Holy Week Highlights

It’s the last day of winter! Sing and shout, spring starts tomorrow and I’m ready for it, not the pollen so much, but even that’s a sign of new life. I’m ready for Easter after a long winter. That sounds vaguely familiar as something the character “Phil” aka Bill Murray said in the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” I love the movie. Phil seemingly is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA wooing Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita. The only thing that finally ends his purgatory is that he finally gets one complete day right, no selfishness or self-serving stratagems. His life is redeemed by letting go of himself and loving others, purely and sincerely.

That is one of the purposes of Lent – to lay aside self, put others and Christ first. The question on my mind today is how well has that gone for me this year. I feel like I’ve been treading water going from one crisis to another. My brain is mush and I’m still waiting for that perfect day. By now you also know if your Lenten observance plans have worked out, too. There are some of you/us who are planning on a crash-course during Holy Week to make things right. You can’t have a great Easter without a good Lent.

This begs the question: What makes for a “Good Lent?” Was it something that you gave up this year, or started? Just making it to “Low Sunday” on April 12 will mean it was a holy observance for most clergy and church staff. “There’s no rest for the weary!” is especially true this time of the year, but it’s meant to be this way. Holy Week services have been around ever since the Early Church and its commemoration of the significance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It’s supposed to be a whirlwind because that’s what it was for Jesus. Thanks to the plethora of preparations we literally feel the weight that Jesus must have felt that last week.

This has made me think about the most important revelations that all this busyness brings. Which services and Scriptures are most poignant and powerful? Without falling further into the tiredness that only church can bring, think with me about the highlights of your preparations for Easter.

Of course, it begins with Palm Sunday. In Matthew and John, it was palms that the people waved, although Matthew added additional cloaks to the red carpet treatment. In Mark, it was unidentified branches cut from the fields that the people used along with cloaks. In Luke, there are no branches of any kind. If the only Gospel we had was Luke it would have been called “Cloak Sunday,” because that’s the way he portrays the people’s welcome for Jesus.

The bigger deal to me about Palm Sunday has nothing at all to do with branches versus cloaks or how many donkeys were used. By the way, Matthew has two, the rest one. The big deal to me is that the crowd went from Sunday to the next Friday from praise of Jesus to demands for his crucifixion. It’s little wonder that our ashes for every subsequent year’s Ash Wednesday are made from burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – a powerful reminder of how we fickle humans have failed the Lord throughout the year and need Lent to help get us back on track.

I am going to jump ahead, but it fits with the fickleness theme. The people on Good Friday asked for Barabbas over Jesus. The significance of Barabbas’ name is powerful. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means “father,” so the Son of the Heavenly Father, all caps “BARABBAS,” is sentenced to die in the place of all the rest of us “small cap” children of earthly fathers. Such horrible irony, but this is a clear image of the depth of God’s love.

Back to the schedule, though. Maundy Thursday is a must! “Maundy” derives from the Latin, mandatum which means commandment. It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, his washing the disciples’ feet and his command to go and do likewise. This event is only recorded in John’s version of the passion narrative (John 13), which may explain why foot washing didn’t make the list of sacraments. If something is only mentioned once in the Bible there’s an argument that one shouldn’t make it into a sacrament or a doctrine. However, John’s depiction of Jesus’ servant-like kingship is amazing, especially when you consider that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Maundy Thursday always inspires me to think about whose feet I need to wash.

Another Lenten and Holy Week epiphany occurred when I noticed something very interesting in Matthew’s passion account. When Jesus is about to be betrayed by Judas with a kiss in Matthew 26:50, Jesus says a rare and powerful thing, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus hardly ever calls anyone “friend.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t a friend, but the fact remains that it wasn’t a word that he lightly tossed around when he was talking about people. He called Lazarus a “friend” (John 11:11), and the guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof (Luke 5:20). Only 3 times in the entire Gospels does Jesus call anyone “friend,” and Judas is one of them! This really sets the bar high for my Lenten observance. Who are the enemies with whom I need to reconcile?

God’s amazing grace is on glorious display after the resurrection in Mark 16:7 when the women are told to go announce Jesus’ resurrection. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…,” are their instructions. This is only mentioned in Mark’s account, though in John we have the dramatic reinstatement of Peter. What’s powerful to me is that here’s Peter who has denied the Lord multiple times and yet he’s singled out to get the good news about Jesus being alive. Peter wasn’t at the crucifixion. After he heard the rooster crow after he denied Jesus, he went away weeping bitterly, but Jesus didn’t give up on him and leave him out.

This word instructing the women to go tell his disciples AND Peter, is amazing grace and gives me so much hope. I have been a betraying Judas, a denying Peter, and a fickle fan. I have lived through days that seem like a never-ending purgatory where nothing ever seems to go right, and the God of the universe, who is yet fully human, suffers, dies, and rises for me – for you.

The song “Better” by MercyMe captures how this makes me feel today. Give a listen.

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Judas Trees and Jesus

As I was driving across town this morning to the United Methodist Center I counted 19 Judas Trees. They look like thin trees or shrubs with close-cropped purple buds on the limbs. They are beautiful! Some people call them redbuds although I haven’t seen a color close to red yet. Much like the dogwood with its association to Lent and Easter via Jesus’ cross, the Judas Tree is said to have been the type of tree upon which Judas hanged himself after he betrayed the Lord.

