Prayer and Passion Week

Palm Sunday is almost upon us and tonight is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game. You might ask what in the world does Passion Week and Basketball finals have in common. They both say something about prayer in my mind this morning. I know people who’ll pray for all kinds of stuff that doesn’t mean a hill of beans and won’t pray about things that have eternal consequences! There will be people tonight praying for Kentucky or Connecticut to win, but won’t be giving a thought to praying their way through Jesus’ sufferings.

Frankly, I have a hard time understanding why people pray about sports any way, except to pray that no one gets hurt. Being a loyal Gamecock fan hasn’t helped my desire to pray because my prayers have largely gone unanswered! I figure God has better things to do, and our results, except for the past few years, have been more than spotty. So why pray too much about sports? Why not pray for world peace, homelessness, hunger, an elimination of domestic violence, the eradication of racism, family harmony…?

I must admit that I’ve been tempted to pray against some teams that shall remain nameless. But all this is peripheral to Passion Week and Prayer. Jesus prayed as if great drops of blood flowed from his body during Gethsemane’s long hours. The New Testament Greek word used for his efforts in praying is agonizomai whence comes our word agonize. Jesus agonized in prayer while his disciples slept!

Why do we have such a difficult time joining Jesus in such heartfelt prayer? We get worked up over our favorite sports team and fret over all kinds of superfluous things. We innocuously tell people, “We’ll be praying for you,” as if it were a semi-greeting or salutation like “Hello” or “Goodbye.” Agonizing with someone in prayer is far from our usual meaning. Sad!

My solemn promise as Holy Week approaches is not to get bent out of shape and waste spiritual and emotional energy on basketball, baseball, the Masters Golf Tournament, or spring football scrimmages. I want to pray like Jesus over things that matter eternally. I love sports and they matter to me, but, no offense, this week they’re going to take a back seat to more important things.

Three neighbors were talking and discussing the proper position and attitude for prayer. One said, “You should be on your knees with your head bowed in reverence to the Almighty.” The second man spoke up and said, “Remember that you were created in God’s image. The position in which to pray is to stand up looking at the heavens into the face of God and talk to Him as a child to his father.” The third man spoke up and said, “I don’t know much about these other positions, but the finest praying I ever did was hanging upside down in a well.”

Let’s do our best praying in the coming days before Easter! The world needs it! I do hope the best teams win and no one gets hurt in whatever the sport, but my priority over these last days of Lent is going be about bigger things.

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!