Which words stood out for you as we read John’s account of the final moments of Jesus’ life – his trial before Pilate, condemnation and immediate crucifixion and burial? At the moment one phrase seems particularly relevant, Pilate’s question ‘what is truth’. In an age with so many perspectives, views in abundance, competing convictions and reinventions of what might or might not have happened, it can be a challenge to separate fact from fake news. What is truth is something we have to address every day.
One course is to check things out, to see if they stack up. Does this match with what we know, what we experience and what others tell us? Can we find corroborating evidence to uphold the claim? What is it really based on? The spin industry is so advanced that we can be left puzzling this one quite a bit. It is not helped with a UK government who seem to have scant regard for truth and honour, something which fosters disillusionment and a sense of hopelessness.
I was struck by a phrase used by the Dean of Windsor in his sermon at the thanksgiving service for the Duke of Edinburgh at the end of March. He described him being ‘guided by his inner spiritual compass – being true to it’. An inner spiritual compass sets us in a place where we can assess, can have a frame of reference set to work out whether we are living truth or living deception. It is a long-established principle that justice is truth in action, so when we live truth we live justice, and when we live justice we live truth.
Pilate’s question strikes at the heart of so much of how we live. It goes to the heart of treating people with the respect and dignity that they are due as fellow human beings, with justice set as the foundation stone, itself set on the sure ground of truth. It’s here I struggle with the latest announcement of shipping over 4,000 miles across the world to Rwanda in central Africa the most vulnerable people, those who have come seeking asylum and refuge, trafficked by gangs and at great risk. It’s a plan that just strikes at basic human decency and I wonder about the moral compass that allowed that idea to even get out of the room where it was dreamt up. It is shabby, smacks of desperation and dishonours a nation. Is there no low to which they will not sink?
The Gospel writer John is quite clear where truth resides. It resides in the one who stands before Pilate. We see God’s truth being worked out in the life and now death of Jesus Christ. To St Paul, this was a stumbling block to Jews – how could anyone blessed by God, let alone God, be subjected to this horrible torture and die?; and it was folly, foolishness to Greeks. The whole notion seems just too ridiculous in the extreme. And yet we come here to reverence a symbol of suffering borne, pains absorbed and darkness embraced. You may choose to focus on the cross that will be brought in, or even the large rood handing in the arch with its twisted and contorted features. There we see God’s foolishness played out to be wiser than any human wisdom.
Christ on the cross brings the pains and sufferings, the unspeakable evils committed at the moment in so many places into a direct confrontation with truth and justice. Here we might scream at him, how can truth and justice hold or absorb this suffering? How can we hold on when all concepts of truth and justice are just torn up in so many ways in the evils of the battlefield, the rape and torture of civilians, the abuses of so many, the use of vulnerable people as a political shield and distraction?
God’s answer to this seems to be to take responsibility and hang on the cross absorbing it all. Not only identifying with the suffering, but entering it and enduring it directly and first hand. Beware, on Good Friday, God sides with the vulnerable and suffering. There is no other way to redeem that pain and suffering and show it doesn’t have the final answer. Good Friday always has the light of Easter shining through it, just like if you look at the rood in the morning light the light from the east window shines through, because this story has a part two. Today, though, we hold the pain as Christ bears it. Don’t rush through this to the joyful conclusion, for we need to sit with this, as uncomfortable as it is, as unbearable as it is. Give thanks that in his wounds we are healed, in his suffering we can let go of ours knowing it is shared, in his death we are brought life.
O happy foolishness,
which loves so dearly
to reach into the mire
of human suffering and pain
to rescue, redeem and restore.
What is truth? It hangs on the tree of shame so that it might rise in glory and bring us to share in that life and love everlasting.
Sermon for Good Friday, Newport Cathedral, 15th April 2022