Yesterday was the Thursday before Easter, and most of the Christian world has some idea what that means. It’s known as Maundy Thursday, from a word originally designating the washing of the feet of the poor on this day, in the spirit of Jesus’ washing the feet of His disciples in John’s Gospel.
Christians know it as the night that Jesus took His last bite of bread with his disciples. It’s the night where Judas sold out everything he had to put Jesus into the hands of those strangest of bedfellows, the Romans and the Jewish Religious leaders.
It’s the night where Peter grabbed a sword to fight for his Lord, just minutes before he denied that he even knew Him. It’s the night where the disciples slept, even as Jesus prayed so hard for some other choice that drops of sweat and blood overwhelmed Him.
All these things are critical events leading to the Cross of Friday, and then finally empty tomb of Sunday. But we miss something essential to Thursday, something that happened well before nightfall.
From the time Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem to the cheering crowds, He found new ways to make people stop cheering. This opening day parade quickly turned into a series of confrontations and entrapments and riddles that sent the temple leaders and others into a tirade.
Thursday matters because it was the last straw for these people, the point at which they decided to stop listening and start silencing the witness. Thursday matters because people who were supposed to know God decided that they no longer wanted to listen.
The truth hurts. Somewhere around Thursday, the truth became to frightening to the crowds that once listened to Jesus, and infuriating to the Pharisees, Saducees, etc.
It didn’t frighten the Romans, other than their general distaste for anything reeking of disorder. It frighten the “church” of that time, the preachers and boards and power brokers in Jerusalem who had no intention of letting go of the devil they knew for the Jesus they didn’t understand.
Let’s be clear on this. It wasn’t the pagans or those who followed the cult of the emperor who led this charge. It wasn’t the philosophers or politicians. It wasn’t the atheists or the agnostics. It was the people who were supposed to know better, the ones who were supposed to recognize and celebrate Jesus.
By the time darkness fell on Jerusalem for the Passover, the decision was made and the wheels were in motion. Forces mounted throughout the week against Jesus, and He certainly wasn’t helping matters because of His willingness to speak up. He promoted a way of following God that didn’t involve power, or hate, or pages of religious regulations. He advocated a path of suffering with our neighbor, of loving our enemies, of enduring what the world throws at us with a smile on our face and love in our hearts.
And all of those forces were those that considered themselves “religious”.
When we talk about standing up for Jesus, fighting the forces that are pushing against the Gospel, we often think about outside forces. But perhaps we need to take a closer look at Thursday. We may THINK we are standing up for Jesus, but we may well be standing for our religious traditions and social norms rather than standing for Christ.
Thursday is crucial because it forces us to make a decision. Will we follow the crowd that considers itself righteous? Or will we follow the Christ who makes us right?
These people were the “Christians” of their day. These were Jesus’ people. They had listened to Him. They knew who He was, but they failed to know Him. And when someone stirred them up to protest and anger against this religious “outsider”, they fell into step with the crowds.
When we engage in our Holy Wars and “take a stand”, we like to believe that this is the way of Christ, the way of discipleship. But is it? Or do we really just follow the loudest of the religious people in the room, without really stopping to consider what Jesus wants us to do?
After the sun goes down, Peter makes an attempt to stand up for his Lord (before he denies Him). He picks up the sword and attacks, but Jesus tells Peter to put it down, leave it alone. It is the call for Peter to pick up his cross and follow Jesus.
It’s easy to rally people to a crusade, to an open fight where we can claim to be on the “right” side. It’s easier to engage in that fight, because we can put down our cross in order to pick up a sword. But maybe Jesus is calling on us to put down our swords and anger and self-righteous rage to pick up our Cross, and follow Him.
The conspiracy that forms against Jesus on Thursday leads to the way of the Cross. It is Jesus telling us to abandon the crowds that are stirred into a pseudo-religious fury and to stand up for Him…not by fighting, but by following.
We prove very little by our efforts to “stand up” for Jesus. He doesn’t call on us to follow the crowd in some “Christian” fit of anger and outrage. Jesus doesn’t need us to fight for Him. He needs us to stand with Him, and that requires a strength and power that only Christ can give.
Ask yourself: Where would you be on Thursday? Would you be expressing your anger at this religious malcontent, who came to change things? Would you be Peter, looking for a sword?
Or would you be willing to stand WITH Jesus, rather than for Him? I suspect that we would risk standing with the conspirators and the grumblers and the haters more than we care to admit.
The choice we make on Thursday determines where we are on Friday, and ultimately on Sunday. We need to be a people seeking the empty tomb, rather than fighting those who tried to fill that tomb in the first place.