“….and they discussed how he might betray Jesus.” Luke 22:4
It felt like an inquisition.
Twelve collapsible metal chairs arranged in a circle, with one empty chair waiting for me. The eleven men sitting with their arms crossed avoided eye contact as I was motioned to take a seat. The “emergency” church meeting had begun.
After 20 minutes of complaints about noisy children, clogged toilets and teens playing basketball in the parking lot after dark, the head trustee locked his gaze and readied for the knockout.
“We feel your programs aren’t spiritual enough,” he barked, a hint of pious condescension laced his words. Eleven heads nodded in unison.
Seminary hadn’t prepared me for this moment. A joke might have lightened the mood, but I backed off. His question caught me off guard. This church sat empty six and a half days a week.
Our outreach efforts were bringing life, laughter and joy back to the building. For the past year, hundreds of neighborhood kids were faithfully attending our after-school program and Sunday morning pancake breakfast. Children were tutored, fed, and engaged in activities. Teens were learning life skills, mentored, and doing Bible study. All this was happening in their empty, dying church. Not spiritual enough?
“I’m sorry…just curious,” I stuttered to the group, revealing a look of bewilderment. “What might ‘spiritual enough’ look like?”
An awkward pause ensued. “Baptisms,” blurted the trustee. “Yes, that would assure us your programs are making a difference!”
His answer shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, we were borrowing program space in a declining East Camden Baptist church. And Baptists love baptisms. I know. I was raised Baptist. But with those 500-member-church glory days a distant memory, and with a 31-member remnant trying to survive, even my naive 28-year-old self sensed something more sinister in the works. Their complaints veiled deeper issues. These guys were afraid. They were losing control. Our unchurched neighborhood kids represented something new. A world they didn’t know. A neighborhood they didn’t understand anymore. Eliminating our program was a chance to return to the comfort of things as they were.
And we were organizationally poor in those early days. Always hanging on by a thread. The ministry owned nothing—no facility, no van, no regular cash flow and no plan B to house our growing programs. Our landlords held the power.
“Anyone wanna get baptized next month?” I cast to our group of 70 teens the following Wednesday night. “That’s when you go under water, right?” quipped Andre in the back row. “Nope, it’s when we say goodbye to garbage in your life and start living for God,” corrected Lynne. “I’m in!” pledged Lia.
In the end, 18 youth committed to take this step in their young faith journey. So in a church whose baptismal tank hadn’t seen water in two decades, a community pre-Easter baptism service was planned. Family members were invited. Neighbors passed the message word of mouth. Trustees and church members received personal invitations.
On the day of the event, guests arrived with bowls of potato salad, pho noodles, chicken, rice, beans, and macaroni. Family members cheered, took pictures and gave flowers to the youth. Neighbors hugged neighbors. People connected. New relationships formed. But the absence of trustees and church members was visibly noticeable. I sensed our time was up. Less than a year later, the trustees kicked us out. Their loss.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus’ biggest opponents were the religious folk of his day. Religion has always had a complicated relationship with new expressions of God’s work. Behind doctrine, titles, and religious facades are often small, fearful men and women.
The idea of someone like Jesus—working outside their circle of control—doing God’s work in effective and new ways threatened their legitimacy as spiritual leaders. Healing the sick, empowering the weak, feeding the hungry offered tangible hope to ordinary people, while increasing his popularity. Jesus had to be stopped.
So Judas—the one who experienced the goodness of Jesus’ life for three years—sells his soul for a few dollars. He betrays his friend and colludes with the religious authorities. The chief priests were “delighted and agreed to give (Judas) the money,” records Luke. Betrayal and self interest always lurks close to the surface in the human story.
In his book People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck writes that evil in this world is often committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day.” He explains that they are “…the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.”
Those trustees are long gone. Their small kingdom vanished like all things we hold too tightly. The church closed its doors a few years after we left and now sits as a decaying monument to those resistant to expanding their hearts. We should pay attention. A little Pharisee exists in all of us, always needing to “suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.”
The good news to this story is our ministry did find a new home to run programs. And for two successive generations, we’ve been given the gift of investing in those “noisy, toilet-plugging, late-night-basketball-playing youth.”
Their youthful energy and idealism has been stoked in a community of love—allowing growth towards the full miracle of what God intends for a human life. That’s an Easter story. Maybe even spiritual…
Founder & President