The Easter drama holds out the startling possibility that, in a world shaped by fear, we can actually live freely and courageously. From start to finish, nearly all the major players in the story are making choices – often choices of self-betrayal – out of fear. The chief priests and the elders were too afraid of the crowds to arrest Jesus in public, so they paid off Judas to help them arrest Jesus in a secluded garden. Peter was apparently so terrified of a servant girl that he actually denied that he even knew Jesus (even after Jesus had warned him of just such a possibility). Perhaps most surprising of all was that Pilate, backed by the power of the mighty Roman Empire, cowered before the crowds who wanted to kill Jesus, unable to act out of his own conviction that Jesus should be released. First, he tried to pass Jesus off to Herod, hoping that would free him from responsibility. Herod fared no better. In fact, we learn in Luke 23:12 that Pilate and Herod, formerly enemies, became friends that day, drawn together in camaraderie of cowardice. Pilate then tried to get the crowd to make the right decision that he did not dare make on his own. They knew him well, for in their desperation to get a sentence, they appealed in John 19:12 to a fear even deeper than his fear of the crowd: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.” Caught between his fear of the mob and his fear of Rome, he called for a basin of water and washed his hands while declaring his innocence of any injustice. No one was fooled, then or since. It is fitting that he is best remembered by history for this empty gesture.
From start to finish, only one character walked freely and courageously forward, and from an earthly perspective, he was the one character with the most to fear. In the story, he appeared to be the one person least in charge of his own fate, at the mercy of jealous religious leaders, a bloodthirsty crowd, and insecure political rulers. But appearances can be deceiving.
From start to finish, Jesus was the one person who did not draw his identity from those around him. His courage came from his connection to the world beyond. As the Gospel of John recounts the story, Jesus’s courage for the events of Easter week came from “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). It was that confidence that enabled him to wash the feet of the very disciples who would later abandon him; to stand before the mocking soldiers; to remind Pilate who was really in charge; to endure the unspeakable humiliation and agony of the cross. It was that confidence that enabled him to say truthfully, despite appearances, that he had laid down his life; it had not been taken from him.
It is this unbelievable confidence that the Easter story offers to us in the world today. Because of what our Lord has done, we too can live in the midst of our days as actors and agents, not reactors or victims. We do not have to be defined by the circumstances that surround us, whether those circumstances are the vicissitudes of national and international politics, illness, financial difficulty, or challenges in the workplace. We are invited, like our Lord, to be defined by our connection to our Heavenly Father, and then, resting in that knowledge, to go about the work that he has called us to on this day.
It is my prayer that we, as alumni and friends of Houghton College, will choose this week and in the weeks to come, a life that is grounded not in the world that we see, but in the world beyond.
Grace and Peace to you.
Resting in that knowledge to go about the work.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976