Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Longest Week

This Sunday marks the anniversary of the beginning of the longest and most dramatic week in the life of Jesus. Events in and around his life moved with increasing rapidity from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the tragic end on Good Friday. The days of that last week are so much of one fabric that it is difficult to separate one day from the next or to isolate one event from that which preceded or followed it.

In Luke's account Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He cleansed the temple - tossing out those who were selling things. He accused them of turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves. The religious establishment challenged his authority. The scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees picked at him. They debated Jesus, but he came back with responses to which they had no reasonable or theological sound rejoinder. There was growing hostility against him, but he was not cowed. He continued to teach and prophesy even as the plot against his life thickened.

By the time we reach Thursday evening there are multiple mini-dramas being played out in and around the main drama.

It seems unbelievable, given the situation at hand, that the disciples arrived for the Passover meal on the tail end of a dispute among themselves about "which of them was to be regarded as the greatest". A reprimand and a lecture from Jesus was not adequate. It took a foot-washing before they saw themselves. Both the Romans and the Jews had an APB out on Jesus. One of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, had made arrangements to betray Jesus. With a decision which must have broken his already troubled heart, Jesus sent Judas out into the night to do the dark deed for which his name was destined to live in infamy. Satan was tugging on the coat-tail of Simon Peter, the disciple to whom Jesus had given the ‘keys to the kingdom'.

There is a mini-drama that was about to be played out in the life of Simon Peter. It is an unhappy example of what can, and often does, happen to followers of Jesus in any age. In this we are not to see Simon Peter as a model, but a mirror in which we may get a glimpse of that dark side of the self we so much dread to see. We do not like to believe that our actions can so quickly be driven by circumstances rather than the courageous ethics we so glibly espouse.

Jesus said they would all fall away from him, but that after he was raised he would meet them in Galilee. Ignoring the profound statement of resurrection, Peter picked up on Jesus' prediction of their collective cowardice. He said that even if everyone else deserted him he would not. Luke has Peter say: "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death".

In the emotion of the moment Peter was too sure of himself. He could not envision how he might respond when the circumstances became such that his life really was in danger. Jesus said bluntly to Peter: "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me."

In the course of the evening, Peter was recognized as one of Jesus' disciples on three separate occasions, and Peter denied that he knew him each time. While he was still speaking the third denial, the cock crowed. Peter remembered the words of Jesus and he went out and wept bitterly.

Who could forget the moral and legal travesty of the trial, or the inhumane treatment of Jesus between the sentencing and the crucifixion?

We come now to that unspeakable terrible last day in the earthly life of Jesus. There are so many sad things about how and why it all happened the way it did! The sense of tragedy was palpable. Even dumb nature rebelled.

The earth trembled. Rocks split. Tombs broke open. The sacred veil of the temple split open from top to bottom. Darkness fell over the whole land. The battle-hardened execution team, including their leader, became afraid. A thief on the cross beside Jesus asked to be remembered by Jesus in his coming kingdom. His enemies taunted him and said that if he were who he said he was he should save himself. His friends and family wept. The whole atmosphere of that day was one of unrelieved tragedy.

Even after considering all that could be seen and felt in and about the whole event, there was something happening there that day on that rough hilltop which was beyond the knowing of everyone present except Jesus and his Heavenly Father whose spirit hovered over the place like a heavy fog.

Those who loved Jesus hung onto every word he spoke from the cross. Some things he said were so graphically etched in the minds of the gospel writers that they remembered his exact words in the language in which he spoke. Near the very end he cried our: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") Those haunting words were too heavy to translate. All the gospel writers say that Jesus gave a great shout and died. John tells us what he shouted: "It is finished...". In English, "It is finished" is three words, but in Greek it is one word - ‘tetelestai' - as it would also be in Aramaic. In classic Greek, ‘tetelestai' is the victor's shout. It is the triumphant shout of one who has survived the struggle and the pain and now stands in the winner's circle. What a great difference this makes at the end of this tragic day. Jesus does not go down in defeat. His life has not been taken from him. He has willingly and purposefully laid down his life. Tetelestai!

‘Tetelestai' is a fitting precursor to the next surprising mystery on which we all bet our lives - the Resurrection. The story does not end with a tragic death on the cross on Friday. Get ready! Sunday is coming... tetelestai!

What a week!