There are at least two primary ways to hear the words of this morning's scriptural texts from the Gospel of John. One is to hear them as a verbatim account of Jesus' teaching concerning himself, and as a historical record of Jesus' encounter with Pilate. The other is to hear them as a theological interpretation by the evangelist, John, concerning the life and person of Jesus, a way of telling us what John and his early Christian community came to believe that Jesus was all about. I hear the words of these texts in this second way. Either way, however, what we have here is a compelling presentation of the aim and purpose and mission of Jesus, whom we call the Christ.
There will be hundreds of thousand of sermons preached today and in this coming week about Jesus, including a good many about why Jesus came. Why did he come to earth? Why did he come to the Jews? Why did he come to Jerusalem? And what did he think was going to happen when he brought his message and mission to the citadel of his nation's culture and politics and faith? The way such questions are put, and the way they are answered, reflect the many different perspectives and understandings that one can find among Christians about the realities of our faith, the character of our God, the purposes to which we have been called. In many respects, such questions and their answers reveal the various ways in which Christians have attempted to answer the question that concerns us all: Why are we here on this earth?
For many people, it seems quite sufficient that they are here. There is no need to try to explain why. Life is an exceptional experience. It is a wonderful thing. It is a precious reality. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth! I have much sympathy for this way of looking at things. I am not sure we can explain everything about our existence. Christians sometimes act like they have an answer for everything. I doubt that we do. Anyway, there are many times when we would be better off living our lives, rather than trying to explain them. The unlived life is hardly worth thinking about.
Still, there is deeply embedded in the tradition of our faith this conviction that we are here for some reason. Ours is to reason why, not just to do and die. At the very least, we want to know what we can about how we are to live. We want to know what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad, what matters and what does not matter, what endures and what will perish. And, as Christians, we want to know what it is that Jesus has to tell us about the realities of our existence before God.
In the crucible of Jesus' encounter with the ruling powers, Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, asks him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" The question drips with irony. The Jewish leaders have already rejected Jesus. They have handed him over to Pilate for judgment. When asked what accusation they bring against him, they have no charges to make. They excuse themselves lamely, defensively: "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." So here is Jesus, a Jew whose people are occupied and oppressed by imperial Rome, a young man repudiated by the Jewish leadership; and here is Pilate--no friend of the Jews--asking him, Are you their king?
Jesus quickly puts Pilate on the defensive by trading question for question: "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" As if to say, "Do you really want to know?" "Do you really care?" "Would my answer make any difference to you?" Pilate excuses himself on grounds of ignorance. He is not a Jew. He is not privy to Jewish internal affairs. As if Jesus' identity is merely a puzzle to him. He'd like to know what this is all about. The Jewish authorities have hardly been forthcoming. There must be something that has gotten them so riled up. So he asks Jesus, "What have you done?"
Jesus responds with a statement about his kingship, a kingship "not from this world." Jesus' kingship, or reign, is not like that of the Romans and their governor, Pilate. This leaves Pilate still in the dark: "So you are a king?" he asks. "You say that I am a king," says Jesus. Actually, Pilate has said no such thing. But he will--in mockery and disdain. When it comes time to confront the Jewish leadership, he will throw this title in their face: "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" he will ask. And they will say, "Not this man . . !"
But hear what Jesus says: "For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." The truth! This is why he came. To bear witness to the truth. What is truth? Pilate wants to know, and so do we.
This past week I read an article by a Christian scholar, Glenn Tinder, who writes, "Christianity is concerned with the truth above all else" ["Exercising a Christian Intellect," THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, July 2-9, 1997, 627]. Is that really so? I wondered. It all depends on what we mean by the truth. In light of the Gospel of John, it would seem so. Because, according to this Gospel, Jesus is all about the truth. And the truth is all about Jesus. Our text recalls an earlier passage in the Gospel where Jesus says, "I am . . . the truth" [14:6]. For John, truth is embodied in the person of Jesus. Jesus bears witness to the truth. And the truth confirms who Jesus is. Jesus is the truth.
What can it mean to say that someone, Jesus, is the truth? We are accustomed to thinking of truth in terms of facts and logic and reason and evidence and right thinking about the way things really are. So if someone asks, Is Christianity true? we take the question to be about our beliefs, our doctrines, our teachings. Did Jesus die for our sins? Is God really three Persons in One? Are we truly saved by grace through faith? Or if someone asks, Is the Bible true? we take the question to be about the facts, the events, the happenings recounted in scripture. Did Moses part the waters? Did Jesus walk on the water? Did things really happen the way the Bible says?
But suppose the truth is ultimately not a matter of whether these things are true. Suppose the truth has to do, ultimately, not with beliefs and right thinking and evidence and facts, but with the reality of how we are to live.
The story is told about a couple guys who went up in a hot air balloon. It went kahooey and they went way off course, became totally lost, and had no idea where they were when they finally landed out in the middle of an open field. One of the guys called out to a man who was standing nearby watching the balloon come down: "Say, out there, can you tell us where we are?"
The man answered, "Why, yes, you are in a hot air balloon."
The man who had asked the question turned to his companion and said, "That man must be a preacher."
"Why is that?"
"Because what he just said is absolutely true, and it has absolutely no relevance to our situation."
