Time, Title, and Truth
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 21 November 2021 [Christ the King]:
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
No fault should be taken, if in hearing this gospel from St. John, we get a bit confused. Even to the casual listener, the scene of Pilate interrogating Jesus brings us into the drama of Holy Week; but clearly, we are not in Holy Week. So, why do we hear about Jesus’ trial at this time of the year? What are we to make of this?
In response to these questions and for your own prayerful consideration, I want to offer three observations as place markers for this day. They are time, title, and truth.
The first observation relates to the fact that this is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Through the words of poet T. S. Eliot, we experience how the element of time can play out to expose much more than what a clock measures. Eliot writes:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In terms of the church’s calendar, the passage of time is meant to highlight our lives with respect to God. Specifically, today we note that another year has passed. In terms of the liturgical calendar and its purpose, we have once again moved through and with time to catch the rhythms and insights of life on God’s terms. Especially in this past year of pandemic experience, where time seems to have been compressed into an exhausting flatness, the gnawing and lingering questions remain: What have we learned? What have we learned about ourselves? What have we learned about living with God?
In terms of being followers of Jesus in our own time, it seems to me to be entirely appropriate for Christians to mimic our secular New Year’s tradition with the making of resolutions. Will we dare to make God-life resolutions for the coming spiritual year that will help us stake out a path toward the new life we need? Or will we simply keep to the customary and the habitual, settling for recycling our lives and not renewing them?
Time is the first aspect that strikes me about this “last” Sunday. The second stems from this day’s liturgical title: “Christ the King Sunday”, an occasion that implicitly asks this question: Is God’s government set up in our hearts?
This day’s liturgical title, “Christ the King Sunday”, is a relatively new enterprise. That it stems from Pope Pius XI’s very first encyclical in 1922 may have the tendency to scrape the scab of some anti-Catholic bias, causing some among us to chaff at the focus of this day. And yet, all bias aside, some historical context not only illuminates what motivated this early twentieth century proclamation; but it also may shed some much-needed light on our own time, as well.
I find a curious – even haunting -parallel between the time of this papal encyclical and our own day. Specifically, in the aftermath of World War I (the “war to end all wars”), the nations of Europe, Russia, and the U. S. were no longer in overt conflict. Yet, as the Pope wrote in his public letter, while those terrible and terrifying hostilities had ceased, nonetheless, there was no true peace. Amid raw divisions and the rise of a desperately reactive tide of secularism, a frightening nationalism began to surface, the bitter fruit of which would start to be tasted in less than ten years, ultimately costing the death of over 50 million people. To the spiraling militarization and hubris, Pope Pius XI declared the gospel truth: that true peace can only come from the Kingship of Christ and by imitating the Lord’s example.
In his encyclical of 1925, “Christ the King Sunday” was formalized within the Roman Catholic Church. Our own tradition included this day in our liturgical calendar, when in 2006 the Episcopal Church adopted the use of the Revised Common Lectionary: that offering and organizing of scriptures for worship for all English-speaking Christians. This helps explain how “new” “Christ the King” can feel to many of us.
Yet, new or not, the historic context of “Christ the King” has remarkable and important parallels to our own time. In the aftermath of the demoralizing slaughter that was World War I and in the deadly, exhausting wake of the flu pandemic of 1918 – a pandemic that killed over 50 million more people worldwide – the rise of chaotic power struggles foretold of hard and deadly things to come.
In our own time, we, too, are exhausted and demoralized by a war with terrifying costs and limited positive impact. We, too, are in the throes of a fearful and worldwide pandemic that has not only caused over 600,000 deaths in this country and over 5 million throughout the world; but the politicization of this pandemic has caused divisions and fear among us all, to the extent that it can easily feel as if we are all in a numbing free fall.
In 1919, the Anglo-American poet, William Butler Yates, chronicled the pressing times of his day in the words of his poem, The Second Coming. The first stanza of which famously reads with troublingly contemporary echoes:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
For Christians who do not lack all “conviction”, “Christ the King” Sunday reminds us of what “true” religion entails. This day reminds us of Who and What is at our center; Who and What we worship; Who and What we follow -- for our own souls’ sake and for the sake of the world.
The idolatry of our times (which is the second aspect of this day) stems from our grounding in “doing our own thing” and regarding our own experience and comfort as the source of our standards. This last Sunday and its gospel meaning confront us with the most pressing dilemma in life; and that dilemma is revealed in Pilate’s last words to Jesus: “What is truth?” To me, this question is the third and most important aspect of this day.
