April 2, 2021 / Good Friday/ Richard Holmer
The Passion according to St. John, chapters 18 and 19
The Whole Truth
In a courtroom trial, witnesses take an oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” The problem is that none of us is actually capable of telling the whole truth. We can’t tell the whole truth because we don’t know the whole truth. We probably could not bear it if we did. Each of us has only a limited, personal perspective. As St. Paul said: “Now I know in part…” (1 Cor 13:12) We also find it very difficult to tell “nothing but the truth”, because we want to include our own rationalizations, explanations, justifications and excuses. We are inclined to embellish the truth, telling it in our favor. Finally, we can’t tell the truth, because ultimately, the truth isn’t a statement or an idea or a proposition. The truth cannot be contained in so many words, because Truth is a person.
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The whole truth is revealed in the person of Jesus. In Jesus we encounter the fullness of God: the Way and the Truth and the Life. It is Jesus who assures us that in him we can come to know the Truth – the truth that sets us free. On trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus not only boldly spoke the truth, he lived the truth. His life is the paradigm of what is good and right and true. And his death reveals the transcendent truth of God’s love for this world.
Pontius Pilate was troubled by Jesus because he sensed both his authenticity and his innate authority. But he could not comprehend Jesus, because the only truth that mattered to Pilate was political expediency and the predominant power of the Roman empire. Pilate did not want to deal with the truth embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Passion narratives in the gospels trace the fate of Truth in this world. Truth is betrayed (and not only by Judas). Truth is denied (and not only by Peter). Truth is condemned (and not only by Pilate and the high priests). As Jesus is put on trial, the truth is revealed about this world: about religious leaders, about political authorities, about enemies of Jesus, about friends of Jesus. The truth is that all of them are, variously: self-serving, cowardly, corrupt, expedient, truth-denying.
The truth is revealed about all of us as well. That we are sinners in thought, word and deed. Christ on the cross holds a mirror up to our lives. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “In the presence of Christ’s integrity, our pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed.” The cross reveals the whole truth about each of us. Our spirit may be willing, but our flesh is often very weak.
Not Jesus, but you and I are the ones on trial. The hymn Ah, Holy Jesus points to our complicity.
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.
I crucified thee.
It’s a truth we would prefer to avoid. We can’t blame the Jews, the high priest or the Romans. Our willfulness, our weakness, our stubborn and selfish pride put Jesus on the cross. It could be said that Jesus was executed for telling the truth to everyone he met – for revealing the whole truth about every person he encountered. There are things that are too true to be good – and the reality of our sinful nature is surely one.
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However, Jesus also reveals the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about God. The truth is very good – yet not too good to be true. The truth made known in Jesus is that God loves this world and everyone in it. The truth is that God is willing to pour out his life in Jesus for the sake of sinners like you and me. This is the Truth that will not compromise with evil; Truth that will not take short cuts or look for expedient solutions; Truth that is eternal and unchanging; Truth that is deeply personal – as when Jesus forgives his own executioners.
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On Good Friday, it is not Jesus who is tried and found guilty. Instead this world is guilty of betraying and resisting and denying the Truth revealed in Jesus. You and I are found guilty of falling far short of who we were created to be – both in our actions and in our failures to act. And so it is right for us to grieve on this Good Friday: to grieve over the cruel torture and execution inflicted on the One who came to love and to bless, and to show us the way to abundant life. And even more, it’s right to mourn over a world that could be so misguided and blindly self-serving as to crucify the Son of God. It’s right for us to mourn over our own sinfulness – our lack of faith, hope and love. The hard truth of the cross is a genuine cause for grief.
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But we do not grieve as those who are without hope. In Christ on the cross we see not only our own sinfulness, not only the cruel and selfish vanity of this broken world. We see also the selfless, gracious love of God. Christ’s death means life for us. By his wounds we are made whole. He has accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves: freedom from the powers of sin and death.
What appeared to be a most dismal ending was actually a powerful beginning.
The truth could not be denied or silenced.