This is the sermon I preached at Putney Methodist Church on Sunday, 25 November. This is the Sunday usually called ‘Christ the King‘ in the Christian calendar. It is the day when we reflect on the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus preached so often, and what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to acknowledge him as our Lord and King. The set readings were Revelation 1:4-8 and John 18:33-38a.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38). Like some of you, perhaps, one of my pleasures in life is to sit over my breakfast in the morning, listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. I now read the paper on my iPad but little else has changed since the days when we were not allowed to disturb my father until he had worked his way through The Telegraph every morning as children. It is one of the little morning rituals that allows me to face the day ahead!
On Thursday, though, I did something that I have not done for a long while, and that was skim through the paper and then simply put it down. I simply could not face the seemingly endless articles about the state we were in as a nation, and the lies that seemed to be routinely accepted as the truth in our mixed-up world. Instead, I did what I should have done beforehand anyway and began to reflect on the Bible readings for this Sunday. What, if anything, I wondered have they to say to our age of ‘Fake News’?
The truth is often hidden
The first thing I think they have to say is fairly obvious: the truth is often hidden from us.
On Friday, we finished the ‘Bible Course’ at Barnes Methodist Church. This excellent course has taken us through the entire Bible in eight weeks (no mean feat!) and in the last session we looked at the book Revelation. I had been slightly dreading this section but the course actually gave a very good introduction to a very difficult book.
Revelation is probably the best example of apocalyptic literature in our Bible. The key to interpreting it, is to understand its context. It was written by someone called John in exile on the Greek isle of Patmos during a time of severe repression in the Roman Empire, probably under Nero or Domitian. It was written in a climate of fear and a time of repression. It was an era too of ‘fake news’ – Christians were used as convenient scapegoat for a whole raft of empire’s ills and lies about this strange cult were commonly accepted as truth. For example, that Christians were actually cannibals, eating flesh and drinking blood in strange night time rituals in the catacombs of Rome.
In this febrile atmosphere, John does what all apocalyptic writers sought to do: to reveal the hidden truth about the world. As the Bible Course reminded us, ‘apocalyptic’ actually comes from Greek apocalypto meaning ‘revelation’. It is meant to be like drawing back the curtains, a revealing, showing the truth behind the facade (like the reading from Daniel we had last week). In this case, John was seeking to show his readers that the world was not as they immediately saw it. Despite the immense power of the emperors and the Roman imperial system, it was not Caesar who was Lord, but Jesus: “Jesus Christ … the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev. 1:5). It was Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb upon the throne, who actually held the fate of nations in his sway and who judge the nations with justice and grace.
“Hold fast!” he says to his persecuted readers. “I will show you the real truth about this world. Fix your eyes not on the things of this world, but on the world to come.” And he goes on to show them the real truth about their future. Not more oppression and fear but of an end to bloodshed and tears, and a time when women and men will live in harmony with their God (Revelation 21:3-4):
God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
This is the truth of how the world really is, John is saying to his first readers. This is the eternal truth and hope to which we cling, and which will remain when all the powers and dominions that you now see have passed away.
Although coming from a different part of the Bible (and almost certainly a different John), we see something not wholly dissimilar in our gospel reading. There again, things are not what they first seem to be. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, seemingly represents power and authority in this scenario and the penniless, itinerant preacher in front of him should be grovelling for his life. Instead, of course, it is actually Christ who holds the balance of power here; he is in charge of his own fate and the confusion in the conversation is only too clear: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. … Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ (John 18:36-7)
On this Sunday, ‘Christ the King’, we are recalling that Jesus is a very different kind of king to the one that Pilate, Herod, and even the disciples envisage. The truth is hidden from them all and will only be fully revealed on the first Easter Sunday morning, when the curtain is drawn upon the empty tomb
In our own day and age, the hidden nature of truth is only too evident, and I could have picked a hundred news stories from the last few days to illustrate my point. Too often, the truth is hidden from us, often because those in power do not wish us to have a moment of revelation, sadly. Many of you will have read or seen news items about the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, who recently undertook a 12-day tour of the UK, examining poverty and its causes in this nation. Like John in the book of Revelation, he drew back the curtain on the true condition of some of the poorest in our own country. A country that simultaneously boasts of being one of the largest economies in the world, whilst one in four of its parents admit to having skipped meals in order to feed their children. Shocking truths that shame us all. (See the churches’ response to the UN report here.) No wonder that many people in authority have preferred to shoot the messenger, and have criticised Professor Alston or telling us the truth rather than engaging with his report.
