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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Citizens of Nowhere, Citizens of Everywhere, Citizens of God - Address 2

The second of two Bible readings given at the Abbey of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer to the annual Synod of the Archdeaconry of France in the Diocese of Europe

“You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above” John 19.1-16

Yesterday we explored how St John’s passion narrative opens up the question, “What is truth?” in relation to our loyalties and our belonging. Today I want to look at citizenship in relation to power, and particularly its shadow side. 

In the passion, different kinds of power collide: imperial, coercive, brutal power, and the naked defenceless power of love. These forces act on Pilate like a vice.  In the conversation between the man of Rome and the man of God, Pilate is more and more helpless, tossed this way and that like grain in a sieve, half wanting to set free this prisoner who speaks about truth, half needing to appease the crowd who are thirsty for blood.

The shouts of “crucify!” rattle Pilate. But not half as much as when he goes back inside the praetorium and asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus is silent. And this has the effect of unnerving Pilate all the more. Not knowing where this extraordinary dialogue is leading him, he blunders on, returning to his favourite theme of power because it is all he knows.  “Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” It’s the speech of a desperate man.  Jesus’ reply is the last thing he says before he reaches the cross. “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above”.  And perhaps it begins to dawn on Pilate that this kingdom that is “not from here” is different in every way from that of imperial Rome. Yet the power Jesus acknowledges in Pilate to crucify and set free comes from the same source as his own, the power to lay down his own life and to take it up again, as he has said earlier in the gospel. That is to say, it comes ultimately from God.  

This is not to give divine legitimacy to the human political system that has Jesus in its grip.  Jesus’ point is neither to affirm the political system Pilate represents nor to subvert it.  It’s simply to acknowledge that it’s a temporal, derivative power.  Every Roman governor knew that the only power he held was like that.  He was merely the local representative of the emperor, a servant of Rome.  In particular, governors of Judaea were under no illusions about the significance of their patch.  This remote unloved outpost of empire was no Gaul or Spain, or even Britannia. 

Instead, Jesus turns Pilate’s riposte about power into a theological reflection on the divine origins of all human authority.  That is to say, whoever we are, whatever we are, our power - hard power, soft power, collective power, individual power - comes “from above”.  To recognise this is to learn how to handle power wisely and responsibly.  Not to recognise this, to imagine that power is autonomous, is to become corrupted and destroyed by it. The demonic principalities and powers Paul writes about are destructive precisely because they think they are supremely autonomous and do not acknowledge where they themselves ultimately come from.  “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice” said Simone Weil. This is Pilate’s dilemma.  

Christian faith commits us to name accurately where power belongs and to confront its abuse by speaking truth to it. As we saw yesterday, this means taking the side of truth against the lie.  It calls us to stand with victims who are exploited and abused, because unlike Pilate, they have no power of any kind, whether their own or given to them from somewhere else. There are Pilates in every walk of life, men and women whose judgments are governed not by what is right but by what others will think of them, what the majority want, what their superiors tell them to do, what will be in the pragmatic interests of their institution. I have suggested that one way of reading the Passion Narrative is as a judgment on Pilate and what he stands for: the cowardice that breeds confusion and mistrust by walking out on truth.  No wonder Pilate was “more afraid than ever”.  When fear dominates our motives to the extent that we are incapable of acting according to principle, we have lost our moral bearings.  

I say we. Anyone who undertakes public office knows that they put their integrity on the line, whether in politics, business or the church.  All of us start out committed to upholding the standards I mentioned yesterday like trustworthiness, accountability, integrity, transparency and selflessness. But if our high ideals are not to be a fantasy, we need to know ourselves, and this includes our propensity for self-deception.  We know how easily the vision we start out with can become dulled with time.  Our choices begin to lose their moral edge and spiritual integrity.  It isn’t that all our good motives are discarded overnight, just that they are eroded bit by bit as the years go by.  The little compromises that smooth the path of daily existence, the courage it takes to stand up for an opinion that may be unpopular but is probably right, our disinclination to take risks, our wish to please other people or be liked, our being satisfied just to be compliant – “doing things right” at the expense of “doing the right thing” - or simply the wearing-down effect of tiredness or boredom – all of this goes into making a Pontius Pilate. These words of Jesus offer a reality-check.  They trace the authority of every institution and every individual back to its proper source in God himself.  To know where our power comes from, as leaders and as citizens, is vital for our self-understanding. Only then do we understand that all work is both his and ours. 

The church has a particular responsibility in the way it orders its life, not only for what it models to the world but especially for what it should be in itself. In the Fourth Gospel, the church is not an institution constructed around power-relations; rather as I said yesterday, it’s a community of truth and love where leadership means washing the feet of other people and laying down your life.  As Meurig said on our first evening, last month’s child abuse hearings in London that focused on the Church of England were painful precisely because they drew attention to how easily, even in the best institutions, what masquerades as benign power can quickly be distorted into power of the most malign and destructive kind. Yet there is no quick fix, no easy path to servanthood. Our transformation from people fascinated by power into servants who wash feet doesn’t happen just because we act it out on Maundy Thursday. It begins when we pay attention to the example of Jesus and make it our daily prayer to imitate him.  Only then do we acknowledge that to live as Jesus did can never be the result of human effort.  It depends on charisms, grace-gifts that empower usfrom above”, so that we can become what we are incapable of being by ourselves.   

