by John Bishop, Director of Spiritual Formation
When I was 18, a freshman in college, and heading back to school after Christmas break, I wasn’t a Christian yet. I was riding in my girlfriend’s grandparents’ minivan.
I was crammed between yard sale knick-knacks, canned vegetables and fruit, a dehumidifier, and my own travel bags, I was uncomfortable and a little claustrophobic. I needed something to pass the time. For the first hour I listened to papa describe all the fantastic qualities of the dehumidifier humming beside me; he did so thoroughly, and with proud enthusiasm.
Eventually, we all settled into the 12-hour trip and turned to our own strategies for passing the time. Nana and papa discussed boring adult details, Heather fell asleep, and I was left with absolutely nothing else to do, so I pulled out the Bible Heather had given me. I had been casually reading it to impress her, but I really didn’t know what it was about. I’d heard someone say I should read the Gospels, so I turned to the table of contents and then flipped to the page.
“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah…” I read. “Genealogy! Oh no,” I thought. I considered abandoning this idea with the question, “Hey papa, did you say that the dehumidifier actually filters out harmful dust particles?” But I decided reading the boring details of a history I didn’t understand about a person I wasn’t even sure was real was less tedious. I read on.
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of…riveting...”
As I plowed through the Gospel of Matthew, I had little idea what I was reading. People and places I had never heard of were being described in detail. I felt like I was watching someone else’s home videos. It wasn’t my family story. I was an outsider.
And yet, slowly, somehow, I was drawn in.
Jesus showed up at a wedding where He turned water to wine to spare the groom’s family. There was a blind guy calling out to Jesus begging for help. Jesus stopped, knelt, and healed the guy.
There were these arrogant, jealous religious people doing everything they could to stop Jesus. I wondered why they had an issue with Him. What’s wrong with healing people who have leprosy or can’t walk? And what’s the big deal about carrying a mat around? I found myself rooting for this Jesus guy. He seemed awesome! He really cared about people. He regularly put himself at great risk to selflessly do the right thing.
We stopped for gas. An hour later the car was quiet again, so I returned to the story with a little less skepticism. I kind of wanted to know where this story was going.
Jesus’ disciples were all sorts of frustrating. They quarreled among themselves and seemed to always be confused, afraid, and difficult to lead. “Why did Jesus pick these guys, they’re a disaster.” I thought.
Then it happened. Almost out of nowhere the story turned dark. Jesus was being arrested. He was on trial. Then He was mocked and being brutally beaten and carrying a cross. Nails were being pounded through his wrists. People were spitting at Him and insulting Him and heartlessly gambling for his clothes while he suffered and died. Then it was over. Jesus was dead. WHAT!?!
I had tears in my eyes. There were so many people in the story that were more deserving of death than Jesus. He had done everything right. He had been nothing but helpful. He had stood up for people who were being forsaken, rejected, and mistreated. He had fed people who were hungry, healed people who were sick, performed miracles to make people’s lives better, lighter, and more hopeful and had asked for nothing in return. And, He had put those arrogant religious people in their place. He wasn’t a criminal; He was a hero. Why did they kill him?
Even his friends had chosen to take cover and abandoned him when he’d needed them most. The religious people had won, and the government had passively let it all happen. No justice. No fair trial. Jesus was dead!
“What is this story?” I thought.
I sat stunned.
Experiences from that Christmas season had piqued my curiosity about spiritual things. I had spent time with Heather’s family at their church, I’d been with my mom who wasn’t in a great season, and I had experienced painful rejection from my dad. I was looking for something that would help make sense of the kinds of hurts and confusing life experiences I was facing. I was looking for hope, and I’d found it for a second until this story turned out to be just like every other one.
This Jesus guy had done for other people things I needed done for me. I had felt drawn into the story, and connected to Him, but it was just a sham. He was dead! “Why do people talk about this guy? Why do people go to church? There’s nothing in this story but more of the same meaningless suffering and confusion. What a waste,” I thought. “The Bible is just an older, irrelevant version of my own life experience.” The skepticism I already felt about the world and religion started to swell as I felt a flush of shame for being moved by some stupid fairytale story. “At least no one saw me crying,” I thought as I looked over and saw Heather sleeping.
A few minutes later I looked back down. There were a few pages left in the story. I read on feeling resigned to a predetermined conclusion that this religion stuff wasn’t for me…
I was not ready for the end of this story.
Mary was standing in front of the tomb where they’d laid Jesus’ body. “What do you mean, He’s gone? Where did He go?” she asked, stealing the words right out of my head. “He’s risen? But how could that be. He’s dead. They killed Him. I saw it with my own eyes.” She stumbled, unwilling to give in to a rising hope.
Then Jesus was appearing to His disciples. He was giving instructions about what’s next. He was rising into heaven while His disciples stared after Him with gaping jaws that mirrored my own. The gospel of Matthew ended but the story did not, it keeps going.
I did not become a Christian that day, but I genuinely experienced the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. Against every instinct of my flesh, hope had crept in. Six months later, Heather prayed with me to accept Jesus as my savior.
For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross. He who was without sin, became sin, that we might have eternal life. Jesus is alive.