I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through sixth grade. I know a lot of people who claim to have “survived” that experience, but for me the positive far outweighed any negative, especially this time of year. Lent and Holy Week in particular is the climax of the Church year, both spiritually and liturgically, and being able to experience the stations of the cross in an age appropriate way as part of my formal education was a gift I appreciated as much then as I do now. For some kids, art class or music class stirs their imagination. For me, it was theology.
Every year at this time all the students would gather in the church to read the passion play. The priest always played Jesus. Older students played the roles of Peter, Pilate, and the other characters. And we, the young students, played the crowd. At the beginning of the story, our “part” was to cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of The Lord!” Later, we shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
It was like whiplash. It totally baffled me. How could the same people who hailed Jesus with palm branches and cloaks on the ground turn around in just a few days and demand this guy’s death? Even as a child I questioned this, especially since I was being asked to recreate this drama. It made me uncomfortable.
As I listened to the stories at this weekend’s Palm Sunday liturgy, I once again pondered this, and it occurred to me – it was not the same crowd.
The crowd that welcomed Jesus were the fearless throngs of poor, marginalized people who had heard of Jesus’ miracles and had the guts to show up en masse in the Holy City Jerusalem to welcome the man who had courage to confront the hypocrisy of the Jewish elite and whom they believed would liberate them from the literal oppression of the Romans and the spiritual oppression of the Sanhedrin.
But then Jesus practiced what he preached. He turned the other cheek. He was captured, questioned, and didn’t resist. At all. The man who made a blind man see and raised someone from the dead did nothing to stop the injustice being done to him. For a poor person who had very little to sustain himself and his family, this must have been terrifying to witness; if the Sanhedrin and the Roman leaders of the city could do this to a man who had personally demonstrated the real power of God, what could those oppressors unleash on them, the most powerless people in society? If their King couldn’t be bothered to save Himself, they had better take cover. And I think that’s exactly what they did. I don’t think they wanted anyone to be crucified. Especially themselves.
The crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion were the social elites and the religious fundamentalists. We tend to think of all the sects who wanted Jesus dead as a unified group. But actually, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the cruel Roman soldiers were strange bedfellows. It would be the modern equivalent of “big business” lobbyists joining with the “religious right,” the media, Occupy Wall Street, and law enforcement to bring down a whistle-blower who threatens them all.
Jesus was a spiritual whistle-blower. He threatened everyone’s way of life. It’s no wonder such opposing political forces would join together to kill Him, while those who had everything to lose by defending Jesus would hide in the shadows, afraid they might be next. We cannot appreciate the abject fear in which these people lived every day of their existence under the dual oppression of the cruel Romans and the religious leaders who routinely turned their backs on the poor, blaming their poverty on some kind of moral failing.
These people were not turncoats.
They were human. And they were very, very afraid.
They were also the very foundation of the Church, the Kingdom of God. And Peter was the cornerstone.
Why do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?
Don’t tell me it’s because the Bible says so. I think the Bible is a great book filled with wisdom. I believe it is the inspired Word of God, and I seek guidance from its pages regularly. But I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible tells me to, any more than the Pharisees believed He would really be raised from the dead simply because He said He would.
The Jewish leaders were concerned about Jesus’ claim that He’d rise on the third day; they were so concerned that they had a guard posted at the tomb and a seal placed on the stone so that no one could rob the body and make false claims that Jesus has risen.
That’s what most doubters think happened, you know. They can’t deny Jesus was a compelling historical and religious figure, but this business of Him being raised up is just a bunch of wishful thinking on the part of the man’s friends and followers. It just makes sense.
Except that it doesn’t make any sense at all. Not in light of the fact that cowardly Peter, who denied knowing Christ three times, would become the Peter who braved stoning and persecution to share the news that Jesus had risen. And not just Peter. Thousands of Jesus’ nameless followers who had been so scared of the authorities that they didn’t even attempt to secure justice for the innocent man they followed were transformed into witnesses and even martyrs, almost overnight.
If not for the dramatic and miraculous transformation of a rag tag group of misfits, destitutes, prostitutes, lead by a well-intentioned but spineless, weak-willed denier, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection claim would have faded into history like so many other implausible myths. In a twist of irony of biblical proportions, it is the disciples’ shortcomings during Holy Week that make the miracle of the resurrection plausible.
I believe in Jesus because the Bible demonstrates how He transformed people. The woman at the well was transformed from the village slut who avoided contact with her neighbors to a vocal witness for the messiah. The man born blind and assumed a sinner was transformed from a beggar to someone with the chutzpah to lecture the Pharisees who questioned him when he was healed. Lazarus was literally brought back to life. And awkward, craven Peter became the eloquent spokesman for a movement in the face of certain death. Only God can change people like that.
The crucifixion was supposed to put these would-be revolutionaries in their place through the force of terror and intimidation, and it worked. The martyrdom of Jesus did not embolden the people. It terrified them; even the apostles were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them. His resurrection is what changed them, and it’s that change that will always be the best evidence for the truth of the Bible.
I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen first hand how He continues to transform people. If you haven’t seen God work miracles in the life of someone who has hit bottom, perhaps you are spending a little too much time with the modern day Pharisees and too little time with the broken, hurting people who are most in need of Jesus’ message of hope.
I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen how he is transforming me. There are private internal battles that I’ve been waging for almost as long as I can remember, unsuccessfully, and when I turned them over to God with just a mustard seed of willingness, God transformed me. On my own I was a well-intentioned failure full of shame. With God, I don’t have to be ashamed of my darkness because the lower I get, the more visible His glory will be in me.
I believe in the resurrection because I’ve died and come back to life, too.