Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Resurrection Seems Impossible

The first Easter was that wondrous moment in history when the empty tomb was discovered and, in an instant, “everything changed” for the followers of Jesus… and for the world as we know it. But as amazing and wondrous as it was, it took a while for Jesus’ closest friends and followers to figure it out… Why?

Frankly, I think it was because, after the events of Friday and Saturday, resurrection would have probably been the furthest thing from their minds. At that moment, seized by grief and despair, resurrection seemed impossible.

When the women set off for the tomb in the wee hours of Sunday it is clear that they are going to visit a dead body and prepare it for proper burial. When they arrive at the tomb, they are completely shocked to find that the rather large stone in front of the tomb has been rolled away and even more astonished to discover that Jesus’ body is missing. They are seized with fear and amazement as they scurry about trying to figure out who moved the stone, and more importantly, what has become of Jesus’ body. Some of these women had stood and watched Jesus die on the cross; they witnessed the brutality of the Romans firsthand and looked Jesus square in the eye as he breathed his last. They certainly didn’t equate seeing the tomb empty with any notion that Jesus was somehow alive—that would’ve seemed impossible.

Even once the men learn about the empty tomb, they don’t immediately think of resurrection. Peter and John go to the tomb to see what is going on with their own eyes. They are as amazed by the news as the women are, and are trying to figure out what in the world is going on, and what has happened to Jesus’ body. (John’s Gospel suggests that upon entering the empty tomb, John believed, as if to suggest he figured out what had happened in that moment. I personally think that may be a bit of hyperbole on the part of the author—to make him look good.)

For these grieving, distraught disciples, it had to seem like adding insult to injury to have the body of Jesus missing and not know what had happened to it. Somebody might have vaguely remembered Jesus saying something about “rising again”, but then quickly dismissed the thought as impossible. They knew that no one—and I do mean no one—endured the kind of torture Jesus endured at the hands of Rome and lived to tell about it. They knew that crucifixion was permanent!

This might help us understand why, later, when the Risen Lord stood right in front of them, resurrection still seemed impossible for them to believe.

We know that in time, however, this view changed dramatically. Scholars debate the exact nature of the disciple’s experiences when they “saw” Jesus on a number of occasions after the resurrection, but none debate that these encounters with Jesus impacted all of them profoundly and convinced them that he was in fact risen.

We see that profound change on display in the continuation of the Story in Acts— the second volume of Luke’s two-volume account of the story of Jesus and the Early Church. Acts focuses on the birth and spread of the Church. Here we see that:

· a band of confused, scared, and grieving disciples have—in a fairly short amount of time—become focused and fearless advocates of the Kingdom of God thoroughly convinced that though Jesus is no longer present bodily, he is very much alive and active in the world.

· God uses rather ordinary people—very much like you and me—to do amazing things and uses these signs and wonders (and their preaching!) to proclaim the present availability of the Kingdom to the world.

· empowered by the Holy Spirit, these ordinary men and women—some of whom failed Jesus so utterly—are now the means through which the Message of Jesus spreads around the Ancient World.

· these same men and women—once too afraid to stay with Jesus to the end—have now become so utterly convinced of the reality of Jesus and the “truth” of his counter-cultural message of love and justice that they are now willing to die for what they believe.

· Peter—a man who struggled mightily the past three years to understand who Jesus was, even at one point going so far as to deny he was a follower of Jesus to protect his own well-being—now begins to fulfill his own destiny as The Rock on which Jesus will build his church. J

· Paul—a “righteous” Jew who spent his life zealously persecuting the young Church—has his own unique encounter with the Risen Lord and becomes one of the most passionate advocates of the Church—and the one uniquely gifted to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles.

If on that Saturday after Jesus died, you had told those disciples huddled in that room fearing for their lives all that lay ahead for them, they would have probably thought you were crazy. But a funny thing happens when Jesus enters our lives: Suddenly the impossible becomes possible.

Resurrection doesn’t seem possible; we can’t explain how it worked. (And not being able to explain it makes some of us seek to discredit it.) And yet, it’s the very thing on which our faith as followers of Christ hinges. If it didn’t happen, as Paul say in 1 Corinthians 15 our faith is futile (v17)… and we are to be pitied more than anyone (v19). But Paul is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that resurrection did happen (v20), and that fact fuels his passion for proclaiming the Message. He has seen his own life profoundly changed and believes that kind of change is possible for all who choose to follow the Way of Jesus.

But what about you? Do you believe what Paul says—and what Jesus says?

One of my favorite lines of Scripture is: “Lord I want to believe help me with my unbelief.” I have been a follower of Christ for years, and I know what I ought to believe about the resurrection: With God, the impossible becomes possible

But have I actually experienced this reality in my life the way the Apostles did?

