I Have Questions

Three weeks ago feels like three years now. Is anyone else feeling as I am:

Is this really happening? Am I going to die? I’m 62. Is anyone in my family going to die? Do the hoarders really not give a damn about anyone else? Could I lose my job? Will people I love lose their jobs? Are there actually still people who don’t get how dangerous this is? Can we please get a president who knows what he’s talking about? 

And yet: how friendly people are when Ann and I go for walks (keeping our distance, naturally)! We should walk more. How considerate many people are! How creatively generous many people have become! How adaptive, quickly, many people have become! How skinny our dachshund is after 4 walks a day! Parts of online church are way better than I originally expected and feared. And of course, how brave and selfless direct-care healthcare workers are! [adapted from my friend Dr. Jerry Gentry]

In Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, Camus gave us the whole package: “We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is [humans] who pass away. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others. They forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that plagues were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like the plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, and silences the exchange of views? … I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. We can learn to ask good questions, “What am I doing to help the vulnerable, the lonely? Am I finding ways to love?”

The anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fish hooks or clay pots or grinding stones. But Mead said, “The first sign of civilization in an ancient culture is a femur (a thighbone) that has been broken and then healed.” Mead explained, “In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. We are at our best when we care for others.”

So that’s where we are, a Baptist diaspora, as we start holy week 2020. We’ve been considering the Psalms this Lenten season, as James has just done so well for us again.  But I didn’t want us to enter holy week without considering Jesus’ last days with humanity, a time laden with gravitas. 

This Sunday marks the beginning of the last, longest and most dramatic week in the life of Jesus, a week in which events in and around his life moved with increasing rapidity from the joyful triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the tragic end on the so-called Good Friday. The days of that last week are so much of one fabric that it is difficult to separate one day from the next, or to insulate one event from that which preceded or followed it. The beginning of the week looked promising, but Jesus knew something during the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday that the enthusiastic crowd was oblivious to.

The week was tumultuous, like a frenzied and fast-launch roller coaster. In Luke’s account, Jesus actually wept over Jerusalem. He cleansed the Temple — driving out those who were selling things, overturning tables, using a whip he made himself, and accused them of turning a house of worship into a den of thieves, while children nearby sang and danced around the temple courtyard, singing, “Hosanna to the son of David!”  The religious establishment intensified their challenge of his authority. The religious leaders picked on him. They sparred with Jesus, but he responded with such wisdom that they had no reasonable or theologically sound rejoinder.

By midweek there were multiple mini-dramas being played out in and around the main scene. The public proclamations and debates were finally over and Jesus wanted some private time with the disciples. He devoted himself to his own close friends in this world because he wanted to prepare them for what was about to happen, as much as anyone can be prepared for such a terrible ordeal.

Time was of the essence. He had already said many things to them, much of which they had not yet understood. He said, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” He spoke to them of his impending death, but they would not hear of this because it did not fit the messianic dream in which their minds had been marinated. They could not face the possibility that death rather than political victory would be the final outcome. Jesus’ goal for the brief time remaining was to help them face the stark reality of his coming death and give them something to hold their world together during the storm.

And there were other problems that Jesus had to deal with, but time was running out. There was the attitude the disciples brought to the Passover meal, a meal they did not realize was to be their last supper together. Luke gives us some insight into the reason for the mood of the disciples to which John does not refer. On the way to the meeting a dispute had arisen among the twelve as to who was to be regarded as the greatest. This was probably a continued contention resulting from an earlier occasion in which James and John had asked Jesus to give them places of eminence in his kingdom, with one on his right and the other on his left. Matthew alleges that it was their mother who made that request on their behalf. When the other disciples heard of this preemptive request for superiority, they were jealous and indignant (they might have been mad they didn’t think of it first). By the last supper with Jesus, the cancer of lust for power and prominence had spread to all of them. They were a competitive bunch.

Like pouting children, with their collective noses out of joint, on Thursday night they arrived at the upper room with festering feelings of jealousy and resentment. It was customary when people came as guests for dinner, a servant would wash the dust and dirt from their feet. Since the apostolic team had no servant to wait on them, it’s likely that their practice was to take turns at foot washing duty. But not on this night. They had unresolved issues with one another. They went stubbornly to their appointed places at the table, not one of them willing to compromise his dignity by doing a menial task which in their collective misunderstanding might lessen their image as well as their of chances of preference and prominence in this worldly kingdom which was to come.