No matter whether it’s an Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) or a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) the bright purple Lenten-like color is a great precursor to Passion Week and Easter. Before there are any blooms on any other trees or shrubs these artful wonders stand out in yards and woodlands with their bright foliage. My mother always pointed them out when I was a child and said, “Look there’s a Judas Tree blooming. Easter’s coming, we better get ready!”

That is always good advice, hence our reason to have 40 days not counting Sundays to prepare for the Lord’s resurrection. In this in-between time of spring being sprung and the last vestiges of winter, I need a visual reminder that Passion Week and a culminating Easter are upon us. Judas Trees blooming while no dogwoods are in sight is a metaphor for the spiritual work that I yet need to do. What do I need to do to get ready for Passion Week and Easter?

I’m going to take my cue from Judas Trees, more specifically the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Judas Iscariot is such an enigmatic character. He’s the only disciple who was a city-boy, from Kerioth, which is why he’s called Judas Iscariot. We know he’s a thief who helped himself to the Disciples’ common cache of money. He struck a deal to turn Jesus in to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver.  He identified the Lord with a kiss. We also know Judas felt remorse over his actions, perhaps too little, too late.

But, hold on, we also know something else! Jesus called Judas his friend when he betrayed him with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus said, “Friend, Do what you came for.” We absolutely need to note that Jesus didn’t call many people “friend.” As a matter of fact, except for several uses of the word “friend(s)” in a few parables, the only other times Jesus uses the word directly about a person was when he healed the paralytic let down through the roof (Luke 5:20), and when he was talking about Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. In John 11:11 Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up.” Jesus only called three people, “friend!” Wow!

And one of them was Judas, and Jesus already knew that he was going to betray Him (John 13). To top off this audacity of grace, Jesus called Judas “Friend” just after He washed all of the Disciples’ feet, including Judas’, in the Upper Room. How many of us would wash Judas’ feet? How many of us would call our betrayer “Friend?”  We have all had someone treat us poorly. Rather than ostracize or at least avoid them, Jesus goes out of his way to show extraordinary grace and compassion, and He calls us to do the same knowing that there is nothing He does that He won’t empower us to do.

Therefore, I want every Judas Tree that I see make me want to have a Jesus-heart, a heart that can express friendship to all regardless of their meanness. Rather than stoop to the level of our adversaries, let us rise to the example of Christ. Jesus calls us all His friends and we’ve all let Him down like Judas. Look around you in the coming days and let the Judas Trees inspire you to turn your enemies into friends!

Judas Tree

The Power of Love

The power of love versus the love of power is the cosmic battle fought every day. Do we seek to control people or manipulate circumstances into self-serving outcomes? Jesus, in his last week pre-resurrection, modeled a self-surrendered life and the power of love. He could have called thousands of angels to deliver him from death, but he did not. He could have defended himself against the arresting mob, but did not. He could have verbally throttled those who condemned and mocked him, but was as silent as a lamb before its shearers. He gave hope to a thief dying beside him when I would have wallowed in my own piteous situation. He spoke out of concern to his mother and his disciple John and gave them his charge to care for one another in his absence.

Perhaps the most telling thing that he did in showing the power of love during his agony on the cross was his plea to his Father, “Forgive them. They know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” No one in that crowd asked to be forgiven, yet he forgave. Often in Jesus’ ministry he forgave when no one was asking for it. When the paralyzed man was lowered by his friends through the roof there is no evidence that the man asked for forgiveness yet Jesus looked at him and said, “Your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2).” Another time a woman (Luke 7:48) who had sinned much showed her gratitude for Jesus’ message of grace and poured precious perfume on his feet. She did not ask for forgiveness, yet Jesus forgave. This is so counter to the ways of the world. Most of us have been taught to forgive only after someone repents and asks for our mercy. Jesus gives us a powerful example of love’s triumph over judgment, the power of love over the love of power.

As I ponder the magnitude of Jesus’ actions in his final days I am overwhelmed by the grace he shows Judas Iscariot. Sure, Jesus tells his disciples, Judas included, that one of them will betray him. He specifically calls out Peter as one who will deny him multiple times. He declares that all of them will desert him. However, these words seem more like words of warning mixed with immense sadness. I don’t hear them as accusatory or condemning. Jesus washed all of their feet, Judas’ and Peter’s included.

When Judas approached Jesus in Gethsemane to betray him with a kiss a most profound statement is uttered. Jesus simply said, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” This is amazing since very seldom in the Gospels does Jesus use the word “Friend” as a personal greeting. As much as we love to sing the old hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” He only uses this epithet sparingly: once to the paralyzed man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20),” then about Lazarus’ death, Jesus said “Our friend has fallen asleep (John 11:11),” and when the disciples were worried he said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid… (Luke 12:4).” When Jesus addressed the disciples in John 15:14, 15, he called them “friends,” and, finally Jesus used the term in John 21:5 in the post-resurrection scene when he addressed the disciples from the shore while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

In a singular direct sense Jesus only used the term “Friend” three times in the entire Gospels and collectively only four times. Wow! So when I think of Jesus having the depth of love and courageous wherewithal to call Judas, “Friend,” as he was about to betray him with a kiss of all indignities, I am totally blown away. I am challenged by Jesus to forgive unilaterally and call even my enemies and those who desert me friends.

Jesus compels me during this Passion Week to lay aside self-interest and judgment and dare to embrace the power of love over the love of power. What a different world this would be if we turned enemies into friends and forgave people whether they asked for it or not. Oh, may the power of Christ’s love live through us!