On a Sunday morning just like this – in fact, it was this week, approximately 1990 years ago – a small group of men sat quietly on chairs and benches scattered around a large upstairs room. Their faces were dark, their clothing disheveled, and most looked like they had not slept for days. The few who tried to speak eventually fell silent, their words swallowed up in the gloom.
Just a week ago, things were completely different. Their eyes danced and their faces were bright. There was a constant din, and the clamor was unmistakably joyous. People were saying things like, “This is it.” At last!” “It will just be a few days now.”
They were happy, giddy even. And Jesus—they had never seen him like this – was magisterial, kingly, intimidating. Determination was written all over his face. They had entered the city at the head of a parade, with Jesus riding on a donkey’s colt. That was no accident! He had borrowed the colt to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy: “See, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” Jesus was announcing his intentions to rule God’s people.
And the next day was just as amazing. They had returned to the city in the morning and had gone to the temple. They’d done that a hundred times but this time was different. Previously, they had gone to worship or so that Jesus could teach in the temple courts. This time they went to take the temple back. Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove all the merchandisers right out of the Court of the Gentiles.
He was like a lion. No one could withstand him. He and his men took over the temple. No one came or went without his permission. The temple! The heart of Judaism on earth, and Jesus owned it.
They thought the revolution was beginning right then, that people would gather to them by the thousands, and Jesus would send them out to rout their oppressors and drive them from Israel. But, instead, he taught and, when evening came, he quietly left. It was as if he handed the keys back to the same old corrupt leaders. The disciples couldn’t figure out what Jesus was up to.
The next couple of days were filled with opposition. Jesus was confronted by the authorities at every turn, but he was too much for them. The disciples were so proud of him. And the people—the people flocked to him.
But again, Jesus did not take advantage of his momentum. In the evening, he left the city once more. Why didn’t he make his move, the disciples wondered. Someone suggested, “He’s waiting for the Passover. After Passover, we’ll make our move – just like Moses did. He’s the new Moses. This is the new exodus – only this time it will be our enemies who leave, not us!
Then came the day of the feast. Jesus had not yet said anything about where they would eat the Passover, so they asked him: “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” Judas, who was standing nearby, leaned in eagerly to hear the answer.
But instead of giving them a name or an address, Jesus gave them cryptic, cloak and dagger instructions. He told Peter and John to go through the gate into the City and look for a man carrying a jar of water – usually, men didn’t carry water; women did, so they would be able to pick this guy out.
But they weren’t supposed to say anything to him. They were to follow him to the house he would enter. There they would meet someone else – the owner of the house and they were say: “The Teacher asks: ‘Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” They would be shown to a large upstairs room, furnished and ready. That is where they were to prepare for the meal.
Judas glowered but didn’t say anything, and no one noticed. Except, perhaps, Jesus.
That day (it was Thursday), Jesus and his disciples waited until the afternoon had worn itself away before they entered the city. Even then, Jesus wouldn’t tell them where they were going. The other disciples may have wondered about that, but it didn’t occur to them that they had a traitor in their group. They never connected the secrecy it to Judas.
When they arrived, Jesus waited for everyone else to enter, including Judas, who was itching for an excuse to get away and alert the authorities. He was worried. The thought occurred to him –panicked him – that Jesus knew: knew the whole thing; knew about the money, the secret rendezvous, the agreement he had made. He began fidgeting, sweating; he was worried.
The Passover meal – if that’s what you’d call it – was the strangest one ever. Everything was off, right from the beginning. Where was the slave who served? There was none. What about water for washing feet? That was an essential part of hospitality?
After they started the meal, Jesus got up, stripped down to his loincloth, wrapped a long towel around him – just like the lowliest slave – poured water into a basin and started going around the tables, washing everyone’s feet. No one knew what to think. Here was the future king of Israel, doing menial, slave work.
No one said anything but everyone thought: “This isn’t right; he shouldn’t be doing this.” But when Jesus came to where Peter was sitting, he spoke: “You aren’t going to wash my feet, are you?”
Jesus said, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but later you will.” But Peter was as stubborn as an old donkey. He said, “Un-uh. You will never wash my feet – not now, not ever.”
Jesus looked him right in the eye and said, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.” Peter, who had been uncertain about his place in the group ever since he’d got back from a leave of absence, caved in on the spot, and Jesus washed his feet.
