Were You There? Reflections on the Final 24 Hours of Jesus' Life

April 13, 2011

The following Easter reflection is by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, who will be guest speaker at the California-Nevada Annual Conference's 2011 Annual Conference Session in June. Many of you are likely familiar with Rev. Hamilton's bestselling book, 24 Hours that Changed the World, which is the title after which this article was written. 

By Adam Hamilton
When we think of the final day of Jesus' life, it is easy to imagine his suffering. Mel Gibson and a host of others have helped us visualize it in ways the Gospel writers only hint at. What is harder for some is to see themselves in the story. When I wrote 24 Hours That Changed the World, my aim was to see myself in each scene, and to help readers see themselves in each scene as well.
All of us can find ourselves in the story if we'll look closely. Join me for a quick journey through those 24 hours, and try imagining yourself in each scene.
At the Last Supper, 12 disciples enter a room to eat supper with Jesus. Each passes by a basin of water near the door, left there by the owner of the home so Jesus and his guests could wash their feet. Why do they ignore it? Is it possible each is afraid that if he stops to wash his own feet, he'll be expected to wash the feet of the others? None of them wants to be put in the position of a servant washing a fellow disciple's feet. In fact, that night, what is foremost on the minds of some disciples is which of them is the "greatest." (Luke 22:24) How I identify with those disciples as their egos get the best of them! And how easy it is to imagine their shame when Jesus gets up from the table, lifts the basin, and begins to wash their feet.
Before the evening is through, Judas has gone to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, a month's wages. It isn't only greed that motivates Judas. Perhaps his feelings had been hurt when Jesus publicly chastised him. Perhaps his expectations of what Jesus would do have not been met. In a moment of weakness, and for a month's wages, Judas is willing to betray Jesus. I've been Judas, and so has nearly everyone I know. For some, it's money that lures them away. For others, it's sex. Sometimes, it's a desire for freedom. And sometimes, disappointment with an unmet expectation of God makes it easier to walk away. Yes, I've been Judas.
Jesus is arrested late that night in the garden. He is taken for trial before the religious leaders. These are the priests, biblical scholars, and great teachers of their day. All claim to love God, but they don't love this man. He has challenged their theology, blurred the lines between sinner and saint, and said things they consider blasphemous. How do religious people respond when someone challenges their convictions? We often question, judge, and then seek to silence the challengers. We call them names such as "fundamentalist" or "socialist" or "heretic" or "apostate." We sentence them to damnation of one sort or another. Yes, I see myself in the religious leaders who, threatened by this man whose teachings challenge their fundamental convictions, condemn him. Can you see yourself there?
As Jesus stands trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter waits in the courtyard of the high priest, surrounded by people who aided in Jesus' arrest. Three times Peter is asked whether he is a follower of Jesus. Three times he denies it. He's afraid of what might happen to him if, in this hostile environment, he admits he is a follower of Jesus. How many times have I remained silent when others acted unjustly, too afraid to speak out for fear of how many would leave the church or no longer like me? I've been Simon Peter at his worst.
At dawn, Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor charged with administering justice. Pilate finds him not guilty of a capital offense. Yet the crowd of merchants, priests, and rabble repeatedly calls for his death. Pilate, "wishing to satisfy the crowd," washes his hands of an innocent man's blood and sends Jesus to be abused and then crucified. How often have we, like Pilate, done what we knew was wrong because we wished to "satisfy the crowd"? Yes, I see myself in Pontius Pilate.
Jesus is taken to be abused at the hands of a Roman cohort of soldiers – 300 to 600 men. They strip him, mock him, crown him with thorns, and strike him repeatedly. Somehow the hate begets hate. Surely some in the crowd know this is wrong. But no one speaks out. I have a difficult time seeing myself among these abusers, though at moments I've felt hatred for those I saw as enemies. I feel more akin to those soldiers who stand by, knowing that what they are doing is wrong but too afraid to speak out.
As Jesus is crucified, those passing by deride him. The religious leaders mock him. Even the thieves being crucified on either side taunt him. Jesus hangs from the cross bleeding, naked, and dying, yet there is no compassion – only the cruelty of words meant to break his spirit. Despite it all, Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Before long one of the thieves stops his curses and says, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." Jesus turns to the thief and replies, "Today you will be with me in paradise." I want to be that thief on the cross. Like the thief, I've strayed many times from God's path. And, like the thief, when I've finally seen Jesus' mercy and love, I want to put my hope in him.
Where do you find yourself in the story? Do you identify more closely with the actions of the disciples, the religious leaders, the Roman authorities, the soldiers, the crowd, or those passing by?
The last 24 hours of Jesus' life make a compelling case study in the human condition. In that one day, we see greed, betrayal, fear, self-preservation, abandonment, denial, pride, jealousy, anger, rage, mockery, and cruelty. The Sanhedrin think they are putting Jesus on trial, but is it not humanity that is on trial here? The righteous, the powerful, even the disciples are all found wanting. On the cross, humanity is shown to be guilty, but the Son of Man, before whom all humanity one day will stand, suffers in our place. The judge of the "quick and the dead" gives himself for the human race. There, on the cross, he holds up a mirror to our souls; and then, lowering the mirror, he shows us the depth of God's mercy and love.
This is the most compelling, disturbing, redemptive, and hopeful story ever told. It demonstrates to us the truth about humanity and, even more importantly, the truth about God. It points to what is broken in us, and to God's work to save, redeem, and deliver us. But, when Jesus' body is taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb, the story is not finished ...