The most honest answer I can give to that question is: “yes and no”. I look back over the trajectory of my life and see God making things that at one point seemed impossible, possible.

· There was a point when I seriously doubted that I would finish graduate school… I now have a Masters of Science hanging on my wall.

· There was a point when I seriously doubted that I would find a spouse… In July I will celebrate eight years of marriage to my wonderful wife Laurie.

· There was a point where Laurie and I weren’t sure we could have any biological children… I now have a five-year old son and a three-year old daughter.

But then there are areas of my life where if you looked back over my journals and could eavesdrop on my prayers and conversations with friends, you’d see me wrestling with the same things over and over again. The specific circumstances change over the years, but the “core issues” remain the same. These are the addictions I can’t seem to break, the habits and behaviors I just can’t seem to change no matter what impact it has on others around me—whether it be family, friends, coworkers, etc. These are the things the Enemy uses to hold me back from feeling “fully alive”!

These are the “tombs” in my heart with “stones” in front that seem so large that I sometimes wonder if even God can roll them away.

And to be honest, I’m not always sure I want the “stones” rolled away. Some “stones” I keep around to “protect” me from being exposed to the wiles of the world. They have been around so long that I can’t imagine life without them.

But until I let Jesus into my “tombs”, I fear that so many things I long for in this life—perhaps none greater than the experience of true joy—will continue to elude me. Jesus raised Lazarus to life and he offers me—and all of us—the same gift. He wants us to come out of our “tombs” and experience the fullness of the resurrection in every aspect of life. He calls to me saying: “ Alan, come out!”…

But Jesus will never force me to come out; that choice is mine. Will I come out or will I remain in the safe, familiar, and comfortable “tomb” I have been hiding in for so long? Will I put aside my fears and finally believe that with God the impossible really is possible—yes, even for me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Saturday: A Day of Few Words

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation. Psalm 62:1-2

Of the four Gospel writers, Mark’s version is the most action-packed. Mark doesn’t waste many words so we should pay attention to every word we read. While Mark does not describe some events that other Gospel writers do, there are some details in his account that are unique to his telling of the story. Also, Mark’s is thought to be the oldest account of the life of Jesus dating from around 70 AD. Other Gospel writers likely borrowed from Mark when they wrote, so there is some sense that his words carry added authenticity.

When it comes to the story of the last week of Jesus’ life—what we call Holy Week— Mark’s account is probably the easiest to figure out what events happened on what day. Mark describes a steady stream of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday—see Mark 11–15. From Thursday night on, the events come in rapid succession. There is the Last Supper where “communion” is instituted, Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the High Priest, Peter’s denial of Jesus, the trial before Pilate and release of Barabbas to satisfy the crowd, and the suffering and humiliation of Christ, the walk down the Via Delarosa to Calvary—all culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus.

But then, as we come to the end of Mark 15, it almost looks like something is missing. There has been all this action and then suddenly—nothing. An entire day passes with no words to describe it[1]. When we pick up the action in Mark 16, it is early on Sunday and the women are on their way to the tomb.

What are we to make of this lack of words, this relative silence about Saturday from all four Gospel writers?

If we answer strictly from our modern human perspective, we might be tempted to think nothing is said because what happened on Saturday wasn’t all that important to the story. If it was, the writers would have said so, wouldn’t they? In today’s information saturated world, every detail would be documented and posted on message boards, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter—and then we would have to figure out what details really mattered. And after all, if the events of Saturday were so important to remember, wouldn’t we have a church service that day too? (Yes, I know some places do. J)

In his memoirs called The Pastor, Eugene Petersen talks about his experience as a child working in his father’s butcher shop on the Saturday before Easter. His family were devout church goers and worshipped faithfully on Good Friday and of course Easter Sunday, but for them, “Holy” Saturday was a like any other day if not more so. The day before Easter was a day of brisk commerce at the shop as everyone rushed to purchase the ham for tomorrow’s dinner. While Jesus’ body was lying in the tomb silent and still, the Petersen’s were busy making a living; I suppose it’s what you did if you were in that profession.

I’m afraid that two thousand years of church history has robbed Easter Sunday of much of its wonder and amazement. For our post-Christian world, there’s not much in the way of suspense between Friday and Sunday anymore. We know how the story ends and we kind of view the middle as boring and unimportant—and, frankly, we often skip directly to the end of the story because that’s the part we like the most. Perhaps we attend an Easter Egg Hunt or some other secular event that reminds us that it’s the Saturday before Easter, but that’s typically about the size of it. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us are like the Petersen family; we go on with business as usual in our lives on Holy Saturday.

