I have just returned from Passion Week.
For 17 years now, at the Southern Adventist University’s Sonrise Pageant, students and others from the community have enacted the week’s events on the Sabbath before Easter. Now some eleven thousand people, in waves beginning on each half-hour, gather in the university sanctuary, then walk through the campus for a mile or so, past a hubbub of pens and booths and mini-plays.
Today I was with them, along with several members of my family.
The Pageant is not professional theater. But it’s a huge event. And if you do all you can to identify with—to actually feel—the cruelty and cynicism on the one side, and, on the other, the aspiration and upside-down nobility, it’s heart-stopping. A bloodied Jesus falls under the weight of the cross. A shaken woman in period dress catches your eye, exclaiming: “He was a good man. He doesn’t deserve this.” And you feel (by God’s grace) a wince of solidarity.
Before Pilate, Jesus says his kingdom “is not here on earth,” and you wish the scriptwriter had not mangled the words into something Jesus didn’t really say. But the scene still conveys the belligerence of the religious elite and the monstrosity of the occupying Empire. Pilate seems oblivious to any deeply human value; he is irked by the sheer bother of having to decide whether or not to kill someone.
Between the two thieves, on a hill near the university tennis courts, Jesus asks God to forgive the Roman soldiers, who seem not to fully understand what they are doing. One of them cries out: “If he is king, where is his army?” and the others laugh.
Before the tomb inside the darkened gym, Mary Magdalene weeps over the dead body of the one man who took her for a person, not just a prostitute. Soldiers armed with spears and arrogance strut in to guard the entrance to the tomb. But then, with the descent of a shining angel, the stone protecting the entrance…moves. Now Jesus, awash in light, comes forth, made new by the grace of his Heavenly Father.
In moments, the whole history of the early church crystallizes in a pandemonium of joy. Those who loved Jesus even when they didn’t understand him shift miraculously toward—hope. They gather around the risen figure, those in the backing leaping to cast an eye upon their Lord. As one body and one voice, they shout their acclimation.
Now these lowly folk (though one or two soldiers seem to have joined them) constitute the “army”—the upside-down army—of the Risen One. It isn’t what the soldiers at the Cross had in mind when they joked about someone who, to them, was no King at all. But these folk, despite the soldiers, are the beginning of a revolution.
Earlier, at the mini-play about the Last Supper, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and declared, “The world will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”
I beg forgiveness now for belaboring a point I made almost week ago, just after singers from La Sierra University visited Kettering College. One reason these singers visited southwestern Ohio was that the Michigan Conference had instructed its academies, or at least one academy, to keep them away. I objected that this was no way to treat young Adventist musicians.
After the article appeared on this website, the president of the conference sent a letter to all his pastors and teachers. He was still unsatisfied with La Sierra’s performance regarding the struggle—our common struggle—to reconcile faith and science. “We offer no apologies,” he said, for keeping the university’s singers away; thereby he was protecting academy young people. “Is a mother bird to be condemned,” he said, “for flapping her wings in the face of a threat to her nest?”
Does this conference president fail to understand that the question of authentic discipleship turns, not upon doctrinal niceties, but upon the reality (or not) of our love for one another?
Today I was inspired by Southern Adventist University students. And I am less able than ever to understand why some elders among us insist on divisive quarreling. We all believe, after all, that God is both maker of heaven and earth and hallower of Sabbath rest. And we all embrace, or aspire to embrace, the mission Jesus gave us.
I understand the conference president’s rhetorical question, but I have a different one just now. It comes out of my conviction, sharpened again this very day, that God wants all of us to love one another. Here is that question:
If Jesus is king, where is his army?