Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336

Finding the Gospel in The End

‘Each year I visit the doctor for my annual physical, and for no apparent reason. That is, I make an appointment, pay for parking, sit in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination. This is done all in order for a team of medical professionals to measure my wellness.

It is not entirely a comfortable experience. And I confess that I often want to avoid it. However, heart disease runs in my family.’ (1) And so the medical tends to focus on the coronary aspects of my physiology — blood pressure is scrutinized and cholesterol levels are monitored. And when I’m done, I have a picture — a snap shot — of my overall health. If medications or therapies have to be employed, I comply, to ensure my long-term wellness. The check-up, after all, could save my life.

These apocalyptic stories in the bible about the end times give an answer to an age old question: How can I be saved? How can I get to heaven?

In this Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46), an answer is given, to be sure. But it’s given as a wellness check. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare, but to provide a snapshot of our overall health. Its purpose is to lead us to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.

So, how are we saved? “All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:32). The text opens with a vision of glory: Christ the King sits enthroned above all people on earth, to be their judge.

And yet, we cannot ignore where the rest of this passage goes. That is, discovering God in exactly the unexpected, opposite places from where a God would normally be found.

Not in glory, but in humility. Not enthroned, but enslaved and imprisoned. Not in the mighty and spectacular, but in the meek and gentle.

Moreover, God is discovered. God is not attained, by all our toiling in good works to “find God” in our self-centred projects. In fact, the sheep — ‘the good guys’ (i.e. the righteous ones) — are surprised to hear they had indeed cared for the King of Creation.

They were not aware, in their sharing of love to the disadvantaged and poor, that they were serving Christ. They just shared who they were with what little they had, freely and without expectation nor calculation.

It is clear, from this Gospel text that in God’s Reign, Jesus is looking for people naturally sharing their love with others — a free outflow of love — rather than calculated efforts designed to achieve a pre-determined result or image. This is not management-by-objective. Nor is it ‘the ends justify the means’.

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

Being religious, if we are not aware of it, can easily be co-oped by prevailing cultural norms — such as: dividing people into different groups, operating according to a tit-for-tat, either-or perspectives. It’s funny, when I think about it, what image first comes to mind in this Gospel story about the final judgement — and has endured from the first time I learned it as a child — is this image of dividing the sheep from the goats. That’s the dominant image, not clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. No, it’s all about ‘dividing and conquering’. It’s about winners and losers. Am I in? Or, am I out?

Religious history can be tracked by seeing how much ways of thinking employed to solve certain problems have only exacerbated them over time. Because the same frame of mind was used. Indeed, it is always easier to come up with solutions ‘designed’ to help others but are really only motivated by our own needs instead of a self-less orientation to working with and loving others.

Today, it seems hard to imagine that Muslims, Jews, and Christians can ever find peace on earth with one another. And yet, in Canada anyway, I believe we have an opportunity to witness to the world how it can be done. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus — and all manner of religious expressions — can work together to love one another and those who are disadvantaged and underprivileged.

In Canada, at least, we live in a multi-cultural, diverse society; different world religions are not going away! They are here to stay! The challenge is co-existence, not eradication of difference, nor coercion towards ‘same-mindedness’. The solution is not to just exercise more power over our opponent. Be better, stronger, faster, louder. And have a competition, a religious ‘food-fight’.

Matthew 24:10-14 is another passage that describes the ‘end time’; it reads: “Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another, and … the love of many will grow cold.” This suggests that growing antagonism and cooling love are among the most dangerous cancers of the heart facing followers of Christ. This involves ‘distancing’ ourselves from others who are different from us.

But it is possible to work together. The vision from Matthew 25 is concrete, not other-worldly. It involves clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and providing for basic needs. That’s where we start. In the case of providing and advocating for affordable housing, for example, people of faith today, in Ottawa, can collaborate and cooperate — despite our differing creeds and doctrines — to fulfill Jesus’ vision.

Could it be, that the glory of Jesus includes you, who may be a loser in the eyes of the world? Could it be, that the kingdom — the glorious reign of Christ — includes you, too — the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and the underprivileged?

We may not like warnings or wellness checks; after all, they ask us to recalibrate our lives. However, they do provide a critical wellness overview that we are wise to tend, Particularly because ‘heart trouble’ plagues us all.

I believe we can show the world how it can be done! That all nations, and all classes of people, can indeed gather together, live together, stand together and serve together before the throne of grace. This is a win-win scenario. Let’s work together for the Reign of love in Christ Jesus!

And leave the rest to God.

(1) Many thanks to Lindsay Armstrong for the opening illustration about the medical exam as an image for preaching this Gospel text, in “Feasting on the Word” eds Bartlett and Taylor, Year A Volume 4 WJK Press, Kentucky, 2011, p.333-337