Because of the Resurrection...

Because of the resurrection...

Death is defeated. Death itself is abolished. Its sting is gone, because life does not end in a grave.

Death's primary expression, sin, is no longer our master. We can choose to remain slaves if we like, but a new, indestructible, full life-as-it-was-meant-to-be has become available to us.

Jesus' primary expressions, love and grace, matter more than death and sin. They always will.

Every opportunity to love someone and extend God's grace is an opportunity to do something that will last. Love and grace count more than we realize.

Great news! Suffering has no final word about anything. Jesus' suffering did not get the last word on his life, neither will ours. When it comes, suffering either shapes us to be more like our crucified and risen King, or–if we forget how he suffered before rising–to harden our hearts against him.

In Christ, every loved one who is no longer here is well and cared for.

We don't have to accept the fairy tale pictures of heaven. We too easily settle for thinking that we'll grow wings, sit on clouds and play on harps in a never-ending church service (does anyone really want to sign up for that?). Instead, God will make all things new–new heavens, new earth, new creation, far better than any fairy tale we could imagine!

Jesus' friends expected that all of God's people would be raised at some point in the future. They didn't expect that point in the future to break into the present by happening to him on the third day after being crucified. Therefore, while we anticipate the future day when resurrection happens to all of us, the living Jesus enables us to practice his kind of life now, getting a foretaste of what's to come. We eagerly await the day when we and all those whom we now miss will be given new, death-defeating bodies like that of our King.

Thanks be to God! Eternal life is now in session, because of the resurrection.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Readings for Easter Sunday:

Acts 10:34-43 Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 John 20:1-18

A Prayer for the Day:

O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 40: Saturday in Holy Week

Most of us have had moments of intense grief at some point in life, or–if we have not–we will at some point. My dad was my hero, and when we learned that he had terminal cancer, I felt completely unable to function. Much of what my life had always been was being lost. In the days following his diagnosis, I lived with a constant sense of having been kicked in the stomach, and I remember for several days waking from sleep, each time hoping that it had all been a bad dream. It only took a moment for the dark reality to set in. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell the story of Jesus' burial, but none of them say anything about what the disciples were doing on Saturday. There are some obvious possible explanations: it was a Sabbath, so they couldn't do anything actively. Also, since Jesus had essentially been executed for treason ("If you let this man live, you are no friend of Caesar"..."Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews"), the disciples must have been fearfully aware of the possibility that they would become the next targets. So, though we aren't told what they did, we can be reasonably sure that they hid, full of shock, fear, and grief.

Though my grief over my dad was intense, I'm sure it wasn't in the same category as what Jesus' friends experienced on the day after his crucifixion. In addition to the loss of their beloved leader, they also had to deal with the injustice involved, the devastation of their dreams and hopes about who they thought Jesus was (in their framework, a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms), the fear that they would be next, and perhaps most painful of all–the shame for having deserted him at his arrest.

If they slept at all, they surely awoke on Saturday hoping for an instant that it had all been a nightmare and that Jesus was still there next to them. After a moment, when the dark reality set in again, it is certain to have felt overpowering. Jesus' body lay dead and lifeless in a tomb.

The only detail the gospels give us about Saturday is one that reiterates the point:

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27:62-66)

A Prayer for the Day:

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 39: Good Friday

I always underestimate how quickly this part of the story happened. If we read yesterday's and today's stories in the Bible, they take up a lot of space. For example, of the 21 chapters in John, 1/3 of them (chapters 13-19) are filled with the content of these 24 hours. This makes the pace seem slower when reading the story, as we read about Jesus getting passed back and forth between people, Pilate trying to figure out what to do with him, and the religious leaders working the political system to get their desired result (“You are no friend of Caesar… We have no king but Caesar.”). Yet despite the change in pace of the narrative, the reality is that Thursday evening Jesus was having dinner with his friends–including Judas. By mid-afternoon on Friday both Judas and Jesus were dead.

As I’ve tried to let these stories sink in and picture the scenes of the Last Supper, Jesus’ trial with the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial, the crowd’s choice of Barabbus and insistence on Jesus’ death, I’ve realized something: If I had been there and been a character in the story, or even just a face in the crowd, it’s silly to think that I would have done anything differently from what everyone else did. I too would have been on the wrong side of the story and left Jesus alone.

I might have been one of those who loved Jesus but for various reasons couldn’t do anything about what was happening, and therefore had to let it happen. Those such as Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, John, Joseph of Arimathea, or Nicodemus surely hated what they saw happening but felt some inevitable sense of resignation to the way things were playing out so quickly.