I want to connect our citizenship of this kingdom that is from above, with the Christian virtue of humility. You can define it in different ways, but fundamentally, humility is to “know our place” in the divine scheme of things, and understand that whoever and whatever we are comes from the power and authority of God.  St Benedict recognised this when he wrote his Rule for Monks.  Humility is the theme of one of the longest and greatest sections of that remarkable book.  It comes early on, for if a brother or a sister hasn’t begun to know their place in the monastery, how will they ever know it before God?   The monastery is a “school for disciples” – this is why Benedict wrote the Rule.  It’s tantamount to saying that it’s a training-ground in humility, for humility is learned through obedience.  So the first of Benedict’s twelve rungs on the ladder of humility is to know that we are always under divine scrutiny; all our actions “are everywhere seen by the eye of God’s majesty” (chapter 7).  To put it simply, humility is the renunciation of power as humans tend to understand, in other words, to embrace the wholly other kind of power that is to embrace truth and love. 

To find that his power under this kind of scrutiny is precisely what is happening to Pilate.  Everything that he has ever been has come under the gaze of Jesus.  Jesus has cut him down to size. “You are what you are because of God”.  What Jesus says to Pilate he says to all of us.  Our human capability and potential, our “power” is givenfrom above”.  That phrase, as I said yesterday, reminds us of the conversation Jesus has had earlier with another man who knew about power, the Jewish leader Nicodemus. I reminded you that in St John, the two words kingdom and from above occur side by side both in that conversation (3.1­­­­­­­­­–8), and here in the Passion Narrative.  Jesus tells Pilate that he must look beyond himself to understand the source of his power, just as he told Nicodemus that the only way he would see the kingdom of God was by being “born from above”.  “Can you enter your mother’s womb and be born a second time?” asks Nicodemus.  The other gospels say that we must indeed become like little children. What Jesus is telling Nicodemus and Pilate is that the journey of humility begins and ends in God.  Without him, we shall never find it, and therefore never “know our place” in the world. Which is the same as saying, we can never become good citizens in the human sense, let alone the divine, we can never hold and use our power wisely until we know our place.

Jesus does not stop there, though he might have done.  But there is more to say about power and its abuse. “Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”.  Who or what is Jesus referring to? 

Pilate has already stated the facts himself, and has used the very word Jesus now picks up: “your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me” (18.35).  But the process of “handing over” didn’t begin with them.  As in all the gospels, John is in no doubt about where it originated.  He uses the same word to refer to Judas Iscariot whose shadow has fallen across John’s Gospel from early on after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus spoke about the one who would betray him. We have known all along about the central part he will play in delivering Jesus to his destiny.  Yes, technically it was the high priest, not Judas, who delivered Jesus to Pilate. But Judas’ role has been symbolically much more significant.  So Jesus acknowledges that without Judas, he would not now be standing in the praetorium facing judgment.  

It is not only Judas and the Jewish authorities who are engaged in “handing over”.  The word turns up again in the sentence which rounds off the long Pilate episode. His final act, John tells us, is to “hand him over” to be crucified. In the deadly game of relay that culminates in the death of an innocent man, many different players are involved.  John sees the judicial murder of Jesus as a collusion whose central act is one of “handing over”: Judas to the priests; the priests to Pilate, Pilate to the crowd.  But we need to notice how the word reappears one last time at the cross itself.  There Jesus bows his head in death and “hands over” his spirit (19.30).  Ultimately, what Judas, the priests, Pilate and the crowd do without knowing it is to “hand over” the spirit of Jesus for the world’s salvation.  That is to reflect theologically on how human events unwittingly fulfil a divine purpose.  Perhaps it recalls the words of Joseph to his brothers when they are reconciled: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50.20).

Sometimes a writer changes forever the way you see things. W. H. Vanstone is one of these for me, in his two books Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense and The Stature of Waiting. That second book has shown how the word “betray” is used as a marker in the gospels.  It indicates a transition in Jesus’ career.  Up to the passion, Jesus is the active agent in events: teaching, doing good, bearing witness to the kingdom of God.  But once he is “handed over”, his role becomes passive.  Out of the very power that is his by right, he chooses to renounce power.  He becomes the one who is “done to” by others, culminating in his suffering and death. The true significance of Judas’ act, says Vanstone, is that he is the means through whom Jesus has become the victim, his destiny no longer lying within his own control but in the hands of others. 

This helps us to see the connection between what Jesus has just said about Pilate’s “power” over him and Judas’ guilt in “handing over” Jesus to Pilate.  Throughout St John, Jesus has exercised power - as the bringer of light, life and love, he acts with the authority and power of God himselfBut now, instead of being in control of his own destiny, he is subject to the power of someone else, Pilate who can crucify or release him at will.  That the Son of God by whom worlds were made should now have become the object of someone else’s power marks a new phase in his abasement. And because of Judas’ key role in this, he is guilty of a “greater sin”. 

John is unsparing in his judgment on Judas, whom he calls “the son of destruction”.  More than anyone else, he is the man who has used power for evil ends; or, we might say, been taken over and possessed by an evil power intent on destroying truth and goodness. “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” says John (13.2). At the last supper, “Satan entered into him....So after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.”

What does John find so unforgivable in the career of Judas that he uses the dramatic image of the night to symbolise his inner condition?  It goes back to how he pictures the church as an upper room community.  I think we can say that the sin of Judas as John sees it is a sin against both the truth and the friendship of that room. There, Judas is portrayed as the direct antithesis of the disciple “whom Jesus loved”.  When Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, it’s the beloved disciple next to Jesus at table who asks him who it is.  Jesus answers with an action of friendship, by giving Judas a piece of bread.  The word companion literally means someone with whom we break our bread: here in France children’s friends are their copains.  Yet Judas abuses the privileged position friendship gives.  He throws the gesture of intimacy back into Jesus’ face and leaves the table.  There’s a pointed contrast here for St John. As the one abandons Jesus, another, the beloved disciple, stays with him all the way to the cross: loving ‘to the end’ just as John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples to the end.

