Oh my soul, be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions. – T.S. Eliot
“Jesus is the answer,” as the oft-quoted expression goes. He alone can answer our most pressing questions. The same goes for our problems. God is there to do what we cannot do for ourselves. According to this way of looking at faith, however, the Easter story doesn’t quite measure up. The Jesus who is betrayed, suffers, dies, and rises again offers little in the way of easy answers. In terms of questions, however, he has plenty. Questions he may well still be asking us.
Why are you bothering her? (Matt. 26:6-13) A woman deeply moved comes to Jesus and pours a jar of expensive perfume on his head. Indignant at the waste, Jesus’ disciples rebuke her in the name of the poor. But Jesus tells them that she has done a beautiful thing, and that there will always be opportunities to help those in need.
How many of us are exactly like the disciples, pragmatic do-gooders? We’re more interested in the poor, the need of the world, the causes of peace and justice, than in Jesus himself. Like Martha, we run around doing good things but fail to sit, as Mary did, at the feet of the Master and listen to what he is saying. We would rather help the poor “out there” than be with Jesus who is with us right here, in “the least of these, my brethren.” The disciples want to do a “good thing.” But the woman, alone did the beautiful thing.
If we are honest, most of us believe more in our good works than in our good Master. But Easter is not about what we can do for God, but about what he has done and continues to do for us. Ultimately, it is we, not God, who are in need. The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus, the poorest of the poor, became poor so that we, who are beggarly poor, might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). The woman anointed Jesus because she sensed that his death meant life – new life. This is the Gospel, and thus “what this woman has done will always be told.” What will be said of you? How precious is Jesus’ death to you? Enough to pour out everything you have?
Are you still sleeping? (Mk. 14:32-42) Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to be with him alone in his darkest hour. His soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. “Stay here and keep watch with me,” he tells them. But Jesus finds his disciples asleep. “Can’t you keep watch with me for even one hour?”
From a human point of view it seems that Jesus expects too much. He himself admits that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. He knows that we have our limits. But he also has no time for excuses: “Enough. The hour has come.”
How many times do we rationalize away our weaknesses, in the name of being human, and thereby miss the critical moment—God’s hour? God’s hour always comes when we are least ready for it. Temptation does not wait until we are strong; it stalks us when and where we are most vulnerable. But it also comes at just the time when God’s redemptive love is about to break in, when God is about to be victorious.
To watch and pray is more than a discipline – it’s a gift, an opportunity. More importantly, it is a matter of feeling what is at hand, of how God is at work. To keep watch is to partake in Christ’s struggle over evil in this world. Jesus invites us to be with him in this battle, and in his weakness he beckons us to win through to that place where we can accept God’s will for our lives – unconditionally. The garden of Gethsemane is not a place of gloom, but of freedom. To be alone, before God, when the forces of evil are mounting, is our strength. But we can opt to rest. We can give in to the flesh, float along with the current of what is natural and normal. We can fail to keep watch with Jesus. It’s up to us whether to sleep or stand guard.
Why have you forsaken me? (Matt. 27:48) The unfathomable, the unmentionable, the unanswerable question, the outrageous agony of despair that cries out from Jesus’ parched lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The one who fulfilled all righteousness – abandoned by the God of righteousness! A mystery, but also a question for you and me. Why have we forsaken Jesus? Are we in denial, like Peter and the rest the disciples who insisted they would never disown their master?
But we are the disciples, each one of us. We may insist differently, but don’t we deny Jesus all the same? Again and again, we pledge our allegiance to Jesus, make promises to follow him, to do better, but then stumble, fall, fail, and forsake him. When our faith is challenged, when our reputation or image is at stake, when our security or success is threatened, when we lower our principles just a notch, when we take our cues from the world instead of from God, when we stand in judgment of others, don’t we abandon our Lord? Peter denied Jesus three times. How many times do we?
Why are you crying? (Jn. 20:10-18) Why does Jesus ask such a question, a man himself acquainted with sorrows? Can’t he see my pain? And what about suffering of others? The suffering of a woman whose child has been raped and mutilated by soldiers? A child’s who can’t understand why she’s been abandoned and abused? The mentally tormented, imprisoned in an endless cycle of medications and programs that seem to only perpetuate the hell they are in? Yes, God knows it all, and cries with us. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, for Jerusalem, for us. But his tears are different – they are not for himself, but for the world. His tears transform our pain. “Mary,” Jesus says. Jesus knows Mary’s name and ours as well. He is Immanuel – God with us. Our tears are his.
