We could go on. Beauty brings meaning and depth and power into our
lives. But the sunset fades into darkness. The smile of the child turns
slowly into the cynical sneer of the disillusioned adult. The music stops.
What about Freedom? As we know, it’s often purchased at the cost of
someone else’s slavery. Power is necessary to get things done, but the old
cliché about power tending to corrupt and absolute power corrupting
absolutely holds true. And as for Truth – well, we all know it matters, and
especially at this time of Pandemic. But we’ve all learnt that truth-claims
might just be power-claims in disguise. Phrases like ‘fake news’ and
‘alternative facts’ now threaten everything from public health to
So what are we to say? Are these seven signposts all telling lies? Do we
have to conclude, with Jean-Paul Sartre, that life is just a sick joke? That
the signposts which looked as if they might point up to God are
systematically deceiving us?
In all my years of churchgoing I don’t think I ever heard sermons on
justice, spirituality, beauty, or power. Freedom, occasionally; truth;
perhaps; love, well, yes, but not in the way I’m coming at it here. But all
these seven are picked up in scripture, not least in John’s gospel, and not
least in the story of Jesus going to the cross. When Jesus stands before
Pontius Pilate in John 18 and 19, they argue about kingdom, truth and
power. The trial takes place at Passover, the Freedom-festival, and it’s
supposed to showcase the legendary Roman Justice. John’s overall
heading for the entire scene, five chapters earlier, highlights yet another of
our themes: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to
the end. John is telling us, woven deep into his narrative, that as Jesus
goes to the cross these are precisely the issues that are at stake, the
issues that we all know really matter in real life – love, justice, freedom,
truth, power. And if we think John’s gospel is not also about spirituality
and beauty then we have indeed forgotten how to read.
But what happens in this amazing scene? We watch as Jesus goes to the
cross, and we see the seven signposts which (to begin with) look as
though they might be pointing up to God; and we find that one by one they
fail – just as they do in our personal and public lives.
Justice? The Roman empire prided itself on justice, but Pilate’s judgment
is pulled and pushed this way and that by political interests and threats: ‘If
you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend’. That has quite a
contemporary ring: unless you call this one right, you may live to regret it.
Love? Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and calls them his friends; but
Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, they all run away. „
Preaching the Cross in Dark Times
(c) 2021 N.T. Wright 5