A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Revelation 1: v4b-8; John 18 v33-37
The compilers of the Church of England’s Lectionary have denied us Pilate’s infamous riposte. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” says Jesus. “What is truth?” asks Pilate.
The Revelation to John calls Jesus “the faithful witness", and he accepts this role for himself when on trial. He has come to bear witness to the truth, he says. His kingship is reliant upon his witnessing to the truth.
This claim implicates us, because Jesus adds that those who belong to the truth recognize him as king. They recognize him because he points to the truth; he is indistinguishable from the truth; he is the truth.
Pilate, of course, doesn’t get this. In fact, he appears unconvinced that there’s any such thing as the truth. Hmm...what we might call the Pilate tendency seems to be growing and flourishing in our day.
Yet that there is truth - and that Jesus is truth - is the essence of the Christian faith. We are ready to be judged as Jesus was judged, by our relationship to the truth. We accept that we’re not in full possession of it and that we can’t know it entirely: we are, I hope, humble about that. But we hold that Christ is the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. We belong to Christ the King; we bear witness to his truth; we are ready to be judged by our witness.
This is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. The year before us will be one of change and challenge for our national life and our national Church. We are conscious of the European leaders meeting in Brussels today. We pray for our Prime Minister and for all her colleagues. Whatever determinations are made in the weeks ahead our understanding of national sovereignty will be put under pressure and the responsibilities of citizenship will be tested. Our belonging to Christ the King and our vocation with him to bear witness to the truth have never been more urgent.
What will be the nature of this witness? Christ tells Pilate that his kingship is not “from this world”. Christ’s kingship holds worldly kingship to account. So I want to draw attention to four questions that I believe Christ’s kingship will require us to ask and to keep asking as the year unfolds, if we are to bear witness to the truth that is not from this world.
The question of peace. The centenary of the armistice which brought an end to the Great War has reminded us that violent conflict has long been a part of our continent’s history. The brilliant production of Henry V, performed in the Trinity Chapel and set in a field hospital in 1915 reminded us recently, and vividly, that in 1415 French and English soldiers faced one another at Agincourt, 400 years before they faced one another at Waterloo and 500 years before they together faced the Central Powers. It's a simple statement of fact that there has been no conflict within the borders of the existing European Union. We delude ourselves if we assume that there never could be again. War has been our way of settling our differences. But it is the world's way, not God’s way: it is a calamitous failure. If we are to bear witness to the truth then we must ask: how will peace be secured?
The question of economic adequacy. Some uncomfortable statistics were published last week. Fourteen million of our fellow citizens live in poverty; one and a half million of them are destitute, unable to afford the basic essentials. Other figures support this bleak picture. Foodbank usage in the first half of this financial year increased by thirteen percent in comparison with the same period last year. Self-administered dental care is a growth industry: one manufacturer of DIY filling kits sells more than a quarter of a million of them every year. Our current political uncertainty is inimical to economic growth, and the poorest among us are the hardest hit. Stark disparities of wealth and opportunity characterize the way we have allowed our communities to develop. But this is the world's way, not God’s way: it is a calamitous failure. If we are to bear witness to the truth then we must ask: how will economic adequacy for all be assured?
The question of solidarity. A far-right activist has been cheered outside the Old Bailey, while three judges of the High Court have been branded ‘Enemies of the People’. A Member of Parliament has warned his party leader to bring a noose to a party meeting, while the police are arresting nine people a day for allegedly posting abuse online. The virtues of courtesy and restraint are in retreat, perhaps because the conviction which underlies them is in retreat: the conviction that whoever we are and wherever we’re from we fundamentally belong together. We are citizens, neighbours, fellow human beings. “I am because you are” say our Sudanese brothers and sisters; “I am - who are you?” we reply. But this is the world's way, not God’s way: it is a calamitous failure. If we are to bear witness to the truth then we must ask: how do we grow as a community?
The question of character. One of the phrases that has been bandied about in the Brexit debate is that of “the vassal state”, a status which those who use the phrase are keen to resist for the UK. Yet its very use suggests a binary way of thinking about the world, as divided between sovereign states with firm borders . . . and, others. This way of thinking about the nation – aloof, detached, defended - has implications. To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, our country’s character is at stake in the year ahead. Can we be open, generous and compassionate? That is surely God’s way, and if we are to bear witness to the truth that is not from the world then we must ask: what is our character becoming?
You and I belong to One whose kingdom is not from here: but our vocation is to bear witness to the truth of that kingdom. Here. Now. Peace; economic adequacy; solidarity; character: we must make common ground of these. Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people. Amen.