We can speculate about what John thinks drove Judas to hand Jesus over.  Traditionally it comes down to envy or greed. But the Fourth Gospel probes the psychology of Judas more deeply.  As I’ve said, the first references to Jesus being ‘handed over’ occur immediately after the story of the feeding of the crowd, when Jesus foresees that people want to take him by force to make him king (6.15): here, at last, is the messiah who will rid Israel of Rome and give her back her freedom!  This suggests that Judas is not the envious or greedy disciple so much as the disappointed friend.  As the gospel unfolds, it becomes clearer that what he has hoped for in Jesus is not going to be realised.  The delicate irony in John’s use of the friendship-symbolism of bread points to these failed expectations.  Jesus begins by multiplying loaves and hopes of kingship are high.  But they are progressively dashed as Jesus’ meaning becomes clear, and by the time we reach the upper room, all he gives Judas is a single morsel of bread.  The kingdom is not going to come; or as we know by now, it is not going to come in that form.  Maybe Judas thought that Jesus’ arrest would force the issue, but that is to speculate beyond what the gospels tells us. 

But in the Fourth Gospel he is not simply the lonely, isolated erstwhile friend whose destiny is to become the most tragic individual in history destined, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, to be chained forever at the icy centre of hell with those other two great traducers, Brutus and Cassius.  He stands for an entire community that has turned against Jesus and made him the object of their hatred. This is the shadow side of citizenship that, as John sees it, sets itself up against the kingship that Jesus has come to bear witness to. John has underlined this collective rejection of Jesus at the very outset of his book.  “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1.11).  The theme of how his mission results first in misunderstanding and then in open hostility is present in all the gospels, but in St John it features from the start.  Subsequent episodes in the Gospel flesh out that initial statement about the man who was not welcome in his own community.  In a long and bitter debate about his messiahship in John 8, Jesus rounds on the religious leaders and accuses them of being from the devil (8.44).  And when Jesus tells Pilate that the hander-over, the traditor, is guilty of a greater sin, we can’t avoid the conclusion that St John sees an entire community implicated in his action. ‘Judas’ is not only the individual man.  His name in Greek means “the Jew”. 

This is hard to say for someone like me who is Jewish by birth and whose mother was a holocaust survivor.  The anti-semitism that has poisoned Christian attitudes to the Jewish community for centuries has found St John’s Gospel a text that has fed its hatreds.  There is no getting away from the disparaging references to “the Jews” throughout the story John tells. Instead of asking for the release of an innocent man, they clamour for a murderer and thug.  Despite their hatred of the Romans, they appeal to Pilate to crucify Jesus on the disingenuous grounds of loyalty to the state.  And worst of all is their response to Pilate’s question, “shall I crucify your king?”  They cry out in a terrible unison, “We have no king but the emperor”.  There is not a trace of hesitation or doubt in that cry.  It’s the ultimate surrender of their birthright, the betrayal of their identity as the people whose king is God alone.  

We can’t gloss over how the Passion Narrative was exploited by Christians early on to blame Judaism for the death of Jesus.  And the first thing to acknowledge is how late in the day official Christian recognition of these facts has come, together with the first serious attempts to address it as an issue in Jewish-Christian dialogue. We are learning as we read and handle texts to be careful about the historic resonances they carry for different communities, especially for those that have been or still are voiceless, without power, made victims in some way. Women, people of colour, the LGBTI community, those with disability, people who are stigmatised, immigrants, abuse survivors and many others know what I mean. As we learn to sensitise ourselves to how discrimination has been justified by recourse to familiar texts, we must go back to the scriptures and ask whether we have unwittingly (or even willingly at times?) colluded in readings that can exercise a destructive power over some groups and individuals. I see this as especially urgent when antisemitism is once again raising its head today, as we have seen in the alarming increase in attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe in recent years (including France). You could call this being humble before the text, knowing our place in relation to it.

Historians tell us that how a society treats its Jewish minorities has often proved to be the bellwether of how that society upholds the virtues of civilisation such as honour, respect, kindness, toleration and human rights. As we know, the assimilation of Jews into the mainstream of the historically Christian European nations was not a straightforward process. My grandparents, living and prospering in a middle-class suburb of Düsseldorf in the early 1930s, did not see the signs of regression until it was almost too late. They could not believe that the hard-won integration of the Jewish community over two centuries into German society, including fighting for their country in the Great War, could ever be reversed. What the rise of Nazism should have taught us is that so-called progress is never irreversible. Which means that our societies have to maintain constant vigilance against the inequality and discrimination that pave the way towards racial hatred and the violence it begets. Antisemitism among the far-right of Germany, a nation acutely aware of the burden it carries because of its twentieth century history, should worry us greatly. And where there is antisemitism, there are always other expressions of hostility based on race, colour, political opinion, religious belief, gender and sexuality. It was not only Jews who ended their days in the Nazi death camps. 

“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” You can see how, in a society that was already looking for a scapegoat in connection with Jesus’ death, St John’s telling of the story about Judas the representative Jew would provide a ready candidate on whom to project anti-Semitic tendencies. I mentioned the key work of the anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard in that connection yesterday. This is why I’ve been talking about how we affirm good habits of reading that allow the text to speak into our political and social situations in ways that offer resources for the mending of all that disintegrates and destroys in human life.