Even for clergy and their families—maybe especially for us—the Saturday before Easter (and frankly the entire week leading up to it) is usually extremely busy. As a pastor’s spouse I can attest that we are often scurrying about on Holy Saturday trying to squeeze in something fun for our kids, and making final preparations for Easter Sunday worship. Holy Saturday is by no means a day of rest and reflection for the Ward family. For clergy families like ours, it’s business as usual on the day before Easter—in fact it tends to be one of the most hectic days of our year!

But we should remember that there was none of this over-familiarity for Jesus’ first followers. For these men and women, Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath day—dawned eerily quiet and still. They huddled together that Saturday hiding from the Roman authorities. It was a Sabbath day of mourning their fallen friend laced with fearing for their own lives. What they witnessed Friday night was terrible, but Saturday was probably even worse for them. Jesus, their teacher and leader these past three years, is dead and buried. The sense of anxiety and even outright despair in the room where they hid after the crucifixion must have been so thick you could cut it with a knife.

On that first Holy Saturday, it appears that evil has triumphed. All hopes the disciples had for the Messiah to come and liberate them have failed. Jesus is dead; God has left them alone to face their fate.

When the Sabbath ended on Saturday evening the disciples had little or no idea that the wondrous events of Sunday morning were about to unfold. You can see it in the their stunned reactions when the women bring them the news of the empty tomb. It catches them completely off guard; they have to run and see for themselves. Even once they see with their own eyes they still aren’t sure quite what to make of it all. It takes a while for the reality of what actually happened to sink in.

As we pull back and see Holy Saturday from God’s perspective we learn an important lesson: Sometimes God does his most important work when, from our limited human viewpoint, God appears to be “absent” or even “dead”.

Did you know there is an entire doctrine of theology (God-talk) devoted to what was happening on Holy Saturday? The doctrine is called the harrowing of hell[2] and it states that while Jesus’ body was lying sealed in a tomb, still and silent from our human perspective, a divine drama played out in a realm our eyes cannot see. Christ descended to hell and set free many captives who had died before. (This would have been consistent one of the major streams of Jewish beliefs at the time where the Messiah was to lead a “general” resurrection of all the faithful Jews who had died as martyrs.) The Apostle’s Creed is one of the earliest summaries of Christian belief; it is still used today in many churches and certain versions of it include the line: “He descended to the dead”.

Clearly, the earliest followers of Jesus believed that whatever Jesus did on Saturday was a vital precursor to what would happen Sunday, and felt it worth mentioning in a summary of what they believed.

For the most part, the writers of Scripture, writing a few decades after Jesus lived, chose not to tackle this topic. You will find what seems to be a rather awkward reference to it in Matthew—compare Mark 15:33-39 with Matthew 27:45-54—and there are a few other places in the New Testament that appear to reference the idea.

It’s not clear exactly why the New Testament writers weren’t more explicit about what happened to Jesus on Holy Saturday. There are a variety of answers that have been suggested. Frankly, my guess is that there are some topics that defy being expressed adequately in words and what Jesus was doing on Saturday is one of those topics. It’s what theologians would call a mystery. That doesn’t mean it’s not important but it does mean that it’s hard to explain and categorize neatly. Such mystery may offend our modern theological sensibilities, especially in the Christian West, but a good storyteller isn’t bothered by a bit of mystery and intrigue—and we should remember that the Gospel-writers were first and foremost storytellers.

I think it makes the Story of Jesus even more compelling and wondrous when every detail is not spelled out explicitly. We’re left to speculate and use our God-given creative imagination to fill in the missing pieces. We discover that there are indeed times when silence speaks louder than words…


[1] The truth is, very little is said about Saturday in any of the gospels. Luke 23:56b simply says that the disciples rested on the Sabbath as the law commanded. Matthew 27:62-66 tells us that the Jewish authorities go to Pilate and request that guards be posted at Jesus’ tomb “until the third day” to prevent Jesus’ followers from removing the body and making “false” claims of resurrection. But none of them say anything about what Jesus was doing on Saturday, when from our human perspective, his body lay in a tomb—dead.

[2] Eastern Orthodox Christians would likely be more familiar with this doctrine than most of us in the West; they celebrate it in their worship on Holy Saturday. There is interesting symbolism used as the liturgical colors start out somber and dark, but are changed to white in the middle of worship symbolizing that the harrowing of hell has taken place and the resurrection of Jesus is now imminent.

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.

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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Is the Resurrection For Real?

A blog I follow recently raised the question: Is the resurrection for real?

They asked a number of different people to respond in 100 words or less. I wasn’t one of them; but here’s my take anyway. I’ll summarize in 66 words below and then expand on it below…

Is resurrection for real? YES. Can I “observe” it directly? NO. Can I explain all the details of how it worked? NO. Does not seeing and not being able to explain mean something isn’t real? I don't think so. In fact, maybe that's partially the point... The best evidence of resurrection power is the impact it has had on my life and the lives of others.

