A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 22, 2011 (Good Friday)
Truth or Dare. Many of us played versions of this popular party game when we were kids. You’d say to a friend “Truth or Dare?” And if they answered “Truth” they’d get asked an embarrassing question to which they had to respond honestly. If they answered “Dare” they’d be required to do something embarrassing and hopefully not illegal. In a sense, the Passion Gospel is the ultimate game of Truth or Dare.
A drama plays out in which the search for truth is elusive even as it plays the central role. Because at the heart of both the action and dialogue stands Jesus: the way, and the life, and the truth. In John’s gospel the truth is hidden in plain sight and no one dares name it. They dance around it and revile it and deny it even as they refuse to face it. Yet there the truth stands – calm, present, and in complete control of the situation.
Facing the truth can be painful. For the leaders of the synagogue who haul Jesus in front of the authorities on trumped up charges it means recognizing that they don’t have all the answers when it comes to issues of faith; that there is one who holds greater authority than they do; that they are not the sole arbiters of relationship with God. For Pilate it means recognizing his weakness as a leader; one who hides behind his office while avoiding conflict or confrontation. For Peter it means recognizing that despite his best intentions he is ultimately a fearful human being who cannot stand up for the truth even though he well knows it and is in intimate relationship with it.
For us, facing the truth means an end to the comfort of superficiality and the haven of denial. It means peeling back the layers we have built up in our own lives that keep us from acknowledging our own vulnerability; our utter helplessness; and the reality of our own mortality. And today we are reminded that we should not, that we cannot ignore the reality of Jesus’ death. God bids us to leave our coping mechanisms behind in order to see the utter affliction of our Lord; to gaze upon his wounds; to perceive his pain. We have a natural urge to avert our eyes – avoidance is a powerful temptation. But the hard wood of the cross is real; as real as death.
Which is why today is a day of emptiness. A great void hangs over the whole world. We glimpse the terror of life without our Lord. We peer over the precipice and gaze into the darkness of a life without meaning; a life devoid of relationship with the divine. And we naturally recoil in horror. We want to rewrite the ending of the Passion narrative; we want to fix things by saving Jesus. But we cannot take this cup from him anymore than he would have chosen not to do the will of his Father.
We are beckoned into the tomb with Jesus not because God is cruel or because God wants to inflict pain upon us but because God wants us to experience the fullness of resurrection glory. Until we know the depth of despair we cannot know the height of joy. And unless we enter fully into it, we cannot experience the fullness of resurrection. If you’ve made the commitment to be here on Good Friday you’re well aware that you can’t know the full glory of the resurrection without first walking the way of the cross. Even as that walk demands that we confront an uncomfortable truth.
Pilate asks the question that continues to resound throughout the world: “What is truth?” And even as he literally washes his hands of the whole affair, it seems that he has some inkling of an answer. There is only one truth in this world – and that is Jesus Christ. Jesus sees into our souls – not the external bluster we put on for the world. And he loves us anyway. In the same way he sees the characters in this drama; he cuts right to the truth. He sees the leaders of the synagogue for who they are – speaking out of both sides of their mouths, seeking desperately to retain their grip as authoritative religious leaders. He sees Pilate for who he is – a weak leader, easily swayed by public opinion. He sees Peter for who he is – a terrified human being whose whole world view comes crashing down around him. And he loves them all anyway.
Jesus tells Pilate, “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.” And this points to another reality; another truth. And that is that we are people of the truth; through the faith that has been handed down to us we know the truth, we belong to the truth, even as we long for the truth.
This knowledge and responsibility lead to some profound questions: Do we dare ignore the truth? Do we dare minimize the truth? Do we dare marginalize the truth? Do we dare deny the truth? These are the hard questions we face on Good Friday. Like Peter, we don’t always proclaim the truth.
Our lives are made up of a series of death and resurrection cycles – that’s the essential truth of our mortal existence. And thus death is not the end. Hope is extended to us even on this most difficult of days. Good Friday is a day of hope. Paul bids us to “hold fast to our confession of hope without wavering.” If we can hold on to hope even in the midst of the darkness of the day – that is true hope. It’s not a false hope; it’s not that we simply hope for the best. We stand in “sure and certain” hope of the Resurrection.
On this holiest of days, our portion is simply to dare to walk in the truth that is our lord Jesus Christ.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011