Frankly, I am a bit perplexed by the Revised Common Lectionary’s selection of today’s gospel reading. I say this because the lesson is formally listed as starting at the 33rd verse of John’s 18th chapter and concluding at the 37th verse. The 37th verse contains Jesus’ final comment in his interrogation by Pilate, where Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Ok, fair enough: but don’t we all need Pilate’s breath-taking, follow-up question to get to the laser-sharp issue? I think so, which is the reason I included the 38th verse to our gospel reading.
“What is truth?” is the content that verse 38 provides. If you were an actor or a director, how would you have Pilate’s question played? Snarly cynical: “What is truth?” or desperately numb: “What is truth?” The real issue hidden in this question is how each of us plays it out in our lives?
“What is truth?” Is there a more pertinent, challenging, painfully demanding question? Yet, rather than answer this question directly, is it not typical of Jesus to be so divinely ironic? The Lord’s answer is offered by the simple presenting himself. But of course, neither Pilate nor most of us get the subtly of Jesus’ posture. To the question posed to Jesus, no words philosophical or poetic suffice as an answer. And the gospel point is that only the dramatic presence and experience of the cross will do to demonstrate the Truth, which is God’s Truth.
And this is the Truth -- displayed so paradoxically on the cross of Christ: namely, that “God so loved the world that the Holy One gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “Seeing is believing”, they say. Those with eyes to see, those who dare to see, will see, as Jesus has said all along.
‘What is truth?” Christ, standing in front of a frightened and spineless official, in the armpit of the Roman Empire, is the answer; and the answer is that life with God conquers our fear and the power that death wields over us. But this is an answer that must be lived, a question that must be embodied – even by the Creator of heaven and earth!
As with the time of Pius’s encyclical, “truth” in our day has become a matter of one’s own interpretation, one’s own convenience: “My truth. “Your truth.” A matter of who can shout the loudest for the longest time.
“What is truth?” We are inundated by the oxymoronic impact of “alternative facts”; and consequently our life together as people, as a society, as a country, as a church is in peril. “What is truth?”
Alex Jones is an American far-right radio show host and a highly prominent conspiracy theorist. He is most infamous for parading the lie that what happened in 2012, at the elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was a “hoax”. Can you imagine the impact such toxic manipulation has on the parents who lost their children? The insistence that the murderous shooting of 22 first graders, not to mention the 6 teachers, was all made up is such a violent, evil dismissal of the truth of those parents’ grief and the darkness of their confusion. To have such a devastating loss denied and distorted for personal economic gain and for the acquisition of raw political power -- and continuously to repeat the lie -- smacks of the disorder that caused the catastrophe of the 1930’s.
“What is truth?”
Voices from the Q-anon movement this past week rallied some of the faithful to Dallas in anticipation of the return of JFK, Jr. His death, they believe, was a hoax and tied to a nefarious cover up. Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has lent her voice to this awaited epiphany, adding to her list of “truths”, such as that President Obama is a Muslim and that the Clintons engineered JFK Jr’s plane crash.
“What is truth?”
Of course, the “Big Lie” is that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” in a conspiracy of fraud. Anyone who dares to contravene what has been legally determined – without exception -- as a bald lie is regarded as in need of being removed for lack of fealty to former President. The consequence of this lie and its endless repetition has eroded the trust in our constitutional institutions, the very ties that bind us together and beckon us to our best selves. Yet, instead of our best, this “Big Lie” has vomited out our worst.
“What is truth?
Perhaps the best response to the question about “truth” comes from the old comedy skit on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In”. Lily Tomlin’s childlike character, “Edith Anne” would sit in an oversized rocking chair and opine on various concerns. The highlight of each of “Edith Anne’s” appearances would end with her pert proclamation: “And that’s the truth!”, punctuated with a prolifically mouthed razzberry [bthththzz].
“What is truth?”
This question is not an abstraction, left to people who have too much time on their hands. It is central to our lives, specifically central to our life of faith. Who or what is at the center of your life? To what extent do we follow Christ to be more able to live the prayer we so freely and frequently say: “…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven…”? Amidst the pressures and worries of this time, do we remember to look to Jesus and his example to remember, to see what the Truth is? Moreover, how does our membership at St. Philip’s support each of us as living answers to the question of “What is truth?”
A new year is upon us. We have all been at this threshold before; but we also now have the chance to know this place more deeply, as if for the first time. Amen.