Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Final 24 Hours: When the World Failed Jesus

During Lent our parish has done a study of a book called 24 Hours That Changed the World. Adam Hamilton walked us through the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. At every step on our journey to our cross we encountered different characters in the drama, and we were challenged to “find ourselves” in them. We see on display in those final days a microcosm of the worst of human behavior. We see again and again how people failed Jesus when he needed them most.

Of course, there were the disciples, thought to be 12 of Jesus’ closest friends. They were intimate allies for three years, and yet, in a one-week period, one by one, just had Jesus had predicted on several occasions, they all failed their teacher and friend. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 silver coins; Peter, James & John (perhaps his closest friends in the world) fell asleep over and over again as Jesus wrestled with his fate in Gethsemane; as Jesus confessed his identity to the High Priest, Peter denied his—not once, not twice, but three times; and every one of his followers abandoned him after his arrest, some fleeing naked and humiliated.

But beyond his close friends, many others failed Jesus along the path to the Cross. Consider the Ruling Council—the Scribes and Pharisees. Alleged to be 71 of the most pious people on the planet, they couldn’t recognize God-with-us when he was standing right in front of them. Not one of them was willing to stand up and say: “What we are doing is wrong.” (Some like Nicodemus may have secretly had other views, but they weren’t willing to voice them during the trial; they went along with the majority.) They unanimously agreed that Jesus should die. They were too consumed with fear and hatred to see clearly. He threatened their comfortable relationship with Rome and he had to be eliminated.

And what about the crowds? Throngs of people welcomed him on Sunday as he entered town. They thought he was the Messiah who would set them free. By Thursday, however, most of those people are gone. Crowds tend to be fickle; crowds can be easily manipulated. The religious and political rulers are master manipulators. (In his own way, Jesus knew how to “work” a crowd too, but it seemed that what he said stirred up hope within people, as opposed to fear.) Support for Jesus quickly erodes during the week. By the wee hours of Friday morning, a very different crowd gathers in front of Fortress Antonia—Pilate’s residence. It’s much smaller and it’s angry. This crowd is made up of people who don’t like what Jesus represents. Maybe the merchants whose livelihood Jesus disrupted on Monday, or the temple authorities whom Jesus had publicly insulted when he taught the crowds on Tuesday, or others threatened by this itinerant rabbi from the Galilee. Whoever they were, it’s clear that most had an axe to grind with Jesus? In fact, when faced with the choice of whether to set Jesus or Barabbas—a convicted insurrectionist and murderer—free, they choose Barabbas without much hesitation. When Pilate asks what he should do with Jesus, to a man, they all shout, “Crucify him!” There is not one with the courage to stand up and say: “What we are doing is wrong.” Sadly, as often happens, the mob mentality rules the day and Jesus is convicted to die.

As representative of Rome, Pilate himself has ultimate power in Jerusalem. When the Council sends Jesus to him, he has a chance to make things right. But he doesn’t do it. Pilate knows that Jesus is an innocent man, he said as much himself, but in the end he capitulates to the will of the crowd. He’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t. So he orders the so-called “King of the Jews” to be crucified with two other convicted rebels. Here is the most powerful man in Jerusalem unwilling to go against the wishes of this small but angry crowd of mostly Jewish people assembled before him. He washes his hands of responsibility; he even tries to “pass the buck” to Herod who in turn sends him back to Pilate. Nobody wants the blood of Jesus on their hands—ironic since Jesus’ blood ends up on the “hands” of the whole world. In the end the political leaders like Pilate and Herod are more interested in protecting the “Roman peace” than doing what is right.

And then there are the many Roman Soldiers who carry out Pilate’s orders with grim efficiency. They beat and torture Jesus; they flog him mercilessly; they spit on him and verbally abuse him; they strip him naked and parade him through the down the Via Delarosa to Golgotha where he will be crucified. It’s amazing what human beings have the capacity to do when an “authority figure” tells us it’s okay. Unspeakable atrocities are committed that Friday morning, but not one person present has the courage to stand up and say: “What we are doing to this man is wrong?!” They have become so convinced that Jesus deserves what he is getting that they become numb to what they are doing. Jesus has challenged Caesar’s authority—so they have been led to believe—and no one does that and lives.

In the final analysis, isn’t everyone of us a “failed disciple”? Don’t we all stand in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness?

Haven’t we all denied, betrayed, abandoned, or otherwise let Jesus down at some point when he needed us to come through? Don’t we all know deep down that we fall short of what we were created to be? Don’t we long to be set free from whatever keeps us from being all we can be? When Jesus says, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he’s not just talking to those people who were there that day, he’s talking to all of humanity. But he’s also talking to us all when he says, “It is finished!” In essence he says, the world has done it’s worse to me but I still love them—and, as we will find out Sunday morning, he still lives!

The wondrous news of the empty tomb on Easter morning has so much more power and impact on our lives after we’ve taken time to walk the road to the Cross, and realize how badly we all fail Jesus, and how badly we need the forgiveness and freedom that only the resurrection of Jesus can offer.

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