Or I might have been someone who more actively turned my back and ran from Jesus, like most of his friends. I may have even done what Peter did and tried to cover up any tracks that I’d had with him. Based on my own history in circumstances much less intense that what Peter faced that night, I don’t have much reason to think I would do any better than he did.

Or I might have been Judas. It’s easy to believe that I could have been more interested in my own plan than Jesus’ way. Like Judas, I too have been disappointed with God at times, feeling that he didn’t come through as he should have, so who’s to say that I wouldn’t have been the one to seek personal gain as a result of Jesus not turning out to be and do what I had hoped?

Regardless of what role I would have played, I would have been among those included in Jesus’ statement, “you all will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.”

I would have been somewhere on the wrong side of this horrible drama. And Jesus would have known that, and even in his most agonizing hours which I helped to bring about, he would have loved me anyway.

A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 38: Maundy Thursday

"When Jesus wanted to give his followers–then and now–a way of understanding what was about to happen to him, he didn’t teach them a theory...He gave them an act to perform. Specifically, he gave them a meal to share."–N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone

The Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on their last night together was full–as it always had been–of powerful, intentional reminders about their past. It took them back to when their ancestors had been slaves for centuries in Egypt, and then God had miraculously delivered them from their oppression as they began a long journey toward the promised land. Really, it was more than a way of bringing the old stories to mind. It was a way of participating in the story, a way of realizing, "We are the people who were brought out of slavery into freedom."

As well as looking to the past, their Passover meal also always helped them to look to the future in hope. Just as their ancestors had been, they had also been under oppression for centuries, and they needed God's deliverance anew. Their scriptures pointed toward someone through whom God would accomplish this, an anointed one (Messiah/Christ), through whom their oppressors would once more be defeated and the promised freedom would again come–this time, forever.

By the time that they came to the night of that Passover meal together in an upper room, Jesus' followers had come to believe that he, their Rabbi, who was leading them through the rituals of the meal was the one through whom these things would happen, though they hadn't understood many of the things he had tried to teach them. Much that had happened in the preceding days was strange to them, but they understood what the Passover meal meant. They all knew the meal's rituals well, as they had participated in them in the same way every year of their lives.

At least, they understood the meal until-at some point in the evening–Jesus changed the ritual. "Take, eat. This is my body....Drink from this cup, all of you. It is my blood...." Jesus took this meal about their past and their future and pointed it–in their present moment–to himself, to his own body and blood. "Do this in remembrance of me..."


John's account of that meal is very different, though no less memorable. In John's story, nothing is said about Jesus identifying the bread as his body, nor of the wine as his blood. Instead, John is the only one of the gospel writers to focus on something else Jesus that happened during the meal:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

...When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

This provided the setting for the rest of the evening, in which Jesus gave his "farewell address" to his friends (though it was really more of a conversation), important enough that John devoted about 1/5 of his entire story to the dialogue (see John 13 through 17). On that night which he wanted his friends to remember for the remainder of their lives, Jesus reiterated something to them no fewer than three times:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another... My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you... This is my command: Love each other.


One meal, with two different accounts which each have an associated command: "Do this in remembrance of me" and "Love each other." These are the reasons this day in Holy Week uses the term "Maundy." The meaning would be clearer to us today if we called it "Mandate Thursday," as the root of these words, maundy and mandate, means command. So this is "New Commandment Thursday" when we commemorate, "Do this in remembrance of me" and "Love each other."

Just as the original night looked to the past and the future with a whole new meaning given in the present for the first disciples, it does the same for us. I hope that you are able to celebrate Holy Communion today with other followers of the Messiah, because when we do so:

  • We are taken backward in time–back to that upper room with the astonished disciples when Jesus took the meaning of the ancient Passover onto himself. Each time we share the Jesus-meal, we again put ourselves into the old story of the people who are in bondage and desperately need God's deliverance. As the liturgy says, "On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread...he took the cup..."
  • We are taken forward in time–the only thing Jesus describes as something that will be done in the age to come–after all things are made new–is to share in this meal again: "I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). Each time we share the Jesus-meal, we are getting a foretaste of that final/first banquet with Jesus himself. As the liturgy says, "By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet."
  • We experience the wonder of what happens in those moments when we take the bread and cup together as Jesus instructed. He, the crucified and risen King, is with us, and his grace enables us to live more fully in him–and he in us. As the liturgy says, "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

As Jesus undoubtedly knew was true of his first disciples on that night, we too need to be strengthened by this meal if we are to be able to continue following him through the rest of tonight and into tomorrow.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane...