However, Jesus’ words to Pilate must not be read in isolation from all that he has said up to this point. I’m thinking of sayings like “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its abundance”; and “I, if I am lifted up from the earth will draw all humanity to myself”. And most of all, his prayer that “they may all be one: as you, Father are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. I know that in their strict sense, these sayings apply to those whom Jesus has called to him, the society of friends that is St John’s way of speaking about the church. But the scope of his gospel forbids us from the narrow reading of these texts. From its opening words “in the beginning” to its vision of the cross as a cosmic event, there is what I would call a tendency towards convergence in St John, towards the integration of all that is split off and at risk of being scattered. Alone among the gospels, it’s John who quotes Jesus’ saying, after he has fed the five thousand, “gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost”. This, it seems to me, is the work of the grace and truth we see in the glory of the only-begotten from the Father. That is the ultimate power of love about which St John has so much to say, the love that binds all things together and remakes the world as God intended it to be. And such is its power that even the “greater sin” Jesus speaks of to Pilate is capable of forgiveness and reconciliation, that transformation in the life of communities and individuals that the gospel is about. 

This is why I believe that these chapters of St John speak into our dilemmas about peoplehood, nationhood, belonging and citizenship. I believe we are at a profoundly significant moment in the history not only of Britain and Europe but of the world. Maybe every generation feels this about the times they live in, but not since the Cuba Missile Crisis have I felt such a loss of hope for the future of humanity. Wherever we look, the threats posed by climate change, the hardening of extreme political views, endemic violence and the fragmentation of former alliances, not to mention the fractiousness of public debate and the sidelining of basic human virtues like generosity, kindness, collaboration, sympathy, respect, tolerance and the love of goodness, truth and beauty. Maybe getting old is making me grumpy?

I’m afraid that the outcome of the EU referendum was to me a symbol of just such a walking away from the covenants and alliances that have served us so well, imagining that it’s better to be isolated than together, regarding sovereignty as something to be grasped at rather than shared, demeaning the common good across our continent and beyond, tolerating the rhetoric of closing our borders to immigrants who contribute so much to our country. I’m not of course saying that the Referendum created these attitudes. Rather, it forced them into the open by putting to the electorate a simple, binary question about being in or out of a family of nations and peoples. The exposure proved toxic. We all know how ugly the discourse has become. And that was perhaps something we did not expect.

But I believe that the way John explores the questions of power and citizenship speaks into our current dilemmas. Pilate and Judas are I think symbols of institutional self-interest, the kind of citizenship that serves its own ends. It feeds on the collective myths about privilege, power and destiny that are only too familiar to us who contemplate the populist nationalisms all over the world today. Phrases like “America first”, “Take back control”, “What’s in Britain’s best interests” elevate the nation-state into an entity that risks becoming an absolute, an end in itself. This seems to me to fly in the face of the kind of citizenship John is talking about, where friends associate as a community of love and truth, and serve one another by washing feet. 

It’s not that a Jew ceases to be a Jew, or a Roman a Roman. It’s not that we don’t love our country and are privileged to be its citizens. But when we meet as friends of Jesus Christ and citizens of his kingdom, we always know that we are subjects of the same rule and authority, and this transcends all other kinds of belonging, whether it’s the tribe, the race or the nation. To me, the EU symbolised the capacity of nations not to give their own cherished national identities absolute status but to go beyond them by building a coalition of reconciliation, peace-making, protecting the environment, defending human rights, and promoting the common good. (These are purposes we did not, and still do not hear nearly enough of in the Brexit debate.) We achieved this hard-won position by pooling our sovereignty, the power we have to change things. Perhaps God’s kingship, the kingdom that is “not from here” is more like pooled sovereignty than it is about “taking back control”. For in God’s scheme of things, power is not coercive but collaborative, God working in and through our human agency with all the freedoms we continue to have as men and women created in his image and exercising responsibility within the created order. “Build bridges, not walls” says Pope Francis. Instead of pulling up drawbridges, we need to reach out to one another in truth and friendship, celebrating the citizenship we have in common both within the human family, and as brothers and sisters under God. This is what I think we see prefigured in the passion story. 

Which is why it’s not comfortable reading.  It’s a searchlight that probes both our outer and our inner worlds, scrutinises our collective and personal motives, exposes our ambivalence about the moral good.  It can seem as though there is no mercy in this pitiless exposure of who and what we are.  But if we stay with it, we discover that it is about grace as well as truth, which turns out to be the power of love.  The cross’s judgment upon us is also our salvation: the light that scrutinises us also brings hope.  We bring to it our shadows and our distorted vision, and discover that it this light of truth and grace flows from an open door.  Our great refusals don’t have the last word after all. By grace we can become citizens of God, and therefore, citizens of the whole world, of all humanity. That will teach us how to understand our citizenship within the human circles of belonging I spoke about at the outset. For that open door is nothing less than the invitation to come back in out of the night, be welcomed at God’s table, have our feet washed by the suffering Servant, and in that humane place of warmth and trust, to learn to love one another once again. 