Good people, on all sides of the political spectrum, wish to reveal the truth to us. We – like Pontius Pilate – must decide whether or not we wish to stay to hear that truth.
Christ wants us to know the truth
The second thing that I think these readings have to say to us today is that Christ wants his followers to know the truth.
The book of Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general with its strange language and complicated imagery, has always given rise to some, shall we say, esoteric interpretations. If you Google most passages of Revelation on the internet (and I strongly advise you not to!), you will come up with some truly bizarre web pages that tell you how Barack Obama is the Antichrist and the world will end next Tuesday teatime! This is nothing new and for centuries people have been using the book of Revelation to peddle their distorted version of the truth.
One of the earliest, and most persistent Christian heresies was indeed based on this idea of secret knowledge. It is generally referred to as Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning ‘knowledge’. It’s actually a portmanteau term referring to numerous beliefs and cults in the first centuries after Christ. They nearly all shared a common characteristic, though, and that was the idea of secret knowledge, or hidden meanings within scripture, or private information passed down orally, outside of the Bible. If you joined the cult and took the prescribed actions, you too could share in this knowledge. The same thing has happened for 2,000 years with similar cults and conspiracy theories, ranging from the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Da Vinci Code. And all of them are, of course, complete nonsense!
Biblical writers like John the divine and John the evangelist actually wrote with the express purpose of giving people the truth, not hiding it. That’s why the last book of the Bible is called “Revelation’ not ‘Hidden’! John, writing on Patmos, wanted us to know the truth, that we worship the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). And when people came to Jesus seeking guidance and healing, he did not offer them secret words and amulets. He did not insist they pass through a series of trials, each more difficult than the last. Nor did he force them through complicated initiation rituals. He simply said ‘follow me’. He taught and spoke using simple language and memorable stories about everyday things. Jesus did not write theological tomes but gave us all the information we ever need to know about how to live a good life in two sentences: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-38). Jesus wanted people to see the truth about our world: to see that life is more than what we eat and drink, and our possessions; to see the possibilities of healing and forgiveness; to realise that God wishes to be in a relationship with each one of us.
Sadly, though, in our own day and age, too many people seem to want to prefer the route that the Gnostics took and believe that we are not meant to know the truth. One newspaper reported this week that 60% of us believe at least one conspiracy theory. This ranged from conspiracy theories about alien contact to Muslim immigration. The results underlined the sad truth about how little we seem to believe those in authority, especially our politicians, journalists and company bosses. The article reminded me of nothing so much as the 1990s television series ‘The X Files’, with its strap-line: “the truth is out there”!
The real truth, though, is that just like the Gnostics’ claim to secret knowledge and all the mad cults throughout history, these theories are all lies and nonsense. What is worse they give people the excuse to do nothing about the state of the world and instead just pander to all their worst and most sinful prejudices. Instead of attempting to make the world a better place, we can just hold up our hands and say there’s no point even trying because it’s all the fault of the Jews / the Muslims / the Socialists / the Bilderberg Group / or whomever.
As Christ’s followers, we are called to pursue the truth and to seek it out with all our heart and soul, for as Jesus said, elsewhere in John’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Christ does not want us to sign up to crazy conspiracy theories or shirk our duty to learn the real truth about our world for ourselves. Christ wants us to know the real truth about our world – the truth that is often staring us in the face – so that we may be truly free.