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. (Matthew 26:36,47-50, NIV)

A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 37: Wednesday in Holy Week

I've occasionally met people who have very strange names (like the time in college when I was introduced to two sisters named Rainbow and Sunshine–I can take a guess at how their parents might have looked in the 1960s), but one name comes to mind which I've never heard of a parent giving to their child: Judas. I'm sure there is an exception out there somewhere, and I hope that his parents either weren't English-speaking or just didn't know this story very well, but–thankfully–not many parents choose to give their sons the name of the most well-known traitor in the history of the world.

Even if you've met someone named Judas, the name itself has strong roots. It was a common name for Jewish boys in Jesus' day. Two of the twelve disciples had the name, plus one of Jesus' brothers. Judas, Jude, Judah–even Jew and Jewish–all come from the same name/word and all point back in Israel's history to one of Jacob's sons. In Jesus' day, it was a heroic name with royal implications. Judas Maccabaeus successfully led a revolt against Israel's oppressors a couple centuries before Jesus was born. Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Romans during Jesus' boyhood, which was crushed brutally.

But ever since the day we're considering in this reflection, somewhere around Wednesday of the last week of Jesus' life, the name Judas brings to mind evil, darkness, and the worst aspects of the human heart.

He was part of the group from the beginning of Jesus' public career. Despite how artwork through the centuries has portrayed him, there was nothing about Judas that made him stand out as the obvious choice for "Most Likely to Betray God's Anointed." He was one of the group, hoping that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. He was there passing baskets around to the crowd when five loaves of bread and two fish had fed thousands of people. He saw the sick healed, demons cast out, and the dead raised to life. He was there when Jesus taught, and could undoubtedly sense that it was like no other teaching he had ever heard.

Though speculation abounds and all kinds of possibilities exist as to why Judas went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" and then accepted the deal for the price of thirty pieces of silver, we can never know what went on inside of him.

Still, I'll add my own speculation to the mix: perhaps something about the previous few days had convinced Judas that what he had hoped Jesus would accomplish was ultimately not going to happen. Yesterday, we mentioned how–even though the tension in Jesus' interactions in the temple was so high–apparently, most of Jesus' followers still didn't foresee what was coming nor understand the warnings he had given them about it. That is, except for one woman, who showed her understanding by anointing Jesus for his burial while he was sitting at a supper with the twelve.

Maybe, after all, that woman wasn't the only one who understood. Maybe Judas did by that point as well. Or possibly her actions at that dinner and Jesus' response to her were what allowed Judas to see what, by then, was inevitable: this man, whom they had thought was the Messiah–their deliverer–was going to die, and apparently that was even what Jesus had expected for some time. Jesus spent the last couple of days in the temple picking a fight that he intended to lose.

In the minds of almost everyone who had followed Jesus to that point, realizing this would have meant that he could not have been who they had hoped. The Messiah (the real one) would deliver, conquer enemies, restore Israel, and rule as king; anyone who would head knowingly into his own defeat and death therefore could not be God's anointed one. It would be nearly impossible to think of anyone executed before coming to power as being the long-awaited king.

We are fools to think we would have caught on any more quickly than the rest of the disciples. They simply had no framework for understanding Messiah-ship that looked like what Jesus was about to do. Perhaps that clicked a bit sooner for Judas than it did for the others, and as soon as he realized it, he therefore had to get out. (Surely he realized that if Jesus was going to die, his followers would become targeted as well, and there was no reason to go to the grave with a failed Messiah.)

I don't know how much Jesus knew about Judas when he chose him to be one of the twelve. The gospels seem to be clear that Jesus knew during his time with the disciples that one of them would turn away, and John even says that Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him.

Regardless of the timing–whether Jesus knew what Judas would do from the first time they laid eyes on one another, or if it was some time after that–considering the relationship between the two of them makes me tremble for a couple of reasons.

First, I realize that I am not so far from Judas as I would like to think. Jesus has utterly disappointed me at times, when I counted on him to do things he said he would do, and then they did not happen. I have never wanted out as Judas did, but I've also had a remarkably easier time of following Jesus than in his case. Of course I like to think that if I was at the Last Supper, I would have been the one reclining close enough to Jesus to whisper a question in his ear, but it's just as likely that I would have been the one who dipped the bread in the bowl with him.

The other part of it that makes me shudder–and want to spend some time on my face before God–is to realize that regardless of when Jesus knew what he knew about Judas, Jesus loved him. Jesus kept him around, shared his life with Judas. He washed Judas' feet. He passed bread to Judas, saying, "Take it. This is my body." Then he passed wine and said, "This is my blood..." Only after all of these things did Jesus tell him, "What you are about to do, do quickly."

