Sunday of the Fulfillment • Dan 7:9–10,13–14 • Rev 1:4b–8 • John 18:33–37 • Nov 21, 2021
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” This is where Pilate famously asks, “What is truth?” Jesus, for his part, has essentially been asking, “What is authority? What is a king?” The two represent contrasting views of authority, as integrity or domination.
Pilate’s questions about kingship, or authority, focus on Jesus’ power relationships to other people: Are there people under your command? What are you accused of? Will your people defend you? To secure his own position, Pilate needs to understand the balance of power.
Jesus’ questions, in contrast, focus on the source of Pilate’s statements: Are you speaking for yourself (out of your inner authority) or reporting hearsay?
For Jesus in the gospel of John, authority refers to a source’s fidelity or reliability. Early in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “Those who speak on their own authority seek their own glory, but any who speak on the authority of the One who sent them are true, and in them there is no falsehood.”
When Jesus tells Pilate, “You say that I am a king,” he is essentially saying, “You call my authority kingship.” And he goes on to say, in effect, “But my authority neither comes from domination nor aims for it. The source and goal of my authority is testifying to the truth. Because I witness to the truth faithfully, everyone whose first loyalty is to the truth trusts and listens to me. In this sense, I do carry authority. But mine is a voluntary authority of trust, not an imposed authority of control.”
The two kinds of authority can pull in conflicting directions. Committed to witnessing to the truth above all else, Jesus cannot risk compromising his integrity for the sake of control or security. Committed to security and domination above all else, Pilate cannot afford to listen for deep truth, since that might entail the obligation to subject himself to it. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot at once command and listen.
I once took a long course on listening, in the sense of developing intuition or discernment. We students practiced it in activities that gave us choices. I learned that if I resisted following my intuition—if I froze or did something else instead—the intuitive nudges quickly dried up. The price of guidance, I learned, is obedience. To this day, when God seems silent, when I have no clear sense what to do, I ask myself what attachment might be interfering with my willingness to follow whatever guidance I might receive. Since there’s no obvious guarantee that obedience will bring me what I think I want or need, this also means trust and surrender.
Poet William Stafford writes:
We used to ask—remember? We said,
“…our daily bread.” And it came.
Now we want more, and security too:
“You can’t be too sure.” And,
“Why should we trust? —Who says?”
And Old-Who doesn’t speak any more.
Old-Who… what a marvelous name for the Ancient One we heard Daniel describe in the first reading. With woolly hair and fiery throne, this Ancient One sounds utterly wild—and not necessarily humanoid, given the implied contrast with the human-like One who enters into that Divine Presence. Daniel evokes an entity unimaginably primordial, a Presence from before time, exuding an awareness and power next to which human calculation and contrivance look like children’s playthings. We may make and fly kites, but the Ancient One is the wind.
In this Ancient One, the two forms of authority are united. The throne, the fire, and the ability to confer dominion speak to authority as power, as the ability of the wind to blow where it will. The unfathomable age of this great Presence, the court sitting in judgment, and the opened books speak to authority as access to deep truth. If deep truth and power can coexist in the Holy One’s authority, how did they come apart so totally in Jesus and Pilate?
Perhaps only the Creator can integrate power and truth, commanding and listening, so fully that the two become sides of one coin. Let there be… and behold, it is very good.
For us creatures, however, every action raises the question of motive. Am I doing this on human authority for my own ends, or am I following a nudge from the Spirit? The line between the two can be vanishingly fine, reminding me of the line from Hebrews [4:12]: “the word of God is… sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit… and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
For whatever reason, perhaps as a result of the inevitable traumas of life, we seem incapable of always waiting for Divine guidance. Sooner or later, we skip ahead and rely instead on our own perceptions and contrivances. The story of the Fall captures this universal human foible in archetypal imagery. Though in story time the choice is made once for all, in real time we face it every moment.
But we don’t face it fresh each moment. The choices of previous moments affect us. Once we’ve closed our ears or been forced or betrayed by others into overriding our better judgment, the flow of guidance is broken. We no longer trust our own hearing or our divine Guide, and Old-Who doesn’t speak any more. In story language, we are exiled from the Garden.
The modern term moral injury captures this state of alienation and distress. Originally coined to describe some soldiers’ post-combat feelings of shame, guilt, and disorientation, the term has recently been applied to medical providers whom overwork and shortages confront with terrible dilemmas. It also fits any of us feeling paralysis, rage, confusion, or disconnection as we realize the extent of the damage we’ve done, even if unwittingly or unwillingly, to loved ones and associates, to human beings we haven’t met, to creeping, flying, swimming, or leafy creatures, or to ourselves. The more we feel this way, the more like Pilate we may become, afraid to feel or sense or listen too deeply, clinging instead to any available semblance of power and control.
The author of Revelation finds a remedy in Christ’s voluntary gift of self. For this gift to take root in us, as other homilists have recently emphasized, a passive stage must precede an active stage. We begin by simply receiving and accepting Christ’s forgiving love. This takes humility. As we accept this love, whatever despair, self-deception, and rigidity may have been binding us begin to thaw.
As we continue unwrapping Christ’s gift, an equally essential part of it reveals itself in his self-giving example. Our liberation from the effects of our own choices is not complete until we take active part in it through some loving gesture of amends. If full restitution seems impossibly daunting, we can offer a small beginning, trusting Old-Who to meet us halfway.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a similar program for restoring our relationship with the natural world. She first invites us to allow ourselves to feel the love implied by the gifts of nourishment, healing, beauty, and peace we receive from the living, growing community of plants and creatures around us. Then she asks us to complete the circle by offering some gift of our own in loving reciprocity.
In this way, we are restored to our original relationship with creation and Creator—the matrix in which we can trust, and hear Old-Who, and follow, and be provided for, day by day.
When we stand within this relationship, authority is indeed conferred by the Ancient One on us, the people of God, represented (scholars say) by the human-like being in Daniel’s vision. Whenever the exercise of our agency is wedded to the exercise of our integrity, whenever we use the Divine power delegated to us to carry out the Divine vision whispered to us, we unite our inner Pilate to our inner Christ. At such times, power and truth are reunited as authority flows freely from the Author of all, carrying us forward on its current of grace.