Easter is a wondrous time. It’s the time in the Christian calendar, the central point of the Christian faith and of God’s story. It has its key players: Jesus, Pilate, the disciples. We know those characters. But this Easter, I’m looking at things through the eyes of some other players in this great story.
After sunset, he and the Twelve were sitting around the table. During the meal, he said, “I have something hard but important to say to you: One of you is going to hand me over to the conspirators.”
They were stunned, and then began to ask, one after another, “It isn’t me, is it, Master?”
– Matthew 26:20-22
Judas. Not the most popular character, is he?! He is the one who betrayed Jesus. As if that betrayal wasn’t enough, it was a betrayal with a kiss. Somehow, that seems to make it all the worse.
Judas has become the hated character. True, he was the betrayer. But Jesus knew that, didn’t He? At that last meal together, Jesus knew He was to be betrayed, and knew – even if Judas wouldn’t admit it – that it would be him. And yet He still ate with him, still shared that significant meal with him, still, even as he sealed Jesus’ fate with a kiss, called Judas friend.
A few years ago, there was a television program in England about Judas. It was shown at Easter time and presented by a well-known vicar who traveled to the Holy Land to explore the life and fate of Judas. That program made me think of Judas in a different way. Yes, Judas was the betrayer. But that was all part of God’s plan. Judas’ kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane was written in his book, written in God’s hand, before he ever took payment of the silver. His betrayal was one act in God’s story: it was necessary and it was planned.
Some characters get the best lines, the best scenes, while others, like Judas, get those scenes that leave the audience booing and shaking their heads in disgust. But as a writer I know that a story isn’t a story without some villain or flawed character. There’s no Snow White without the Evil Queen, and there’s no complete story of the crucifixion without Judas. You don’t have to like him, but he played his part.
There was a man walking by, coming from work, Simon from Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. They made him carry Jesus’ cross.
– Mark 15:21
I’m a big Harry Potter fan. The books gave me a lot of company and comfort when I was growing up, bullied in school. Of course, as a girl who liked school I identified with Hermione’s character. And who doesn’t love Ron Weasley?! But one of the characters I loved the most was Neville. J.K Rowling is a skilled writer and throughout the books you see how small characters actually become those of big importance. Harry Potter is the chosen one, but that is only possible because of Neville and small – yet significant – moments in their stories. There’s a reason they have Oscars for Supporting Actors: there’s not story without them.
Simon of Cyrene is one of those such characters. He is not there for long, his actions are few and small, yet he is a huge part of the story of Easter. Who he is? He is nobody. He is just a passerby, on his way from the country. But he happens to pass by at just the moment when Jesus struggles to carry the cross on his back. ‘Hey, you!’ the soldiers shout. ‘Carry it for him.’ Why Simon? Did he look strong? Did he say something out of turn to draw the soldier’s attention? Nope. He was just there. Just an ordinary man, tasked, for a few small moments, with an extraordinary task: to follow the cross when Jesus couldn’t.
Maybe he tried to weasel his way out of it, maybe he tried to run off before he could be forced to do it; maybe he had already reached out to help Jesus and that was why the soldiers gave him the job. We don’t know. The gospels don’t tell us. Maybe if he had not done it, someone else would have. But someone else didn’t do it: he did.
One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”
– Luke 23: 39-43
I’ve always been struck by the criminals alongside Jesus at the hill. One, hating, mocking, defiant to the end. The other, repentant, humbled before Jesus.
Which one am I? Which one are you?
The first criminal does perhaps what many people would. He has heard of this Jesus, the Jesus who proclaims to be powerful, to be God. Okay then, he thinks. Prove it. He mocks him, perhaps to veil his fear. He demands of Jesus: Save me. He wants proof, but I wonder if even that would have been enough for his belief.
The second criminal takes a different tact. He is gentler, kinder. He recognizes who Jesus is. But instead of demanding He show his miraculous saving power, he asks humbly, in repentance. He doesn’t require proof. Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.
Every time, this verse makes me stop It’s such a simple request from a dying man. A man who could be angry, who could be resentful, who could be cruel. Not from this man, though. From this man not a demand but a simple request.
No wonder Jesus responds as He only knows to do, from His very nature and being: Yes, I will remember you. Yes, I love you. Yes, I will give you paradise. Yes, I will be there with you.
Yes, Jesus says, to a criminal on a cross as they die together.
The captain of the guard and those with him, when they saw the earthquake and everything else that was happening, were scared to death. They said, “This has to be the Son of God!”
– Matthew 27:54
Soldiers. More villains in the piece. Spitting, mocking, torturing soldiers. And yet…
These soldiers have mocked Jesus. They have inflicted pain on him that was not necessary, not part of the crucifixion: extra violence for the sake of violence. They have caused Jesus pain. They have laughed at him. And yet…
Moments earlier they were joking, hurling insults at Jesus, goading him. But then He dies. Then, the curtain splits in two. Then, the earth shakes. The sky has darkened, unnaturally. Then, these soldiers see.
Surely this man is the Son of God!
Even the soldiers, even after everything they have done, see Jesus for who He is. They are in awe of Him, in that moment of His death. They know.
Maybe they felt bad, then. Maybe they repented. Maybe they tore themselves apart knowing that the man they had tortured was exactly who He said He was. Maybe. But what is certain is that they acknowledged who He was.
It’s never too late. The soldiers, the criminal who Jesus remembered in heaven, teach us that.
All of us have a part to play in God’s story. Some of us may seem to have bigger, more glorious roles to play. Others of us may worry that our roles are small. It doesn’t matter, because in God’s story every part is significant, all that’s left for us to do is go ahead and play it.