So, why are you crying? Jesus tells us that those who mourn shall be comforted. But this is so only if our sorrow points us beyond our own pain to the sin and suffering of the whole world. He lifts us beyond ourselves, not by wiping away our tears, which he will do on the Last Day, but by pointing us back to the agony he suffered for us. His tears seek to move us to repentance, away from bitterness and self-pity. His tears cleanse us, and if we allow them, to move us to compassion. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ,” says Paul. The greatest burden is to carry no other load than your own. It is a way of loneliness and isolation and despair. But Jesus offers us a new way. So why are you crying? Who are you crying for? Are his tears yours?
Do you really love me? (Jn. 21:15-17) Peter abandoned Jesus, and denied him three times. He too wept, and wept bitterly for his sin. But weeping is one thing, restoration another. Remorse is not renewal. Jesus wanted more from Peter, and to give him more as well. Three times Jesus asks him: Do you love me? And three times Peter answers, Yes. “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus commands. “Stop feeling bad about yourself and start taking care of others—nourish, protect, nurture them! Like a good shepherd, lay your life down for others.”
Most of us want to love Jesus. We follow his teachings, practice his deeds, tell others about him, and confess our sins. We even marvel at what he has done. But still Jesus asks, “Do you love me? Really? You call yourself by my name. But do you love me?” Do you? Then feed my little ones. Care for them. Tend to their innermost needs. Carry their fears, hopes, needs, and doubts. Do not merely exist along side them, but give yourself to them. Be your brother’s keeper. Do it now, with the very ones entrusted to you. You know who they are. Will you feed them?
Years after his death Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus, a church that worked hard, endured hardship, rejected false teaching. Yet Jesus held this against them: “You have forsaken your first love! Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:4-5). Genuine love is fervent, alive and fresh, zealous, impassioned. Does this describe your love for Jesus?
What is that to you?(Jn. 21:20-23) John is following behind Jesus and Peter. Jesus had just indicated to Peter the kind of death he would face. “What about him?” Peter asks. “So what about him? What is that to you?” Indeed! What should it matter to you or me how Jesus leads in another person’s life? Aren’t we to put our hands to the plow and look straight ahead? How much time and energy do you spend comparing yourself and your lot to others, wondering about what is theirs and what it is they are doing? Why aren’t you content with what Jesus has in mind for you—whatever that might be? Why does someone else’s destiny, someone else’s calling determine who or how you are? “Purity of heart,” says Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.” Jesus’ will for us is simple: “You! Follow me.”
Why do you stand there? (Acts 1:1-11) Jesus ascends to the heavens, no longer limited by space and time. He is Lord of all and thus reigns over everything. His work is now in cosmic proportion. So why do you stand there? Why do you look up into the sky when Jesus is actually returning?
Let’s admit it. We like to gaze. We like to wonder and speculate and imagine and feel spiritual; we like to ascend upwards and soar into heavenly realms. We enjoy being uplifted. But Jesus tells his disciples to get ready. They are about to receive power when the Holy Spirit descends. He is going to return to them. And when he does, there is no standing around. Feet move, tongues are loosed, possessions given away, miracles happen. God’s future becomes present, revolutionizing everything. We can no longer stand still. Something happens, just as it did when Jesus walked the earth. He moves in and through us, and the good news of the Kingdom spreads.
Christoph Blumhardt once said, “Christ’s future is now, or it is not at all. It must become an experience today and tomorrow and every day. The Savior is coming! He is on the way to you, to me, to us all, in all circumstances of our lives.” So, why do we just stand there? Why do we want everything to stand still? “The crowning evidence that Jesus is alive,” exclaims Clarence Jordan, “is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” Do you believe this? Do you experience it? Do you even want it? Or would you rather just stand there?
Easter is a time of rejoicing; it is God’s response to our ultimate need. But God’s response is always one that calls forth challenges, challenges we too readily ignore and too easily thrust aside, even though they hold the very answers we long for. Jesus knows that, as with Peter, Satan wants to sift us like wheat, and so he prays for us, yes, for us, that our faith may not fail. “We have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). So at this Easter, let us prepare ourselves to answer His questions.