Judas had his feet washed. He ate the bread. He drank from the cup. Then he left to go make his deal with the chief priests.

And Jesus loved him.

A Prayer for the Day:

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 36: Tuesday in Holy Week

So far in Holy Week, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem the way a king would and allowed the crowds to welcome him as one, and then he went straight to the heart of the nation (the temple) and in the strongest words and actions possible, made clear that judgment was coming upon it. With those things having happened, one would not have had to be a prophet to  foresee confrontation coming. The morning after Jesus briefly–yet powerfully and symbolically–stopped all of the activity in the temple, he returned there. As expected, the confrontation came:

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Luke 20:1-8, NIV)

The authorities' question to Jesus was a natural one. He had been acting like the person in charge–of the temple, of Jerusalem, and therefore of all Israel–but according to the system, he was a nobody. They were the ones who had the positions of power, not him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" is both a question and an accusation, similar to asking, "Just who in the world do you think you are?"

At first glance, Jesus' response about John the Baptist looks like a clever trick question, allowing both sides to avoid answering the other's question, but Jesus was actually providing a clear answer to them. When asked, "Who in the world do you think you are?" Jesus points them back to John the Baptist, whose claim to be the forerunner of the Messiah said plenty about who Jesus was–if John really was God's prophet. At another level, by referencing John, Jesus is pointing back to his own baptism at John's hand, when a voice came from heaven and said, "You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased." Jesus was saying, "That is who I am, and where I get my authority."

If John the Baptist was a fake, so was Jesus, and the establishment would have the right to treat him as such. But if John  was the real thing, then Jesus clearly had more authority over the temple, Jerusalem, Israel–and the world–than any of the men questioning him.

So we could turn Jesus response into a statement rather than a question: "Who in the world do you think you are? What kind of authority do you think you have to do things like this?" "I am the one who came after John, with all that that means."

Jesus then went on teaching in the temple, continuing to say extremely provocative things about the temple and its leaders. He told stories (in which the parallels were not difficult to draw) about people in power mistreating, even killing, their master's servants. He pointed out their hypocrisy and injustice toward the innocent, and the price that others–like a poor widow giving all she had in an offering–paid for it.

Yes, the temple was beautiful, but if Israel continued to reject God's way, which was being perfectly embodied before them in Jesus, it was inevitable that the temple's destruction was coming. "Not one stone will be left on another."

Of course this was shocking. It was like taking all of our meaningful national sites which we assume will be around forever, and saying, "Every one of these will be turned into ruins–and it will happen while our generation is still here to see it."

The only way to describe something so tumultuous would be to use language that could communicate the earth-shattering nature of the events, like the old prophets did: "the sun will go dark, the moon won't give any light, the stars will fall out of the sky" (see Matthew 24).

Israel was headed on a course for destruction, and if they continued to refuse Jesus' message and change direction (repent), their doom was inevitable. (As we mentioned yesterday–it all happened about 40 years later, and it was indeed as horrible as Jesus described.)

I said yesterday that Jesus' fate was sealed after riding into the city as a king and saying/doing what he said/did in the temple. Now, after an extra day of saying such provocative things about the temple and its leadership, it was extra-sealed. The authorities would not allow this man to live.

Though those in Jesus' circle must have been aware of the tension and conflict, many of them still didn't grasp what it meant. Still thinking of Jesus as the kind of Messiah they had always expected, they couldn't foresee what was coming for him in a few more days.

At least one woman understood, though. She saw what was happening with clarity. After the intense day in the temple, Jesus and his group returned for the evening to Bethany. While guests in a home, eating dinner with the twelve, this woman came in, approached Jesus, and unreservedly poured very expensive perfume on him, as one would do to a corpse before burying it. She knew what Jesus knew–he was about to die.

Again, as we mentioned yesterday, when we watch this story unfold, it is impossible to look at Jesus as a helpless victim. Rather, in the kind of way he described as "lose your life and you will find it," he seems to be in control of what was happening.

A Prayer for the Day:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]

Day 35: Monday in Holy Week

We have come to the most widely-known eight days in all of human history, called Holy Week by Christians. It began yesterday, Palm Sunday, as we read the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the crowds cheering as if they were welcoming a king, and it will continue on through Jesus' last night with his disciples, his arrest and mock trial, his crucifixion, death and burial. And then his resurrection will change everything, for everyone, forever. So we are familiar with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday (or if not, you soon will be), but what about the other days? What took place on the day after Jesus' royal entry into Jerusalem? And on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday?

This week, we will try to walk day by day through the events of the corresponding days of Jesus' life. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not particularly concerned with telling their stories in a way that would allow us to put together a nice, exact historical reconstruction of exactly what happened at each point during the week. That’s fine because those aren’t the most important pieces. They were rightly more focused on getting their points about Jesus across than they were about trivia games we might like to play centuries later about what happened on which day. Nonetheless, we can still put together a plausible sequence of events for the week, and doing so is our goal as we continue in this journey of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following our Lord.

So for today, Monday in Holy Week:

According to Mark’s telling, after Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowds, he went to the temple courts. Since it was already late in the day, he went to stay the night in Bethany with the twelve before returning to the temple the next morning (assumably, Monday).

On their way to the temple, Jesus approached a fig tree but did not find any fruit on it. Then came one of the scenes which I am sure I will never see painted on the wall of a children’s Sunday School class.

In the ways that we typically think of Jesus, we would be likely to expect his reaction to finding no fruit on the fig tree to be something like one of the following:

  • Maybe he would look at the tree, have a tear well up in his eye while a bluebird comes and lands on his shoulder to tweet a song in a minor key over Jesus’ sadness that this tree had not been able to properly produce its fruit. Jesus could have meekly mourned over the sad tree.
  • Or, of course, perhaps Jesus would just look intently at the tree, command it to produce some fruit, and it would instantly have jumbo, juicy figs for all of the disciples to share. Jesus could have powerfully, victoriously healed the unfruitful tree.

But Jesus did neither of those things. Instead of mourning over the tree or healing it, he cursed it: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

If I had been one of the twelve, I surely would have stood there thinking, “Ouch, Teacher. Hunger pangs make you a little crabby this morning?”

But, being as capable of a storyteller as Mark was, he didn't allow us to stay there, wondering about the stability of Jesus' emotional state. (If that was the point, and he was that crabby after missing breakfast, what would he have been like after fasting for forty days in the desert?) Instead, he gave us one of his story-sandwiches, where he began one story, moved to to another, then came back to the first in order to point out the links between the two.

In this story-sandwich, this incident with the poor little fig tree is the bread, while the meat is what Jesus did when he arrived in the temple.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15-17, NIV)

(So we have two consecutive stories of Jesus that don't get painted on the walls of children's Sunday School rooms.) In order to understand what's happening here, we have to understand that Jesus was not staging of protest of the commercialization of people's worship in the temple. Perhaps, if Mark hadn't connected the temple story to the fig tree, we might be able to come away with that as the full meaning. Instead, since Jesus' encounter with the fig tree ended in a curse for the tree's failure to be and do what it was created for, Jesus then proceeded to do the same thing in the temple. The temple existed to symbolize God's dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world, but its leaders had turned it into a place to promote violence toward outsiders and injustice toward Israel's own people. So–just as Jesus' words to the tree stopped its natural processes, his brief but symbolic words and actions in the temple stopped the course of events in the place that was the center of Jewish life.

Mark wraps up the story-sandwich as the disciples return to the city the next morning and pass by the same tree, now withered from the roots. He wants us to get the point: Jesus' action in the temple was a warning that, if it continued failing to be and do what it was created for, the same fate awaited it that came to the tree. And to make sure we don't miss the lesson, Mark puts an exclamation point on his story-sandwich through Jesus' comments when Peter noticed that the fig tree Jesus cursed had withered:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Again, remember that this is part of the sandwich, rather than a stand-alone teaching. Jesus isn't saying that Peter and the others could also learn to do cool things like wither fruit trees, make mountains move, or anything else that they decide on a prayer-whim. No, the point is still the meat of this story-sandwich: the temple. When Jesus says, "this mountain," I imagine that he also pointed a finger toward the temple mount. He's teaching the disciples to pray that God's new order would replace the old and that, inconceivable as it may have seemed to them, the temple was nearing a time when it would be no more.

Jesus' dire warnings about the temple came to pass in 70 AD when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, including the temple's destruction.

Also, just as important for our journey through Holy Week is to realize that because of this and Jesus' procession into Jerusalem as a king the previous day, his impending death was now inevitable. No one could ride into Jerusalem as a king and proceed to say and to the things toward the temple which Jesus said and did–and be allowed to live. When we read the story in this light, we begin to get the sense that Jesus was not a victim of Roman and Jewish injustice when he died on the cross; rather, he seems to be orchestrating the story exactly as he saw fit.

A Prayer for Monday in Holy Week:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*

Click here for today's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]