The meal itself was the strangest ever. Instead of the traditional words of the Seder, Jesus kept inserting his own. But when the cup was passed, he said: “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
Here is how that sounded to the 12 men sitting around the table: “Next Passover, the war will be over, we will have won, and the kingdom of God will be established.” Their hearts soared. But they also felt the reality of it like they had not felt it before. This was happening. Tomorrow, the Great Battle would be joined. Would they survive? Who would come out on the other side? It was exciting and scary.
And confusing. Because not long after that, Jesus said, “One of you is going to betray me.” They hadn’t seen that coming. They looked around at each other. Who would do it? Who would slip up? Even then, it never occurred to them that one of them would intentionally betray him. They thought one of them would do something careless – would mess up – and each one said, “It’s not me, is it?”
Judas sat there stunned. How did he know? Did he know? Judas hardly heard the others asking their question, but then he realized that he was the only one who hadn’t. So he screwed up his courage and said, “It’s not me, is it?”
Did he look Jesus in the eye when he asked that? I don’t this so. He was too afraid of what he might see—or what Jesus might see in him. He was desperate now. He didn’t know what to do. He had already taken the money. Maybe he could give it back. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
And then an opportunity appeared out of nowhere. Jesus looked right at him and said, “Do it quickly, won’t you?” Do what quickly? Judas didn’t dare ask. Did he know? Of course he knew. But maybe he didn’t. Judas’s mind raced from one to the other, but he got up and went quietly out.
Now, Jesus knew how long it would take Judas to reach the authorities, how long it would take them to assemble a crew, and then get back. As soon as Judas was gone, he immediately began telling the others what was on his heart.
And it wasn’t what they expected. A few minutes earlier, they were roused by the thought of celebrating next year’s Passover in the Kingdom of God! But now Jesus was talking about leaving them, going away. He tells them they won’t be able to follow. He tells them he won’t be in the world much longer. He says they’re going to have to love each other – that’s the main thing; they need to love each other.
Jesus is aware of the time, even as he speaks. He stops suddenly, begins singing a hymn, and then says: “We need to go. Everybody out.”
They are hardly away before the house is surrounded. A group of men quietly ascends the stairs. They try the door. It is unlocked. They burst in to find … no one. The place is abandoned. Their leader is angry. Judas has deceived them. Judas swears they were here when he left. The leader says, “They’re not here now. If we don’t take him in tonight, we’ll be taking you instead.”
Judas wracks his brain over where Jesus might go. There is Bethany – they can try there.
Between the city and Bethany, midway up the Mount of Olives, is an olive press for making oil, and a little grove of trees – a garden of sorts – a place called Gethsemane. It is to this place that Jesus heads. He has shared the covenant meal with his disciples and talked with them about the things they need to know. Now it is time for him to talk to his Father.
What happened next was a blur for the disciples. They were dozing while Jesus prayed. They woke to see a gang of roughnecks coming, some with clubs and lanterns, some with swords. They think. “So this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to Judas, ‘Do it quickly, won’t you?’ He sent Judas to round up troops. It is beginning right now.”
But then reality collided with fantasy. Swords were drawn. Jesus was taken and the disciples scattered into the night.
But Peter doubled-back and followed them at a distance, his short sword hidden under his cloak. Jesus was being interrogated at the palace of Annas and Peter managed to get onto the grounds. He had no plan, just a crazy idea of rescuing Jesus. But that was just another fantasy and he failed miserably – never even had an opportunity. Humiliated and broken, with nowhere to go, he wound up back in that upstairs room. The other guys were already there.
Eleven broken men sat there that day and the next, the two darkest days in their lives – in earth’s history. The only break in their misery was when they heard footfalls outside or on the steps, and panic coursed through them. Panic was almost preferable to this bottomless despair.
When Sunday morning dawned it brought no hope. Nothing made sense. They had been so sure of Jesus. They knew he was God’s messiah! But would God let his messiah die? Of course not. They must have been mistaken. But how could they be mistaken! Dejected, confused, and hopeless, they waited … but for what? Nothing mattered anymore.
