I have a friend who is a county attorney, and sometimes he has to take a case to trial. But he tells me a trial is not a competition, nor is it his goal to win. The point of the trial, he says, is to apply the rules of evidence, to examine a question in light of the law, to question and probe, and finally, to find the truth, as best as it can be known. He says the point of a trial is truth. I’ve only ever experienced one trial, and that as a juror, but in that trial, I was struck by the rules, and the judge’s instructions, and the methodical way we sat in a room and tried—in an older meaning of the word—tried the case. There are rules, you see, because the world is a whirl of events and confusion, and memory is unreliable, and the accused, sitting at the table in front of everyone is a person, with a life and a body and a mind and a soul. So the truth matters, and the presumption of innocence is sacred. The point of a trial, my friend says, is not to win—it’s to find the truth.
It seems like Jesus is on trial: The High Priest questions Jesus, Pilate questions Jesus, even the crowd makes a decision about Jesus. But John tells us the story of the passion with such great control we might miss the chaos—the seizure of Jesus at night, the quick execution of—what seems like justice, but is actually the execution of people. Underlying everything is the constant presence of military force: soldiers arresting, beating, and crucifying Jesus, soldiers looting him. There’s the clash of the crowd, constrained by the military, and the crowd’s desire for blood.
But if we think this is a story about the trial of Jesus, we miss the point entirely. John’s control of the story is to show that Jesus is in control—he gives himself up freely, he takes the cup the Father gives him and he drinks it down. No, Jesus is not on trial. What is truth? Pilate asks. A careful reader of the Gospel already knows—Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. There is no question about that. It is we who are on trial. The questions we need to ask are about ourselves.
This is a story about a trial for us, a testing, and a judgment. It is a story that tells the truth about our world. Look at current events—all over the world, men and women are throwing themselves in the wheels of society to get arrested, to convince the governments of the world to tell the truth about climate change. Children are walking out on strike from school, to get people to tell the truth about climate change. The Mueller report has dropped, and people of every stripe are screaming at each other to tell the truth, trying to match the behavior of a corrupt liar to the beliefs of a party or a power. Blood is shed in our streets, murders and gunfights, and perhaps you can feel the weight of law enforcement as it settles over our neighborhood. This story holds a mirror up to us, and despite all our progress, all our technology, all our art and culture, all our democracy, all our capitalism and all our socialism, we are still found wanting. There is a lack. Our story still feels like chaos. We are not somehow better, because it seems like the gap between what we are and what we could be has never been greater. And the existential threat of climate change pants in eager expectation to devour all the progress we have made, to strip us of every bit of armor we have donned against the chaos of our story.
We pray that God not lead us into the time of testing, of trial, and to deliver us from evil. The word in Greek for trial, which is used in the Lord’s prayer, is very closely related to the word for temptation in Greek, which was considered a form of testing. But although this is a trial about us, it is Jesus who steps forward for us. Not because he will lie on our behalf—he won’t. Not because he will shoulder our burden for us—although he will. No, it’s because there is a truth Jesus has come to reveal, a truth under our trial. Just as the rule of law lets a trial proceed credibly, so too does something else give Jesus control over all the passes: it is the love God has for this world and all who live in it.
If a trial is a test for truth, it is this truth that Jesus proves: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that all who believe him may not perish but have eternal life. And this is the judgment: God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The judgment is love, the judgment is love. And that’s the story that makes a pattern out of the void—God speaks and there is light; God acts, and there is love. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack