Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Night that Changed Everything

The following is something I wrote in 2006 for Holy Thursday. The info is primarily drawn from the events described in John 13-18. If you read those chapters you can get a good feel for where some of this comes from, and perhaps draw your own conclusions about what was going on that fateful Holy Thursday night. Have fun digging in to the Story!

It was a night I’ll never forget as long as I live. I still remember it like it was yesterday. Jesus had come into Jerusalem a few days earlier with such fanfare. He didn’t seem to seek it out, but it came to him anyway. He rode in upon the back of a humble donkey, but they still welcomed him like royalty. The people spread their cloaks before him and waved palm branches as he entered the city. He didn’t seek out the crowds, but the crowds found him. Word of Jesus’ miraculous deeds such as the raising of his good friend Lazarus from the dead had spread about the countryside and people came from all over hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus, hoping perhaps to see another miracle that would make them believe. It was a good time to be in the company of Jesus. It was all very exhilarating. But it didn’t last …

In the next few days, when Jesus failed to meet the expectations of the people, the crowds died away. It seemed like they came expecting Jesus to perform for them, to fulfill their ideas about what a king should be, and when he failed to produce, public opinion quickly seemed to turn against him. I’m sure the Scribes and Pharisees were stirring things up too. Even on Sunday as the crowds cheered, I’m sure they were there lurking in the shadows watching from a distance, looking for a way to eliminate Jesus. Jesus didn’t really hide from his enemies either; in fact he challenged them at every turn. By midweek, there was almost an audible sense that the mood was shifting; you could cut the tension in the air over Jerusalem with a knife.

I remember Jesus summoned us—the twelve who represented his inner circle if you will—to an upstairs room above an in Jerusalem that Thursday night so we could eat the Passover meal together. But that wasn’t all he had in mind that night. After supper, Jesus filled a basin with water, stripped off his outer robe, wrapped a towel around him, and proceeded to kneel and wash each of our feet and dry them with the towel. In that moment he changed everything for us. He redefined what it meant to be a leader in God’s kingdom. Our master and teacher these past few years, the one we had come to believe to be the promised Messiah, was stooping to do the job that even the lowliest servant tried to avoid. It was a nasty, dirty task that no one particularly volunteered for, but here was Jesus voluntarily doing it for us. We didn’t know what to think!?

Most of us were too stunned to say much. I’m one to take things in and reflect on them and write about them later. But then there’s Simon Peter … Peter was never at a loss for words … not even now … Of course, he tended to speak first and ask questions later, and sometimes that got him into trouble. Peter rebukes Jesus and says that he won’t let his Lord wash his feet. Jesus tells Peter that unless he washes his feet, then Peter has no part of what Jesus is doing, and then of course, Peter, always with a flair for the dramatic, says, “Well then not just my feet but my whole body!” The rest of us are watching this whole thing play out in stunned silence. We’ve been together for a while and we realize this is vintage Peter. I confess I always chuckle a bit when Peter’s big mouth gets him in trouble with Jesus, but, to be honest, I was right there with Peter. I just didn’t have the courage to admit it out loud. Jesus finishes with Peter, puts his robe back on, and sits back down at the table, hardly missing a beat.

Then Jesus goes on to speak in detail about what is about to happen that night and beyond. He talks about how he is about to be betrayed, not by some outsider but by one of his closest followers. Peter leans over to me at this point and says, “I bet it’s Judas; I’ve never trusted him.” I dismissed Peter at that moment; after all, he was always cooking up some conspiracy theory about one or the other of us. A little while later though, Jesus whispers something to Judas and Judas storms off into the night. I thought maybe it was just a coincidence, but I certainly took notice. At this point, Peter is indignant and can’t believe that Jesus is so calm. He’s ready to go chasing after Judas, when suddenly Jesus drops a bombshell on Peter: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Well, at that moment, even Peter is speechless, but he recovers soon enough and categorically announces that he will never betray Jesus. I think it made Peter a bit angry that Jesus would even suggest that he was capable of such an act. And I have to confess, as much as Peter rubbed me the wrong way sometimes, I was a bit stunned. Judas seemed plausible; maybe Bartholomew or Thaddeus; they always seemed a bit shady. But Peter?! Ridiculous! It wasn’t that long ago that Peter had correctly identified who Jesus was, and Jesus had commended Peter and gone so far as to call him The Rock on which Jesus would build his church. How could The Rock deny Jesus? It just didn’t seem possible. Peter was remarkably quiet after that. None of us said much. We just listened rather intently to what Jesus had to say.

As Jesus went on talking that night, it was clear that something major was up, but we were still struggling to understand just what was going on. It was like Jesus was preparing us for something. Looking back, it’s clear he had been preparing us the whole time he was with us. He knew this night was his last chance to educate us in person concerning the kingdom of God that he had talked about so much. It was almost as if he was reviewing all he had taught us these past few years. Jesus made it clear that he soon would be taken from us, but he also made it clear that He wasn’t abandoning us. Somehow, Jesus’ Presence would continue to be with us, even though He would not be there in the flesh any longer. I confess I didn’t get exactly what he meant at the time; it all sounded pretty weird. It wasn’t until well after Resurrection morning that things started dawning on me, no pun intended. Jesus urged us to follow the example that He had set for us while he was with us. He served us and he wanted us to likewise serve the world. He wanted us to be unified in the same way that He and the Father were unified. He warned us that the world wasn’t always going to accept us with open arms, but he reminded us not to lose hope because that the world treated him the very same way. He ended our time together with a powerful prayer. It was actually one of the longest prayers I ever heard Him offer while we were traveling with him, and it was definitely heartfelt. He prayed for himself, but he also prayed much more for us and for those who would come after us.

After he finished praying we headed out to the Kidron valley. There was an olive grove there that Jesus liked to retreat to from time to time. He often looked for a quiet place to get away from all the attention he was drawing. We’d go there sometimes as a group to relax. But as we walked there that night, there was this sense of impending doom. Somehow, I sensed things weren’t ever going to be the same again; all that had happened that night was still swirling about my head. I had been keeping a journal of my time with Jesus, and I scribbled down quite a bit that evening as we rested near the olive grove. I thought it might be helpful later on. A little later, the peace of the evening was shattered. I heard all this commotion and next thing I know, I see Judas coming into the grove leading a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the Chief Priests and Pharisees. Judas walks straight up to Jesus and kisses him on the cheek. It took a moment for me to recognize what was actually happening. I remember at some point thinking, “My God, Peter was right!”

Well, needless to say, we were all on edge, but Jesus was strangely calm. We were all ready to fight back at this point. I wanted Judas to pay for what he had done. We figured the time had finally come for the Messiah to lead us into battle. Everybody waited for Jesus to give the word to strike back at the soldiers, but it never came. Of course, Peter, true to form, takes matters into his own hands. He isn’t about to stand idly by as Jesus is arrested. He’s bullheaded, but in a way, you’ve got to admire the guy. He always acts decisively if not always wisely. As the soldiers move in to arrest Jesus, Peter slashes out with his sword and strikes one of the guards; I believe his name was Malchus. Peter got a good hit and cut the guy’s ear off! I confess; it made me happy. I felt like justice was being served. But what does Jesus do in that moment? He rebukes Peter for acting rashly and even goes so far as to heal the soldier whom Peter had wounded. I guess I should be used to it by now. Jesus was forever baffling us by what he said and did. It was often the opposite of what you would expect. It’s only now looking back, that I begin to understand why he did what he did …

In the end, the soldiers bound Jesus and led him away and Jesus put up little resistance. The rest of us scattered for fear of being arrested along with Jesus. I heard them say they were going to take him to the home of Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. Peter and I went there as fast as we could. I knew Caiaphas, and so I could enter the courtyard. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t come in until I vouched for him. I remember the woman who let us in saying to Peter, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ followers?” Peter of course denied it, and I went along with it. After all, we couldn’t afford to be found out now; we had to get to Jesus if we could. The woman eyed Peter up and down but she let him into the courtyard anyway. We decided to split up at that point. One of us needed to get closer to Jesus and it was clear that Peter couldn’t do that as easily as I could. So Peter decided to lay low and blend into the crowd to see what he could learn about what was going on. There was a charcoal fire nearby and Peter went over to warm himself.

Meanwhile, I worked my way into the home and stood close enough where I could overhear the conversation. Caiaphas was questioning Jesus about his followers and about his teaching. Jesus answered truthfully but it seemed Caiaphas couldn’t handle the truth. The guards started roughing Jesus up; they were looking for an excuse to do it all night long. Jesus never lost his composure, never did anything but speak the truth: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me”. I remember about this time that I heard a rooster crow and felt a palpable shiver go through my body.

Early on Friday morning, Jesus was taken from Caiaphas’ home to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, where he would ultimately be sentenced to die on the cross. As Jesus was led away to face his destiny, my mind replayed the conversation we had had the previous night. Jesus had said to Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” It seemed unthinkable at the time that Peter would ever deny Jesus, much less deny him three times, but hadn’t he and I both been all too willing to deny Jesus earlier in the evening? Could it actually have happened the way Jesus said it would? Many unthinkable things seemed to be happening. Much of what Jesus had said previously seemed to be coming true. As the crowd was leaving, I looked for Peter, but I never saw him again until after the Resurrection. I could only speculate as to what had happened that night but I knew this … nothing would never be the quite the same for Peter, for me, or for anyone else who followed Jesus.

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