Wednesday, November 22, 2017
For Christians, we ponder the words of Jesus, who teaches he is “the way, the truth, and the light”. We take strength in this teaching and use it as a compass for our way forward into a world of competition and contradiction. The last Sunday before Advent begins is a celebration of that power: Christ the King, or Ruler, is proclaimed by the church even as the world thinks of Christmas as one long season of retail magic!
Yet, we must also realize Jesus said these things about power and God's reign in the midst of the same world we know, where some ancient yet distressingly familiar "powers that be" type worldly forces ultimately conspired to do him harm.
Rome and the Temple have their own teachings, and they are not in step, or in remote agreement, with Jesus’ claim to truth. Jesus is not a king of this world. His disciples will not turn to violence. Indeed, these are strange words for Empire to hear, a kingdom deeply vested in having the right amount of troops, weaponry, and control at all times.
When brought before the Roman authorities, Jesus found himself with Pilate, whose questions want to know what sort of king and kingdom Jesus claims. Jesus’ answers are lost on Pilate, as Jesus is not the sort of king of a kingdom that Pilate can understand. Pilate’s career was built upon the dominance of empire. The Temple elite vested their authority through mostly economic maneuverings. In his fine robes, Pilate seems the epitome of “the ways things are to be”, whereas Jesus, roughed up from his captors’ handling, appears to bear the consequence for speaking against “the way things are to be”.
Indeed, Pilate’s question about kingship is turned to a question of truth. Not the “truthiness” of Empire or Temple, the sort of truth that is good for the moment, Jesus seeks to witness, to embody even, the truth of the world as God intends it to be. The truth of Pilate and the Temple will unveil itself within the next generation as a local uprising will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. As for the Church, the early Christians will experience great hardship and persecution themselves, yet it will be the truth Jesus offers that shall allow them great strength and endurance. Pilate’s cynicism demonstrates the hard heart of the world. In hearing the truth, Pilate only hears what he wanted to hear. “What is truth?” is not the beginning of a new sort of conscience taking root. Indeed, with a dismissive sneer, Pilate sends Jesus away for the next step toward the cross.
What sort of people, what sort of “kingdom” is formed by this story? It seems to end with tragedy, yet the gospel reshapes the status quo in the resurrection of Jesus. The kingdoms of Rome and Temple, the “middle men” of Pilate and the Temple elite, shall not stand, even though they seem to hold all of the cards right now. What sort of people does this story intend to empower?
I recall the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian whose career as a gifted theologian and teacher was cut short by the tumult of the Second World War. Bonhoeffer saw the effect of another sort of Empire on the rise, growing in power and might, rising above the reproach of question and fashioning its own “truth” as the way things ought to be.
While Bonhoeffer would die in the last days of the Second World War at a concentration camp (sentenced to death as part of a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler), his writings remain as a counter-witness to the powers of his day. While living in the turbulence of the times, Bonhoeffer offered a counter-witness to the “way things are to be” being impressed upon his nation.
As he taught seminary students in the mid-1930s, he offered lectures that became his book called “Discipleship”. Therein, Bonhoeffer mentions this same Johannine text in passing as he describes what sort of discipleship is required by the gospel. He writes, “If it engages the world properly, the visible church-community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord” (Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, English translation. Fortress Press, 2003, p. 247-8).
The same question that confused the powers is the same question that challenges (perhaps “haunts”?) the Church. How do we hear this story? Is through ears and hearts shaped by the world, or by those shaped by the gospel? There are stories at competition within us, being of the world and not of the world.
What does it mean to take leave of “the ways things are to be” and “more closely assume the form of [our] suffering Lord”?