The truth will cost us something
That leads me to my last, and final point: the truth is a precious commodity and greatly to be valued. But like all precious commodities, it will cost us something.
We see this very clearly in the book of Revelation. It is a book written by a man forced into exile, taken from family and friends, and from his Christian community. He is a man living in fear of his life in a time of terror and persecution. A man who took enormous personal risks in order that we might know the truth about our world, and hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Revealing that truth cost John dearly, just as it cost Peter and Paul, and so many Christian apostles and missionaries over the last two millennia.
Learning the truth, though, did not just cost John the author something, it cost his readers something too. Earlier this week, we celebrated the installation of the new vicar at St Margaret’s Church, Rev’d Dr Brutus Green. Rather bravely I thought, one of the Bible readings for the service came from a few chapters later in this book of Revelation, when John is writing to the seven churches in Asia. There he tells them the honest (and often brutal!) truth about themselves – and, as we all know, the truth can be painful. Perhaps most famously, he was unafraid to pass on the Almighty’s damning verdict on the church in Laodicea: “‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16). That was a hard truth and to accept it would have cost that church a lot. Far easier to ignore it and, as with the UN rapporteur I mentioned earlier, simply shoot the messenger! Down to our own day and our own community here, how costly it is for churches to hear and accept the truth about themselves
This truth is perhaps best illustrated by our gospel reading, though. Jesus is in chains, facing torture and execution because he has brought the truth to his contemporaries. He is ready and willing to pay the ultimate price in order that we might all know the truth and, through it, be free: the truth that even death cannot separate us from the love of God. Unwillingly into this scene comes Pilate. “Jesting Pilate” as Francis Bacon famously described him, who asked that most timeless of questions, “What is truth?” but who “would not stay for an answer”. Pilate knew the truth – that Jesus was an innocent man, facing trumped up charges from the petty politicians who wanted this troublemaker out of their hair. They speak a different language and wore ‘funny’ clothes, but they are no different to the Mafia or the drug lords of our own day, bringing innocent women and men to the corrupt local police chief to silence them. Pilate knows all this and desperately tries to get out of having to make a decision that he knows to be wrong – to execute an innocent man. Upholding the truth will cost him something, though, and he knows it. The chief priests and his cabal threaten him with an appeal to Rome, an appeal that could lose him his job and his position (John 19:12). Pilate is not willing to pay such a stiff price for the truth and washes his hands of the responsibility. Better to let a falsehood stand, than risk your career, seems to be the moral of his sordid tale.
Would we have acted differently, I wonder? What value do we place on the truth? Are we really willing to hear the truth about ourselves, our nation, our politics? One good friend of mine still reads a newspaper whose views he stopped agreeing with a long time ago. When I ask him why he still puts up with all its lies and mistruths, he always smiles and replies, “Well, I’ve got used to the way their crossword compilers work now, and it would be very hard to start again elsewhere.” For him, the cost of learning how to do a new crossword puzzle is too high a price to pay for reading something closer to the truth each day! What is too high a price for us to pay, I wonder?
The challenge of today’s readings is what value do we place upon the truth?
- do we really want to pull back the curtain to reveal the truth about the world in which we live?
- do we prefer to live with half-baked truths and conspiracy theories?
- are we willing to pay the price of learning the truth – of sacrificing long-held preconceptions and habits in order to open our minds to the reality of our world
As Christians, the answer to all those questions must be ‘yes’. We believe in ‘good news’ not ‘fake news’! Too many women and men have died in order that you and I might know the truth and that that truth might set us free. Free form hatred and malice. Free from envy and prejudice. Free from fear itself. For we know the greatest truth of all, brothers and sisters, that this world is not all there is. That one day heaven and earth shall pass away but we shall not. That we are forgiven, loved and free because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Let us not be afraid of the truth, as Pilate was, but lead our lives bearing witness to it, and sharing its power with the whole world. Amen.