Not an acquaintance... a friend...

Years ago, a Muslim friend came to me to discuss a question that he had been diligently pondering, though not finding satisfying answers. He asked, “Why did Jesus consciously act in ways that he knew could lead to his execution?” He continued, “If he had simply rustled less feathers, the authorities would have probably left him alone.” Arriving at his chief line of reasoning, he added, “Think of all the people he could have helped if he had only lived longer.” Considering all of the people Jesus had helped during his ministry years, it was an observation that deserved a definitive response. Clearly, Jesus could have easily avoided “upping the ante” – perhaps by just turning over a few less tables. I replied almost reflexively, “For this purpose (Jesus) was born and for this purpose (He) came into the world – to bear witness to the truth.” Astonishingly, he followed up precisely as did Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”

Much time has now passed and though I believe my initial answer was accurate, I now realize why it was far from sufficient. Real understanding requires more than intellectual assent to a proposition. After all, Christ is the God / Man, not the God / Robot. Jesus knew what it was to be hated… slandered… betrayed… denied… and left alone to die at the hands of indifferent bureaucrats acting on the pernicious dictates of devils. Jesus felt every kind of pain that we have felt, yet he did not stumble. He did what He asks of us; He believed… and He endured. However, His steadfast faith and love could not separate Him from the hurt that he bore because of mankind’s forgetfulness, cowardice, and the insufficiencies that would be so vividly demonstrated to Him. Being willing to subject His body to man’s judgment and savagery were only the final nails. By this time, He had already been pierced in heart, soul, and mind. Beyond human reasoning, He prayed, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they’re doing.”

Consider partners on a battlefield; they are sworn to protect each other if the situation becomes dire. Imagine one such bond being tested by an unexpected ambush: One soldier is hit and falls behind a makeshift screen, while the other has found secure cover. The wounded soldier cries out to his partner, “Help me; I’m pinned down!” The soldier who found a safe place wants to help his partner, but he does not act, because of his fear and a greater dedication to his own self-interest. Eventually, the wounded soldier manages to crawl to safety. In time, his gunshot wounds heal, but his bond with his partner is not the same as it was before this time of trial. How could it be, especially if the soldier who was wounded knows that he would have come to the aid of his partner if the situation had been reversed? What if he had already done so just weeks before this incident? Therefore, he is able to forgive his partner, but he cannot force him to be something that he is not. Neither can he wish away his partner’s decisions. Both soldiers wish that this episode had never happened in the first place. Now that it has come, a foundation has been shattered that cannot be easily rebuilt. Both bear a burden, though the weights are of vastly different natures. One is an acquaintance; only one is a friend.

In life, the partner who has come up lacking generally takes one of two courses: 1.) He feels great remorse, or 2.) He creates a rationale to justify his actions. If he chooses the latter, he is on his way to creating his own prison – a hell that he may build for the rest of his years… and beyond. If he chooses the former, there are paths to restoration, but these will require stakes similar to the test that was failed the first time around. Neither party can merely return to the past relationship as if nothing has happened. Herein we find the necessity of Calvary. Christ has pushed the envelope in order to give the perfect, not just the acceptable. Christ is demonstrating the greatest love… He cannot do less. He has given the very best, and man has rejected it.

We do not always get a second chance to be the friend we should have been. There is one fundamental paradigm that holds the hope of genuine resolution and restoration: Is our ultimate test going to be a past event in which we failed? Or, will we humbly pray for, and fervently seek, a future event… one in which we seize the courage to act decisively? Yes, there was only one Judas, but this hardly covers the manifest deficiencies that were to be exposed. Clearly, many fell; who was standing? Be clear of mind. Whispering, “I believe you,” to an innocent man at his trial is far from being a comfort. The innocent do not need personal confirmation of their innocence – of this, they are already well aware. Rather, their spirit yearns for a friend – someone to proclaim the truth boldly such that no hearer can remain in doubt, “Friends, this man is innocent! I know him like I know my own name! Can you not see who he is by all of the days of his living? Irregardless, whatever you choose to do to him, do unto me as well… for my friend must not suffer alone.” This is what real friends do; this is what Jesus is still doing.

Where were Jesus’ friends two thousand years ago when the first betrayal occurred at Gethsemane? Where were the many beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry when a mock trial was taking place in the Sanhedrin? Where were the multitudes when Pilate was asking which man should be set free? Where was anyone? On Calvary’s hill, the gospel narratives note the presence of the Mother of Jesus, a quiet disciple named John, and a societal castoff from a town best known for its prostitution, Mary Magdalene. We can find some comfort in the thought that Jesus knew the profound devotion and love of these three – a love that would have vanquished all enemies, if such love alone could sway the power of this world. More directly, we find an enduring comfort from knowing the rest of the story… that many fleeing cowards would soon discover the transformative power of the Eternal Truth… the power of Resurrection!

We can know this is true, as it is written not only in scripture, but also upon our souls. We can recognize the One who has conquered death – not just for the innocent, but for the guilty as well. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And thus, even as we hear Christ’s exclamation from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” we know that this earthly perspective will give way to a greater Reality, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The Truth will always rise because our Father is always working… He who ensures the Resurrection of Love! He is God of the Living! Jesus is forever reminding us, “In this world you will have trials and tribulations. But take heart. I have overcome the world!”

Those who yearn to be Christ’s friend must mirror and multiply His kind of love… the greatest love. We serve Him as we serve the poor, the hungry, the weak, the persecuted, the desperate, the isolated, the lonely… We could simply call these “our neighbors,” since all human beings are languishing on some level… knowingly or not. And so, Christ’s suffering continues, as long as those He loves are still mourning… thirsty… naked… stretched… pierced… mocked… abandoned… alone. We must yearn to share in His passion! Lest we should ever forget, absolute suffering is to suffer alone. Guards in the Nazi death camps would often add a closing torment to their victims. As the prisoners knowingly entered the “showers” that would soon consume them, the sadistic guards would whisper in their ears, “No one will ever know about this.” Let no one make the now common mistake of thinking that evil is merely the absence of good. No, its presence is torturously tangible. Though the powers of this world often seem daunting, we need only remember… perhaps even as often as we eat and drink. Yes, there is good news indeed! We have a Friend who will be with us… always.

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