Well, the Gospel of John is concerned about a truth that has absolute relevance to our situation. Truth here is not some abstract idea or literal fact, not some formal or logical category, but a way of being. Truth is somehow personal, and has something to do with relationships. You can belong to the truth, as Jesus says. Jesus, as the truth, presents us with a way of being in the world. It is not the way of the religious authorities who reject him, nor is it the way of Pilate, who never catches on. When Pilate asks Jesus, "What is truth?" it sounds like the cynical politician speaking. God knows, the truth is an elusive commodity in the rough and tumble world of political affairs. If there is any truth for Pilate it is the truth of expediency, the truth that works, the truth that will keep things under control, the truth that will preserve him in power. He shows no serious interest in the truth as some other basis for living, some other understanding of what life is all about. Pilate, when he has Jesus staring him in the face, chooses to sacrifice the truth for the sake of expediency and power.
But, of what relevance is this truth for us, if it ends up on the cross? Is this any way to live, so that you end up getting yourself killed? The further irony of our text is that Jesus, who is the truth, is also the life, yet he is not only rejected, but also condemned to die. So what is Jesus all about?
In the first of our texts this morning Jesus speaks of himself as the gate for the sheep, and as the good shepherd. On the one hand are those who are bandits and thieves, whose interest is only in exploiting the sheep, stealing, killing, and destroying them. On the other hand is the hired hand, who does not own the sheep and does not really care for them, who abandons the sheep when danger threatens. Jesus is neither of these. Regarding the sheep, Jesus says, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly" [10:10].
Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, there are other images that John uses to express the truth about Jesus. Jesus is presented as the bread of life, as the true vine, as the light of the world. All of these images suggest to me that life, and life abundant, is part and parcel of the truth that lies at the heart of what Jesus was all about.
What is the relevance of this to our situation? It seems to me it is this: There is a deep and widespread tendency within Christianity to regard the faithful life as a life of world- and self-denial. The great Christian moral ideal is that of self-sacrifice, the kind of self-sacrifice that we see in Jesus on the cross. Did Jesus himself not say that we are to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him? In emphasizing the theme of self-giving and self-sacrifice, however, we sometimes forget that there is a larger context in which this giving and this sacrifice arise.
There is also within Christianity a very strong propensity to regard the truth of the Christian faith in terms of specific beliefs and formulations of thought, so that if you find yourself unable to think a certain way about these things then you cannot possibly be a Christian. In insisting upon a certain formulation of the truth, however, we tend to ignore the fact that all our words invariably fall short of the truth about the One to whom Jesus bears witness as truth.
Christianity is not, first of all, a world-denying religion, and the Christian life is not, first of all, a self-denying way of being in the world. The first thing that needs to be said, and perhaps the last as well, is that Jesus, whom John proclaims as "the way and the truth and the life," came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Ours is a world-affirming religion and a life-affirming faith! It also then needs to be said that Christianity is not, or at least should not be, a faith that lives by its doctrines. The truth of the Christian faith does not stand or fall upon whether we can gain agreement and right understanding on all that we are to believe. The irony and the tragedy of our existence are, as John so clearly saw, that the world so often rejects the way of life and truth that is embodied in Jesus, in favor of other ways and lesser truths. Jesus came to God's people, and they did not accept him. Jesus stood before Pilate to bear witness to the truth, and Pilate casts him aside. Jesus acted as the good shepherd, devoted, loving, concerned for the sheep, and finds that he must lay down his life for them.
The truth of our existence is that we have been given life, and a beautiful world in which to enjoy it. And the tragedy is that so often we reject what we have been given, oppose it, crush it, mangle it, destroy it, cast it aside. Occasionally, I have asked myself what, if anything, I would find worth dying for. There is nothing that I know worth dying for that is not worth living for. And it seems to me that is what Jesus also tried to show us. It was for his disciples, it was for the inhabitants of Galilee and the surrounding regions, it was for the Jewish people, it was for everyone, that he came. In our first text, Jesus says, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold" [10:16]. Not just those who gathered around him, not just those who joined in along the way, not just the household of Israel, but any who would listen to his voice could be counted among those for whom he came. And he came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
He did not come to die. At the end of this service we will sing, "Ride on to die." But that is not, in the first place, why Jesus came. And he did not come to perform some God-awful sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of his Heavenly Father, who demanded a price to be paid for the sins of humanity. Yes, it was a sinful humanity that brought about his death. It was the religious authorities who rejected him. It was the Roman Governor and his administration who found it convenient to dispose of him. Because not everyone is open to receive the gift of life. Not everyone regards this life as more precious than their cherished notions and practices. Not everyone prefers life itself to status, position, power, control. Not everyone wants the lives of others to flourish. Some want only to maintain their version of the truth. Some want only to impose their way. Some want only to survive and prosper themselves, at whatever cost it extracts from others. Some seem to think that the only way you can save others from their contrary ways and competing ambitions is to cut them out or destroy them.
Why did Jesus come? Not to cut out anybody. Nor to destroy what he could not command. He came that we might have life, and that's the truth. So we are here to have and to share this life abundant. We are called to contribute to the flourishing of life, to give ourselves to that worth living for and, if necessary, worth dying for. Whatever we do to diminish this life, and to oppose this truth, makes Good Friday inescapable all over again. AMEN.