Citizens of Nowhere, Citizens of Everywhere, Citizens of God - Address 1

The first of two Bible readings given at the Abbey of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer to the annual Synod of the Archdeaconry of France in the Diocese of Europe

1 “My Kingdom is not from this world” John 18:28-40

You may wonder why in Eastertide, I’m taking you back into St John’s Passion Narrative. Perhaps to gain a different perspective on a text that we know so well. It seems to me that we tend to read it differently in this Easter season from the way we hear it in Passiontide. In Holy Week we are overwhelmed with the sense that we are caught up in the great drama of our redemption as Jesus prepares to face his hour, and, in St John’s words, to lay down his life for his friends. But now as we look back across the events of Good Friday and Easter, we hear Jesus speak not only as the crucified Son of Man, but as the Lord who is raised from the dead. In the lectionaries, among the Gospel readings in Eastertide are those that take us back to some of Jesus’ sayings that speak about his coming death: the Good Shepherd for example, and the discourses of the upper room on the night he was betrayed. We hear these passages transfigured by the light of Easter: not only as the one who laid down his life for his friends, but as the risen Christ who is among us today and who reigns in love over us. And that is true also of what he says to Pilate about his kingship, that it is “not from here”. In Eastertide we hear those words again, but now glowing with resurrection life and glory, and we recognise them afresh as the profoundest truth there is.

Throughout the Gospel, John takes pains to highlight the sayings of Jesus. In these Bible readings I want to look at two of them that occur in the Passion story, in Jesus’s examination by Pontius Pilate. First, “my kingdom is not from this world” and the conversation about truth that surrounds it; and tomorrow, “You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above”. These texts about truth and power take us straight to the heart of Jesus’ trial and sentencing. But more than that, I think they are crucial to the way John understands who Jesus is and why he has come into the world. They speak of universal realities about God, the world and human society, and how truth and power are central to the way we understand divine and human citizenship and belonging.

It’s citizenship and belonging that has given me my cue in these Bible readings. We are between times in the Brexit process. You will feel that with special sharpness, though maybe not less than almost half of us in Britain, the 48% for whom Brexit is the biggest political disaster to have happened to our country in our lifetimes. (I may as well put my cards on the table at the outset.) In the UK, the talk nowadays, with less than a year to go, is about the economy, trade, security and immigration. But for us who treasure the words European Union on our passports, it’s the loss of EU citizenship that hurts most. I don’t mean only the privileges of our being part of this great continental family. I mean the very idea itself, so rich in all that it suggests about our history, our identities, our loyalties, our belonging, our obligations, our aspirations and our sense of common purpose. I know that for those of you who are resident in an overseas EU country without having become its nationals, all this will have implications that even now are not clearly understood. 

My title, Citizens of Nowhere, Citizens of Everywhere, Citizens of God is a direct allusion to Mrs May famously saying, a propos of the Referendum, “If you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are a citizen of nowhere”. I’ve argued on my blog that this is a fundamental misreading of citizenship which always embraces multiple concentric circles of belonging. But I don’t want to be overtly political about it at this synod. What I want to do is to reflect in a narrative way on the light St John sheds on this vital concept. I think he would say that citizenship can only properly be understood in human terms when we understand it in terms of the divine. In other words, it’s our citizenship of God’s kingdom that enables us to understand what it means to be citizens of a human society like a city, a nation, a family of peoples like the EU, or of the world itself. What does John say about this? I believe it is that our primary obligations are as citizens of God and citizens of the world, that is to say, those two kinds of citizenship that directly concern our identity as human beings whose fundamental loyalties are to God and, because of this, to humanity. Everything else must be read in the light of these.


In St John’s passion narrative, the encounter between Jesus and Pilate occupies more than one third of the story.  In Mark’s much longer account, Pilate features only in about one eighth; in Luke, about one fifth.  Why all this interest on the part of the Fourth Gospel?  Most scholars argue that like Luke, John wanted to exonerate Pilate as far as possible from complicity in the crucifixion.  For him, it was the Jewish authorities who bore most of the blame in delivering Jesus to the Romans to be sentenced to death. We’ll come back to that tomorrow. No doubt there was an apologetic value in demonstrating, towards the end of the 1st century at a time of persecution that Rome had nothing to fear from Christianity, and that although they worshipped Jesus as king, Christians did not see their loyalty to him as a threat to their obligations as Roman subjects.  

Yet this does not do justice to the significance John attaches to Pilate. As writers and artists have recognised, John’s depiction of Christ before Pilate is one of the classic encounters of all time.  It isn’t simply that Pilate acts as a foil for the innocence and majesty of Jesus (though he does).  It’s that the praetorium is an archetypal place for St John.  It represents what is universally true about the world in which Christians bear witness.  In that place, two world orders collide: two kingdoms, two kinds of citizenship.  Here human power comes face to face with the rule of God himself.  

To anticipate, let me summarise what I think John is telling us about Pilate.  He is the man who comes face to face with truth.  But it proves too much for him, and he walks away from it.  He may have made half-hearted attempts to protest Jesus’ innocence, but his failure to release him only compounds his guilt.  One commentator, David Rensberger, sums him up neatly.

Certainly it would be possible in John for a character to proclaim Jesus’ innocence without himself believing in it or caring about it…. He is undeniably hostile to “the Jews” but that does not make him friendly to Jesus, for whose innocence he is not really concerned.  Rather, his aim is to humiliate “the Jews” and to ridicule their national hopes by means of Jesus’ death ....  He is callous and relentless, indifferent to Jesus and to truth, and contemptuous of the hope of Israel that Jesus both fulfils and transcends.

