While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:17-19)
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see… Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.[i] – Francis Pharcellus Church
It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. – Bob Dylan
Regardless of whether we entirely – if at all – buy into the foundational claims of the Christian faith regarding the resurrection of Christ, there are a couple of take-home messages about Easter that bear mentioning on Good Friday.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate three instances [ii] of Jesus telling his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes; be killed; and after three days, rise again. That level of agreement between all three Synoptic Gospels is the exception rather than the rule, which leads me to believe that there’s something message-critical about these little vignettes. One interpretation put forth by more traditionally minded Christians is that these predictions are iron-clad proof of Christ’s divinity which allowed him to predict his own death through divine insight. The disciples’ cluelessness every time Jesus mentions his coming death simply reinforces the vast difference between sons of men and the Son of God.
I’d argue that Jesus’ condemnation, torture, and death actually required little supernatural ability to foresee. Like many before him (e.g. Zechariah, Socrates, John the Baptist) and many after him (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), Jesus lost his life for speaking truth to power, truth that undermined earthly authority and reversed the social order, placing the lowliest people in the world at the head of God’s table. It didn’t take a soothsayer to foresee the violent end of Jesus’ ministry at the hands of privileged and powerful people who felt – rightly – that Jesus’ message threatened their place in the world. That reality was so terrifying to Jesus’ disciples, they employed time-honored techniques of denial and overanalysis to avoid acknowledging where all of this was going. It wasn’t that Jesus was a fortune-teller and others were not. It’s that Jesus paid attention when others did not.
But if foreseeing his death required no special insight, Jesus’ comment about rising again after three days is another matter entirely. Counter-intuitively, Jesus seemed to understand that suffering and sacrifice bear astonishing fruits, not only in this life, but also in the life to come. He shared this insight in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:3-11)
Jesus’ betrayal and denial by beloved friends, condemnation by his own religious leaders, conviction by a ruthless foreign governor, and death at the hands of foreign soldiers may have been inevitable, but they are not the end of the story. The denouement that is Jesus’ resurrection is the triumph of good over evil, life over death, forgiveness over judgment, and reconciliation over condemnation.
At the risk of mixing holiday metaphors, I propose that the truth of the Easter story strongly resembles that found in the famous letter of Francis Pharcellus Church to young Virginia, whose skeptical friends challenged her belief in Santa Claus. Church’s reply to her earnest query, “Is there a Santa Claus?” is the same we might tell ourselves in our moments of doubt:
Yes, o my soul, there is a resurrection. It exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. Nobody saw the resurrection happen, no one can prove that did happen, but that is no sign that it did not happen, nor that it does not happen still.
The inevitability of Christ’s death is part of God’s invitation to discipleship. Leading a Christ-like life in our culture of commerce and convenience is every bit as revolutionary as it was during Christ’s lifetime. The risks are real and while most of us will not risk martyrdom, Christ-followers do make social and economic sacrifices every day.
The truth of Christ’s resurrection should not, for our purposes here, be confused with historical fact. The historicity of that event has little compelling influence on the enduring truths undergirding the story. That truth is everyone’s to discover, but I for one am comfortable with the Calvinist viewpoint – that God is sovereign in life and in death, and that God’s mercy surpasses all understanding.
Blessings to you all on this Good Friday.
[ii] First prediction: Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33; Luke 9:22
Second prediction: Matthew 17:2-23; Mark 9:30-32; Luke 9:43-45
Third prediction: Matthew 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34
© Marian the Seminarian, 2013