Scots Church Adelaide
Back and Forth between Two Truths

Gospel: John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

I was reading John 6 yesterday. In verse 35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

I’m a scientist, by training. I come from a tradition of down-to-earth, feet-well-planted, farmers. John’s not my sort of literature. If my eyes don’t glaze over when I read those words in chapter 6, I’ll probably label them as hyperbole.  I’ll consign them to the same drawer as Matthew 19:12.   “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” Origen reportedly castrated himself on the basis of this verse; not my style at all.

But what if John is not some sort of mystical hyperbole? What if John is trying to use our limited, everyday language of metaphor and simile, to describe a level of consciousness that has gone much deeper into reality? Might it be that “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” is ‘literally’ true? Perhaps it is not just flowery language, that a practical farmer worried about early heat waves, the wind and fire, has no time for.

I sat and contemplated the words.  When I was still farming,  I spent enough long days circling paddocks to meet that ‘sense of other’ that tickles the edge of consciousness after ten hours of the steady rhythm of a tractor’s engine. Was it real? Were the gospel writers “trying to say something that ordinary human language was not equipped to say, so they stretched that language beyond normal limits.” (John Shelby Spong Eternal life A New Vision, Chapter 15.)

So, finally, I come to this week’s reading in John.

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

We have a two level conversation, similar to Jesus and Nicodemus, and Jesus and the woman at the well.  Jesus is talking on one level, the other person appears, at first glance not to have realized this, and continues to talk on a very mundane level.  (John chapters 3 and 4)

Yet Pilate knew he was in the presence of something ‘other.’ Bill Loader makes an insightful comment about him in chapter 18.

The Jewish authorities remain outside the praetorium because they want to remain pure so that they can celebrate the Passover that evening. Jesus is taken inside. So Pilate goes to and fro between them. (My emphasis)

John Petty shows another angle of the same thing. When Pilate asks him if he is King of the Jews, Jesus asks if Pilate really wants to know, or whether he is just repeating the accusations of the Judeans. (33) Pilate pulls back, defensive.

I am not a Judean, am I?

As Petty points out, this is true at one level.

Yet, on another level, Pilate is a Judean.  In the fourth gospel, anyone aligned with the Temple establishment and its worldview is a Judean.  In doing the bidding of the Judean authorities, Pilate has become a Judean.

To be a Judean, of course, is the final choice Pilate makes.  But before this final decision, he is worried and puzzled. He asked Jesus, “What is truth?”

Like me on my tractor, or musing out my office window, he is being tantalized by a hint of deeper consciousness; a barely imaginable transcendence.  Is he wondering if all the feelings he has about what life really means, and all the sense that so much of everyday life is unimportant, and that what is important gets squeezed out….  Is he wondering if all that stuff he can’t even express clearly to himself, might not only be expressible, but in some way very tangible and real?

This is a serious pastoral question to ask about Pilate. We write him off as a weakling, because in the end he succumbed to political pressure. Not that we ever do this!

Pilate the weaking, actually recognised there was an issue about competing kingdoms, and struggled with it. Sometimes, in church meetings, we might be tempted to think he was more spiritually aware than some of us!

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not from this world.” (36) He is not talking about a kingdom of political power.  This is not about a “Christian” political party getting elected to government. But it is also not a kingdom which is “out of this world.”  Jesus  is not talking about some heavenly, ethereal, non tangible symbol. The kingdom, and the living of Christian life, is deeply and practically involved in the grit of the everyday. “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” 6:2

The kingdom is  ‘literally’ true. It is not just flowery language that a practical farmer worried about the wind and fire, or a mum at home with three little children, has no time for. It is the greater reality.

Whether we are coughing in the heat and smoke, or have our hands in dirty nappies, there is only one real question. “What is truth?” Are we seeking the greater reality, and seeking to live the life Christ showed us? Are we doing this, even if much of the time, we have only a glimpse of the reality? Or are we throwing in our lot with ‘the Judeans’ and putting our trust in political power and human wealth?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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