The Pilate episodes are constructed with great skill.  They take place both inside and outside the praetorium, Pilate’s temporary home when events required him to be in Jerusalem such as during Passover with its risks of turbulence and trouble.  Outside, publicly, Pilate is the governor or prefect of Judaea, the representative of imperial Rome.  His job is to uphold the honour of Rome, but circumstances also demand trying to negotiate with the crowd, as far as he can, to keep the peace.  Inside, the narrative takes us where the crowd cannot come.  We glimpse Pilate the man and overhear a conversation that lays bare his character.  We find that whereas we had thought it was Jesus who is on trial, in fact the man on trial is not Jesus at all, but Pilate.  It’s Pilate’s passion narrative too. 

John has an intriguing aside near the beginning of the gospel.  He says that Jesus “knew all people and needed no-one to testify about anyone, for he himself knew what was in everyone” (2.24-25). In the praetorium, John draws the contrast between the man who “knows” and the man who is ignorant, or perhaps we should say, between the man who knows with insight, and the one whose knowing is merely worldly-wise and clever.   The one reads human life with depth, taking in its subtlety and complexity. The other reads only the surface of the human text, never asking the deeper question, never probing to the heart of the matter.  Even his opening question, “are you the king of the Jews?” is not his own, as Jesus shrewdly observes. “Did you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  If it had come from the heart of a seeker-after-truth, the rest of the story might have been different. 


The issue of Jesus’ kingship is a crucial one (literally, cross-shaped) in all the gospels, but especially in the Fourth. When St John uses the word king of Jesus he does it aware of the risks he runs: of all the titles of Jesus, it’s the one most susceptible to misunderstanding and misuse.  At the outset, Nathaniel the ‘Israelite without guile’ is the first to recognise Jesus as a man like no other: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus’ response to this heart-warming outburst of faith is to encourage Nathaniel not to make too much of it: ‘do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these’ (1.49-50).  And it soon becomes clear that this slippery word sets up all kinds of misleading expectations.  It only takes a sign like the feeding of the crowd for them to decide to “take him by force and make him king” (6.15), at which point Jesus makes his escape

Jesus’ way of handling kingship language is reserved and understated.  He deliberately distances himself from popular acclaim as if to say: you have your ideas about what kingship means; but I will show you a more excellent way. So he contrasts the shepherd-kings of Israel and Judah who abused and betrayed their trust with the Good Shepherd who loves the sheep and lays down his life for them. The messianic ruler, entering his city on a donkey to palm branches and shouts of hosanna turns out to be the Teacher and Lord who washes feet.  And when Pilate says to him, “so you are a king then?” he replies along the lines of, ‘this is your word, not mine.  But if this is the language you insist on using, I had better explain carefully what it does and doesn’t mean’.  

What Jesus says to Pilate offers the most comprehensive account of his kingship anywhere in the gospels.  “My kingdom is not from this world” he begins.  Basileia, such a hallmark of Jesus’ teaching in the other three gospels, only occurs in one other place in St John.  But it’s a strikingly similar occurrence.  There Jesus tells Nicodemus that only by being born “from above” can anyone see or enter the kingdom of God (3.3, 5).  The contrast is between being born of the “flesh”, by natural means, and being born “from above”, anōthen, that is, born of the Spirit as the mysterious gift of God.  And this recalls what John’s prologue: those who have power to become children of God are born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man” but of God himself.  

Pilate does not know any of this, of course.  But we readers need to carry the memory of these key phrases through the Passion Narrative as we read it.  So it’s clear to us that a complete contrast is being drawn between kingship as a human institution and the utterly different character of God’s rule.  It’s not a matter of degree but of kind.  There is an absolute gulf between the values Pilate represents and those that Jesus stands for.  Jesus’ kingship comes from a source invisible to mortals.  It can’t be got except as the gift of God.  And even when it’s given, it can’t be caught and institutionalised.  It is stronger than any earthly strength.  But not everyone can see it.  The test for Pilate is going to be, will he be one of them?  


Jesus begins by identifying what it is not, contrasting it with the kind of rule Pilate knows about, the familiar Roman world of power politics and military mightThen he explains what it is, how his destiny as a king is not about coersive force but about ‘truth’.  

The evidence for what his kingship is not, says Jesus, is the facts of his arrest.  “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”  Of course, one of his followers did precisely that and brandished a sword, only to be rebuked for not grasping the true nature of the conflict.  This is the same as saying that he had not grasped the true nature of discipleship. In his recent perceptive book Not in God’s Name, the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this altruistic violence. He means the kind of violence people of faith or conscience frequently resort to, not because it’s in their personal interests but because it’s in support of a belief that commands their loyalty. He is thinking of terrorists, for instance, whose understanding of their religious faith leads them to commit unspeakable acts of violence because their god seems to require it. 

Peace-loving Christians like us find it strange to realise that other faith traditions have not only justified violent action but commended it.  Of course in our day, only the radicalised minority within Islam take the exhortations to holy warfare literally - with what destructive outcomes we know only too well.  Jihad literally means “struggle”, but to most Muslims this image stands for the combat between good and evil fought in the hearts and minds of the faithful, an idea that is familiar enough from the Jewish and Christian traditions.  

But we need to see ourselves as others see us.  Large tracts of the Hebrew Bible read in Christian public worship tell of the wars between Israel and her enemies.  There are commands to deal ruthlessly with the foe, shed blood without pity, even place them under sacred ban which entailed destroying every last man, woman, child and living thing as a sign of their being “devoted” to Yahweh.  Some of the prayers in the psalms contain expressions of such violence that many people refuse to recite them in public worship.  “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137.9).  Parts of the New Testament draw on the imagery of battle and bloodshed to describe the apocalyptic future and final judgment.  Sophisticated modern readers of the Bible have strategies for dealing with these problem passages that don’t include excising them.  I am simply saying that at face value, the accusation of living by the sword just as easily be made against strata within Judaism and Christianity as well. 

