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 might. Then 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 witness. It 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.