7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ – John 11:7-16 (NRSV)
There is a simple truth in following Jesus: all he wants from us is everything we are. Easier said than done, right? This is why I often take such strange and slightly sinful comfort when people like Thomas take the jump from John 11 and his willingness to be stoned to death with Christ to his absence at the appearing of Christ after death. I have perhaps a tragic relief when people like Peter move from messianic proclamations at Caesarea Philippi to denial in Caiaphas’ courtyard. “Whew,” I whisper to myself, “I’m not the only one who bungles my discipleship.” Sacrificing yourself in service to Jesus and his Church is a difficult task, and not without errors. However, I am also reassured and strengthened by Christ’s blessing of Thomas after absence and forgiveness of Peter after denial. The end is never really the end. There is a light that can punch its way through any darkness.
I recently taught a Sunday School class at my church filled with people we might call ‘pillars’ or ‘foundational’ in the life of the Church. These are people who saw the church through growth and transition as our city grew, who visited and cared for the sick, widows and widowers of pastors, District Superintendents, and community leaders. We spoke at length about Lent, and in particular about fasting. “Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why don’t you do it?” Some who were raised in Catholic schools answered that it was required of them in childhood. Others commented that it had not been given much importance in the churches in which they grew and developed as young Christians. However, my favorite answer that Sunday morning, and the one that stuck with me, was “Because I’m afraid I will fail.”
Lent is a journey with Jesus from the mountain of the Transfiguration to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday and the ultimate defeat of hell and death. Yet, Good Friday stands on that journey, as well. To some, the passion of Christ is the ultimate stop on this journey of Lenten faith. For others, it stands on the bridge like a troll – it is the thing we’d rather not discuss or meditate upon. Let’s just go from the palm frond waiving of Palm Sunday to the butterflies of metamorphosis and that stirring trumpet solo on Christ The Lord Is Risen Today. Christ’s embrace of sacrifice and service for and to others – to the point of death – this is where we begin Lent. This is Ash Wednesday.
As Sunday’s palms become Wednesday’s ashes, as the celebrants mark your forehead and you hear phrases like, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” and “Repent of your sin and believe the Gospel”, the main emphasis should be our mortality. We’re all going to die. Ash Wednesday is the day we prepare to go again on a journey to death and resurrection. We remember that our days are numbered, and that in fullness they should be lived in service to Jesus, the one who asks of us in our baptisms to be buried and raised up with him.
I will be paying much closer attention to my spiritual disciplines this Lent. I will likely falter through absence from attentiveness to discipline or denial of Christ’s presence in every part of who I am. However, I will be searching for what bolstered Thomas and Peter, what conviction and great love led them both to commit to dying with Christ – just as I will be looking for what caused their stumbling in the period of Christ’s death and resurrection. Simply put, I will seek to be more aware of my own self. We call that self-examination and introspection. My hope is that I will find within myself the ability to be as honest in prayer through the Holy Spirit as the woman was during that Sunday school lesson.
Lent must be about more than giving up that extra Diet Coke or those Hershey Kisses. It must be about discovering whether or not we are willing to travel through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday. It must be about discovering what brought us to Christ in the first place, meditating upon what led us to be absent from him or in denial of him, and looking with hope and repentance to the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting … even if we are afraid of failure … even when we fail.