Today is Good Friday.
This is the time of year when the energy level of Christian ministers drops toward zero. Palm Sunday features one version of the Passion, starting with Jesus Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and ending with his crucifixion in a conspiracy of the Jewish authorities and the Romans. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, relates the story of the Last Supper, which simultaneously was a Jewish Passover meal (because they were all Jews) and the first Christian Eucharist. Good Friday relates a different version of the Passion starting after the Last Supper.
Good Friday is followed by the Easter Vigil, after sundown of the Sabbath, one day after Joseph of Arimathea found a tomb in which to bury Jesus. Easter morning dawns, and Jesus’ female followers visit the tomb to finish the burial, only to see that there is no body. By Easter evening, the supposedly dead Jesus is appearing to his disciples.
The four versions of the Passion differ on some details — was the cock supposed to crow once or twice after Peter denied Jesus three times? — but the essentials can be found in each, and with more commonality than one might expect for an event recorded by four different authors.
One of my favorite parts of the story is chapter 24 of Luke, when two disciples, one named Cleopas, walking to a village named Emmaus, arguing over what they had been told had happened since Good Friday, get a mysterious visitor who asks them what that’s been going on. (Or, to paraphrase “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the visitor asks them to tell him what’s the buzz, tell him what’s happening.)
CLEOPAS: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?”
VISITOR: “What things?”
CLEOPAS: “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene, a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened. Furthermore, some women of our group amazed us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back and said they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.”
Imagine being the fourth set of ears in that conversation. Of course, the mysterious visitor is able to clear Cleopas’ and his traveling companion’s minds about what they had heard, because, well, he was there for all of it.
The books of the New Testament after the Gospels show that following Jesus Christ was not only unpopular, but dangerous in the years after the Resurrection. Being a Christian is probably not dangerous today, at least in this country (although it certainly is elsewhere in the world), but living a truly Christian life isn’t particularly popular today either, as shown by who’s going, or not, to church these days.
For one thing, living a truly Christian life means your understanding that you’re not in charge, while being given a lifelong assignment (yes, responsibility without authority):
Matthew 28:18–19: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Mark 16:15: “… Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
Which means what? One suggestion comes from N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus:
The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people — people, actually, just like himself (read the Beatitudes again and see). The Sermon on the Mount is a call to Jesus’ followers to take up their vocation as light to the world, as salt to the earth — in other words, as people through whom Jesus’ kingdom vision is to become a reality.
Wright’s last chapter tries to bridge the gap between social conservatives, who believe in avoiding sin yet confronting sin in others, and what Catholics call the “social Gospel,” Christ’s call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and so on, in ways unlikely to satisfy hardcore adherents to those supposedly competing visions.
For those who think that’s challenging, add this: Helping others is not something to be left in the hands of government or nonprofit organizations. That’s your job as a Christian. It’s also your job as a Christian to live a virtuous life; it is not your job to call out others for (what you think are) their failings when you have failings yourself.
None of that is easy, which I suspect has a lot to do with why churches are shrinking in attendance. (Except, it seems, the nonaligned churches that don’t seem to ask very much of their attendees. Humans generally and Americans specifically seem to prefer easy and happy to reality.) The Bible does not promise Christians an easy, trouble-free, all-happy-endings life. Lent ends with Holy Week, but if it seems as though life is one big Lent, well, maybe there’s a reason.