In my novel, “Martha Finds Rest,” I retell the story of the first Easter. When I get to the part where Jesus visits the upper room in John chapter 20, my novel dramatizes the events, utilizing the viewpoint of a spying twelve-year old.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Here is the story. God emptied himself and was born into our world. One Friday, God made himself weak and vulnerable. He was betrayed, put on trial, mocked, beaten, made to carry his cross throughout all the streets of Jerusalem, he stumbles three times under its weight (imagine that, God being weak), and then arriving at the place of the skull, he is nailed to this cross. It is dropped into a hole. He is made to hang between heaven and earth. In agony for three hours. Then he dies. God’s envoy to this planet dies. This is the story.
I have been thinking a lot about small groups lately. Jesus begins with a small group — twelve disciples. At the end of the Last Supper, before he leads his disciples out to the garden where he will be betrayed and taken to his passion, Jesus dedicates this small group to God. The way John remembers that prayer (John 17:1-26), it was filled with references to the importance of this small group. Jesus prays that the spiritual truths that has imparted in the course of his work with this little fellowship might be established. He presents these eleven before God (Judas had left), as if they were a trust, that he has been a steward responsible for. When we join a small group for Bible study today, we are entering into a spiritual trust. We pray for each other as Jesus prayed for his disciples and the Holy Spirit used the group to protect and nurture our souls.
I think that even today, Christians who participate in small groups for spiritual study and prayer, enter into a deeper covenant with God, than those who simply come to worship. Why? How about the following:
Character is not learned from lectures or sermons. Discipleship formation happens in small groups.
Real physical, psychological, and spiritual Healing happens in small groups
Small groups are often the incubators for leadership development and transforming change in the community.
Through small groups, Jesus continues to engage the world today. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). How can we negotiate this narrow path without the support of other Christians who know us well and speak about faith in an intimate context.
If you read John chapters 12 - 13 and Matthew 26 together, you get a much fuller picture of Judas. It’s almost too good of a snapshot for Judas’ motives and ours line up. Judas values money, security, and always being seen to do the right thing. Hey, those are my values too. While it may be convenient to say “the devil made Judas do it,” or that it was fate, this isn’t biblical.
Like a prosecuting DA, we must lay out a case based upon the facts. Unfortunately, Matthew and John have a different order to their stories. But the character of Judas, and its implications for our own propensity for betrayal, has veracity.
There a number of movies and plays that provide a false ending. Into the Woods, has four interwoven plot lines that seem to be resolved just before the intermission. Then the curtain comes up on Act two and everyone finds another reason to go into the woods and face even greater dangers. Palm Sunday is the same way. We see Jesus come into Jerusalem and be honored as the Messiah, no longer hidden away in the backwoods hillsides of Galilee. He gets to teach in the temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, deceive us into thinking that Jesus has passed the finish line of his race. If this were a book, I’d look at the remaining pages and wonder why they were there.
John’s Gospel uses the false ending of Palm Sunday to link two different books about Jesus; the first book tells seven miracles, beginning with the Wedding of Cana and concluding with the raising of Lazarus. Each miracle, or sign, separates Jesus further from our expectations of a “normal” religious leader. The seeds of Jesus own death, portrayed in the second book, are sown in the new life he gives to Lazarus just outside the city gates. John has Jesus get anointed for burial in Bethany, then asks us, do you want to go with him into Jerusalem?