So they began the holy meal with travel-stained feet because no one was willing to back down or bend over. Since they likely reclined on cushions to eat, this was a problem of hygiene and smell. Sensing the climate of childish anger, Jesus knew he would not be able to accomplish what he had hoped unless he could empty the atmosphere of the palpable ill-will. Words would not work. So, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples and to wipe them with the towel which was tied around him. The disciples must have watched this act of humility by their master with growing uneasiness and embarrassment. The wordless lesson was hopefully clear: The one who is greatest among you must be a servant of all. [pause]

Another pressing problem had to be resolved before he could continue: Judas was sitting at the table. The implication in John is that the betrayal had not been finalized, but there had been preliminary negotiations. Jesus was troubled in spirit as he openly announced that one of the twelve would betray him. The disciples looked around and questioned who that might be and Jesus said that the betrayer was the one to whom he would give the bread he had dipped in the dish. He offered the bread to Judas and said, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” The scene ends with Judas leaving. This dark deed is underlined by John’s closing sentence, “And it was night.” 

Facing the death and absence of someone we love is painful beyond description. In a short time, life for the disciples was going to collapse into chaos. Darkness would come at midday, and all would seem lost. It was against this that Jesus began to prepare his little company.

There comes a time for all of us in which life cracks open at the seams, and everything upon which we have counted falls in shambles at our feet. [Which pretty much sums up where many of us are presently.] This was what was about to happen to the disciples, and Jesus was giving them something to hold on to until they could get their lives into manageable units. How beautifully, and with what great sensitivity Jesus comforted and prepared the twelve against the stunning reality of the next day. 2000 years later those of us who face death and the absence of loved ones still turn to John’s story of Jesus, chapters 13-17, for something to hold on to.

Both the Romans and the religious leaders had put out an APB on Jesus. Judas was on his way to do a dirty deed done dirt cheap, for which his name would live in infamy. Satan was tugging at the shirttails of Simon Peter, the disciple to whom Jesus had given the keys to the kingdom. What a chaos cluster!

That unspeakably terrible last day in the life of Jesus has such an emotional impact on us when we simply read the account recorded in the gospels that we tend to forget what it all meant. Even considering all that could be seen and felt in and about the whole event, there was something happening that day on the rough hilltop that was beyond the grasp of everyone present, except perhaps Jesus and certainly God, whose spirit hovered over the place like a heavy fog, a happening that is the focal point for humanity. It was too soon for the gospel writers, even though they wrote many years after the death of Jesus, to find adequate words and phrases to communicate the meaning of his divine death. It was–and is–a holy mystery of such magnitude that none present could grasp that it held meaning beyond their present pain.

The gospels were not written to boost the power of  the cruel physical details of the crucifixion to give it more psychological impact. The gospel writers simply told the story. They did not pose imponderables, nor did they presume to resolve inherent mysteries. Unlike some Hollywood accounts of the passion of the Christ, the gospel writers avoided the gory details of the flogging, the Via Dolorosa, and the crucifixion. This was not to withhold or obscure key features in giving an account of what happened. The writers of the gospels understood that the death of Jesus did not, and still does not, depend upon the intensity of the psychological effect it has on subsequent readers.

Those who loved Jesus caught every word he spoke from the cross. Some things he said were so graphically etched in their minds that they could not bear to translate them, but conveyed them in the exact words of the Aramaic language in which he spoke. Near the end he cried out: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) Haunting words too heavy to translate.

Luke said that after Jesus cried out in a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit [right out of Psalm 31:5!] and having said this died.” Jesus died with a prayer on his lips. This prayer was the first prayer that every Jewish mother taught her child to say at night. Just as many of us were taught “Now I lay me down to sleep,” so Jewish mothers taught their children a prayer to end the day, “Into you hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus added the word “Father,” Abba, and died like a child falling asleep in his parent’s arms.

Thus ended the long, last, terrible week of Jesus’ life.