Until last year, we owned a small house in Vézelay in Burgundy. It’s a world heritage site, a lovely medieval cité perched on a hill. There is not a building out of place. The limestone glows like Jerusalem the golden. At the top of the colline éternelle as pilgrims used to call it stands the Romanesque Basilica of the Madeleine, one of the great churches of France. We used to think of it as a Gallic version of Durham which, as everybody knows, is the best Cathedral on planet earth as Bill Bryson put it. But this place has a bloody history. In 1146, St Bernard of Clairvaux came here to drum up support for the second Crusade.  His message was stark: the Christian lands in the middle east were at risk of tumbling to Islam, and must be defended by force.  That project was a disaster.  Rivers of blood flowed across the near east.  An early outcome was that Jerusalem was overrun by Islam under Saladin.  The site where Bernard preached is marked by a big wooden cross on the hillside.  It’s a peaceful place. But to walk here is to be reminded of what it represents: bloodshed on a colossal scale, endemic mistrust not to say hatred between Christians and Muslims which continues to this day, the flawed vision of “crusade” with its assumption that the cross, its shape already suggestive of a spear could be turned into a physical weapon to be used against fellow human beings. We are still living in the backwash of this terrible history.  If we find the rhetoric of radical Islam frightening, our crusading Christian forebears helped to shape it.

With hindsight, how prescient the words of Jesus seem!  It’s as if he has foreseen the corrupting effects of power on the Christian gospel, the distortions the use of force always introduces in the service of divine ends.  To live by the sword is to die by it.  For the root issue is not simply the destruction and waste of human life – that is the symptom. In an analysis of violence, the French writer Jacques Ellul identifies the disease itself.  “There is an unbreakable link between violence and hatred.  Far too often intellectuals, especially, imagine that there is a sort of pure, bloodless violence….like Robespierre, who dispassionately ordered executions.  We must understand that, on the contrary, hatred is the motivator of violence.” But hatred often disguises itself by being carried vicariously, on behalf of others. The theologian Renee Girard has shown how the scapegoating and exclusion of a symbolic member of the group enables it to feel safe by projecting its unconscious hatred and fear on to the banished outsider. This was Jonathan Sacks’ point in the book I mentioned earlier. It’s a key way in which we need to read the passion of Jesus.


“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” What does it mean, then, not to “fight” but to live as citizens of this kingdom that is “not from here”?  This is what Jesus goes on to explain to Pilate. “For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Truth”, like “life”, “light”, “glory” and “love” is one St John’s big words.  And like them, it is really a predicate of Jesus rather than some independent quality: he is life, light and love; he is truth.  In the upper room, in one of the great I AM sayings, Jesus has spoken of himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (14.6).  Truth is rooted in his own person, it is what he himself embodies. As the Word made flesh, he is the eternal wisdom of God made visible in an historical human being. In him we gaze upon “grace and truth” (1.14) which is nothing less than the face of God himself.  To know the truth and be set free by it is Jesus’ gift to his disciples.  He prays for them before the passion, “sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth” (17.17).  After his departure, truth will continue to sustain them through “the Spirit of truth” who will lead and guide them into all the truth (16.13).  

In an important passage earlier in the Gospel, there is an extended debate about truth.  It’s part of the long dispute between Jesus and the Jewish leaders that we noticed in the first chapter, that culminates in the saying that so shocked the authorities that they tried to stone him: “Before Abraham was, I am”.  What leads up to this claim and their reaction to it is his accusation that “you are from your father the devil…. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me…. Whoever is from God hears the words of God.  The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” (8.44-47)  

Jesus draws an absolute contrast here.  It is much more than the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie.  He is pointing to the fundamental principles of truth and falsehood on which all life is ultimately based: “the” truth and “the” lie. as the foundations of all existence.  It isn’t easy to reduce such a fundamental concept to more basic terms: “the” truth is the reality of God himself, and by extension, the knowledge him as Jesus has revealed it. It’s this truth-as-knowledge that sets us free (8.32) and enlightens us (3.21).  To refuse it is to be in darkness where life and love don’t reach.  This is the place Judas occupies as the man who goes out into the night, as we’ll see tomorrow.  It’s the same in the praetorium.  Jesus says to Pilate, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”.  That is a direct echo of what he has said earlier to the Jewish leaders.  Pilate is no better than they, for he is no more willing than they are to listen to him.  

Truth, in the way Jesus means it, scrutinises how societies and individuals see themselves, often uncomfortably.  It’s a judgment upon each of us as persons, and all of us collectively.  This undoubtedly has a political and social dimension.  And while Jesus isn’t principally concerned in the praetorium with matters of state, this is far from saying that truth is uninterested in these things.  Truth has implications for all that belongs to human empire: the governance of nations, the leadership of society, the management of institutions and the nature of citizenship. Much of our public discourse about the media centres on “fake news”, on how we live in a “post-truth” world. During the EU Referendum, “truth” was an early victim of casual rhetoric on the side of the Brexit bus. And yet our leaders ought to know better. People who hold public office nowadays usually have to sign up to certain standards.  Among the ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’, the Nolan Principles that are commended as good practice for leadership, no fewer than five are about “truth” in some form or other: integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, and honesty. Study of them reveals how far they draw on Christian ethical thought, both personal and social. 