There’s an analogy I have been thinking of recently: gravity. I know some of the science of how gravity works but I can't explain all the details. (There are physicists who can explain much more details than I can, but to this day there remain mysteries about how fundamental forces like gravity work that no one can explain.) Nevertheless, I don't reject gravity's reality simply because I can't explain all the details.

The main way I know gravity is real is that I experience its effect on my life every single day—e.g., I remain firmly planted in my chair as I write this. My experience convinces me of the reality of this fundamental force of nature.[1]

For me, the reality of the resurrection seems similar. Is it a fact of history? Probably. But exact details are hard for me to know. Each Gospel tells the story a little differently; some details appear inconsistent. However, there seems to be enough evidence for me to say that something extraordinarily real happened on that first Easter.

But at the end of the day resurrection is kind of like gravity. We can't "observe it" directly; none of us were there. We rely on the testimony of New Testament authors[2] (the Gospel writers and Paul) and stories and letters aren’t meant to spell out all the details. We're left with unanswered questions. Some see that as a problem; I do not. A little mystery and intrigue doesn’t bother me; it gives my God-given creative imagination room to roam and speculate about what else was going on that’s not written down.

I would argue that, like gravity, the "reality" of resurrection is seen every day of our lives by the impact it has on "objects" that come in contact with it.

When resurrection (the Risen Lord) is encountered the trajectory of our lives is fundamentally altered. We can list so many examples: Jesus’ disciples, Paul, Augustine, John Wesley, myself; the list goes on. Even the very creation itself is changed by resurrection power—it unleashes the vision of a world restored to what it was meant to be.

Sometimes the change can be quite dramatic, other times, as in my own life, it’s more gradual, but sooner or later when resurrection power gets a hold of you it changes your life.

So all that to say, that, yes, I believe the resurrection is real! I look back over the last few years of my life and I don't know where I would be if I didn't believe in resurrection and its power. I know people survive life without that belief but I have to say I am not sure how they do it.

Life has dealt my family some hard blows, perhaps none harder than losing our infant daughter two days after her birth nearly three years ago. My wife and I have experienced some of the darkness and despair that the first followers of Jesus must have felt when their beloved teacher and friend lay dead on Saturday—each in our own unique ways. But I would say that we’ve also experienced glimpses of resurrection power that have helped to sustain us when the going gets tough. We have been able to persevere because, deep down, we believe that in the end that power will triumph. A popular song has resonated with me in recent days; the first line speaks volumes: After the last tear falls, there is LOVE. Indeed…

Maybe the best proof of what we believe, and the best tribute we could offer to our daughter, is that my family strives to live each day in hope. We want to play our part in bringing about the future God dreams of for our world. We each seek to discover and become the person God has created us to be, my wife as pastor and me as her spouse—and aspiring writer. We want to encourage and support one another in our pursuits and also encourage our children to discover and pursue their gifts.

Along the way, in the midst of a hectic and busy life, we try to find moments for our family to simply have fun—to laugh together, to love together, and hopefully, to live life to the full. Sometimes joy—which I confess I sometimes struggle to experience—sneaks up on me and surprises me. I am thankful for that and I hope it is a more frequent visitor in my life.

I find comfort that Hope is already experiencing the fullness of that resurrection power. What I see dimly and experience indirectly she experiences directly and fully. And I don’t know how it will work, but I believe that someday we will experience it together…

I’m not a big visions guy; that’s more my wife’s department; but I sort of have this recurring picture of a little girl running to me. I don’t know how I'll know it's Hope—probably because I’ll recognize her as looking like her identical twin sister [see photo].

Anyway, she’ll run to me and say: “Daddy! It’s so wonderful that you are finally here. There’s someone I want you to meet! He’s been waiting a long time to meet you in person…”

Then in an instant every fear, anxiety, and insecurity will disappear and I will finally know beyond knowing that “I did have what it takes to make it…” I’ll enter into the presence of God and experience the unbridled joy that so often eludes me in this life. Reunited with Hope and perhaps with others who have gone on before me, we will respond the only way we can; we will bow down and worship the one who trampled over death by death. But this worship won’t be an “endless church service”; it will be living life as it was meant to be. It will be like the culmination of a dream, only it will be reality—as real as real can be.


[1] As an interesting aside, NASA (for whom I work) has an Earth Science mission called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE). That’s an interesting acronym choice isn’t it? Gravity is a fundamental force of nature and grace is a fundament aspect of God’s character as revealed in Jesus—the resurrection is really all about grace overflowing. Both gravity and grace are “invisible qualities” that can’t be measured directly, but their “impact” on the Universe is undeniable.

[2] And we would do well to remember that even these witnesses weren’t direct observers of the events they describe.