gospel. The most important ones bring us to the words in chapter 10 where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. There we are told several times, in different contexts, that Jesus‘ sheep hear his voice and follow him, whether they originally belong to the fold of Israel or are separated from it. Jesus’ sheep, his disciples, hear his voice — they ‘belong’ to him. They are, in the context of the words to Pilate, those who belong to the truth. For the truth is what makes one a disciple of Jesus. “You will truly be my disciples for you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Thus the truth to which Jesus witnesses is the very revelation of God.
How far we have come, my brothers and sisters, in this Holy Week of 2011. On Passion Sunday we saw that to be disciples of Jesus means to become obedient to the rule of life: we live by dying, we gain by losing. On Holy Thursday we saw that it is to accept profoundly the reality that we only reign by serving. And today we see that this rule of life and the rule of equality means ultimately to belong to the truth, the truth that is Jesus himself; to be taken up into God, to be his sheep, to know the unseen God by belonging to the God who has stretched out his arms in the everlasting sign of his covenant from the throne of the cross.
Whenever we stand before the Cross, whenever we kneel before the Cross, today as we kiss the relic of the true Cross, let us see in it the truth, that is, the full revelation of God. No other truth, no other revelation has been granted to us. And that God is, as Father Louis – Thomas Merton – so poetically put it over fifty years ago, very simply “mercy within mercy within mercy.”
May this revelation penetrate the depths of our hearts.