Jesus has come to testify to the truth, he says. This is why his followers must not be seduced by the exercise of power and fighting flesh-and-blood battles: their vocation is to imitate him.  The character of the church is being defined here.  For John, truth is as much an identifying mark of the church as love.  We could say that the church is called to be “aligned” to truth just as iron filings align themselves to a magnetic field.  For the church not to be aligned to truth would be to forfeit its right to be identified with Jesus.  And that would be to fall into the same state as those whom Jesus accuses of being “of the devil”.  This is a very tough judgment.  But it isn’t meant as a rhetorical statement.  It’s what John himself believes. 

It would take a Bonhoeffer to explore what life together as a “community of truth”would look like.  Truth-telling, in the sense of open, honest unafraid relationships, is part of being “aligned” to truth, the way of living that has been exemplified by Jesus and which he taught his followers to imitate.  But for John it goes deeper even than that. “Truth-telling” is an outcome of loving the truth for its own sake, believing that truth is something to stake one’s life on, in Kierkegaard’s great words, “the truth for which someone will live and die”.

There is an analogy here with psychotherapy.  The therapist’s aim is to help people uncover the truth about themselves and live creatively with it.  One practitioner, Irving Yalom, writes about his work in language that has clear theological echoes. “Good therapy”, he says “is at bottom a truth-seeking venture.  My quarry...is illusion.  I war against magic.  I believe that though illusion often cheers and comforts, it ulti­mately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit”. As a description of how the Johannine church needs to think about itself, it could not be bettered.  The “lie” in St John means precisely the illusions, fantasies, falsehoods and fools’ paradises that obscure the light and keep us from even wanting it let alone finding it. John is clear about the extent to which we are susceptible to the lie: “people loved darkness rather than light” he says (3.19).  

If the church’s mission is to have lasting impact, truth-seeking, banishing illusion,  must always be at the core of its endeavour.  This of course is easy to say and much harder to do – harder, that is, if we see truth as going beyond simply making ‘true’ statements about orthodox faith or biblical morality.  It’s not disparaging theological and moral clarity to say that this cannot be all Jesus means by bearing ‘witness to the truth’.  Perhaps there is a suspicion among our contemporaries, even among ourselves, that the church’s witness lacks passion, doesn’t always carry the conviction that comes from standing like Athanasius contra mundum. Truth-seeking is costly and difficult.  Martyria is the Greek word for witnessIt doesn’t by itself mean death for the sake of religion or principle. But there is a dying to oneself involved in truth-seeking, in being a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Truth is hard-won; to bear witness to it entails sacrifice. We don’t need reminding that the Jesus who speaks of truth is on his way to the cross. 

This is light years away from anything Pontius Pilate knows or cares about. Truth that is hard-won doesn’t register on Pilate’s radar. But now the atmosphere in the praetorium takes on an edgy, unstable aspect.  The truth stands before him and over him, but he will not allow his polished scepticism to see it. Or if, for a moment, a door was unlatched somewhere in his mind, and he dared to entertain the thought that maybe this man before him deserved to be taken seriously, then time is not on his side. Outside, the crowd is still baying for blood. The moment is past, the door slams shut. The cognitive dissonance is too painful. Stick to the simple binary. How unlike the long line of seekers-after-truth in John’s Gospel, like Nicodemus and the Woman of Samaria, and the man born blind, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalen, and the Beloved Disciple and Thomas. Some of them are nearer to finding it than others, but all of them are on the way to a recognition scene because all of them are open to truth. 

Pilate too could have joined this company.  But he doesn’t wait for his question to be answered.  What if he had?  Would he have changed his mind? That has to be our question, too, as we are confronted by the majesty of Jesus who is the embodiment of the truth at the heart of all life.  If we are serious about our citizenship of this kingdom not from this world, then we must purify our vision of the truth.  For the king who embodies it has only one throne where he summons us to accept his just and gentle rule.  His regalia of a crown of thorns and purple robe show us where his throne can be found.

The cross is where this kingdom “not from here” is finally revealed. There is, indeed, a collision of empires here. But it is more than the meeting of the power of force with the power of love. It is the verdict of truth on all falsehood and fantasy.  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out”.  And “those who belong to the truth”, who want to hear the voice of their king, know where to go and listen.  This is what it means to be citizens of God, and therefore, citizens of everywhere, a people who inherit the earth because they understand how all human loyalties and commitments are subject to God’s just and gentle rule. Only this kingdom “not from this world” makes ultimate claims upon us. All other loyalties are provisional. In whatever way we understand our human citizenship, it can never make absolute demands of us. No human institution, including our nation, can usurp God’s authority. We certainly can’t “vow to thee my country all earthly things above” unless we’ve first pledged our ultimate loyalty to that “other country” of verse 2 of that much-loved but problematic hymn, that other country whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace”. Perhaps we can go even further. Could it be that we must be willing in our hearts to become citizens of nowhere if we truly desire to embrace God’s citizenship, and so inherit our citizenship of everywhere? Is this an aspect of what John means about the grain needing to fall into the earth and die? I’m saying that all human relationships, identity and belonging are subject to the scrutiny and judgment of God. It’s a hard saying, but in the end, I think, a merciful one.

When Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to arrive at Westminster Abbey on state occasions, the formalities required him to acknowledge any royalty who were present before taking his seat. But he would always reverence the high altar before turning to the Sovereign. He was heard to mutter under his breath, “God first” as he bowed his head. Every human citizenship, every allegiance, every loyalty, if it is based on integrity and truth, puts God first. We all need to ask Pilate’s question for ourselves and for our nations and communities, “What is truth?” But unlike Pilate, we need to wait for the answer.