Early that Sunday morning they had a fright. Footsteps, coming up the stairs. A bang on the door. A voice. But it was a woman’s voice—Mary Magdalen’s voice. Someone unbolted the door and she nearly fell in. She was breathless. Her head was uncovered, her hair blown wildly over her face. She managed to say: “They’ve taken … the Lord …out of the tomb.”
Somehow this was the worst thing yet. They’d taken his body. Did their hatred know no bounds? They were probably doing something right now to defile and desecrate it. Without a word, Peter walked out the door and down the steps. After a moment, John followed.
Even as he went, Peter thought, “What’s the use? I can’t do anything. I’ve already proved I’m a coward.” But even as he belittled himself, he began to run.
John, who knew the city better than any of the other disciples, also ran, but he went by a shorter way and beat Peter to the tomb. When Peter arrived, breathless, John was bending over, looking in. Peter shoved past him, got down on his hands and knees and crawled inside. John followed.
The stone slab was there, but Mary was right: the body was gone. Strangely, the strips of burial cloth were lying there and the shroud that covered his face was folded and laid neatly where his head had been. Why would grave robbers remove the graveclothes before taking the body? Unless they wanted to perpetrate some further humiliation on him. Peter turned, went down on hands and knees, and clambered out of the tomb.
John followed, thinking they were going back to the upstairs room. Perhaps he said, “Hey, Peter. This way is faster.” But Peter said, “You go on. I’m not going back yet. I’ll see you later.”
When John got back, there were people there, talking loudly, even arguing. Some of the Galilean women – family and friends – were saying that Jesus was alive – that they’d seen him. But the men – Thomas and the others – were saying, “You’re delusional. You’re out of your minds.”
A little while later, Mary came back. She said the same thing. “He’s alive! He called me by name.” Thomas said, “You’re crazy,” and angrily walked out the door. Hours later, Peter came back and everyone could see that something had changed. They stopped talking and looked at him.
“It’s true.” He said quietly. “It’s all true.”
Later, Cleopas and his wife came rapping on the door. They told the same story. He had walked with them. He had talked to them, and their hearts had burned like fire. It was him. Somehow, they didn’t recognize him at first, but…
While they were still talking, it happened. There was a change, like a fresh wind had blown through the room. It was like the sun had come up – but inside, not outside the room. And then a voice. The voice they all knew—and it was full of mirth and joy. When they saw him, they all recoiled, like they’d seen a ghost. But he laughed. “Shalom,” he said, and their turbulent thoughts were stilled.
It was their friend, their Lord, yet he was changed. Power flowed from him. Joy radiated from him like light from the sun. They had been utterly hopeless. Now hope welled up within them. He was not just alive: he was the living one. He had been dead but here he was alive with a vitality that took their breath away. And the strangest thing was that he was happy. How could he be happy? He was … dead – or at least he was killed. Humiliated. Tortured. But now even his scars were not sad. They were glorious.
Now, learn the lesson those men and women learned that day. They awoke that morning without hope, without purpose, in a world that made no sense, where God had gone missing. In the evening, their joy was too full for words. What made the difference? The terror they had lived through was real. The corruption was foul. The malice was sickening. The betrayal of a friend was monstrous. Yet hope surged. Life pulsed in their breasts. Laughter came to their lips.
What made the difference? God raised Jesus from the dead. That makes all the difference. God raised Jesus from the dead. The apostles repeated those words – they never tired of hearing them – or saying them: Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; a decade later in 10:40; in another country in 13:30; 34; in the heart of the empire, Romans 4:24; 8:11; in the center of commerce, 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:20—and ten thousand times besides.
They knew that “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” Death, whether by cross (Peter) or sword (Paul) or stoning (Stephen) wasn’t going to stop them any more than it stopped their friend and master. Nor will death – whether by heart disease or cancer or car accident or COVID – stop us who believe in Jesus.
The laughter in the voice of earth’s greatest sufferer, the happiness on his face, the joy that exuded from his whole body, would be theirs and nothing – conflict, sadness, loneliness, pain, not even death – could change that.
So, here is one lesson of Easter: Those who have faith in Jesus will not simply rise but RISE, flooded with joy and filled with power. The sorrows of the past – think of Jesus, just hours away from sorrows we cannot begin to understand and could never carry – the sorrows of the past will hurt us no more. We will be whole. We will be happy. We will be strong to the glory of God and of our great savior Jesus Christ, who undid death and brought life and immortality to light.