The Gallows and the Gift of Life

Palm Sunday

As the story begins, I was in the King’s prison — the prison called “conviction.” It was a very strange prison.

There were windows, but only on one side — the side facing the palace of the King. Mostly I tried to avoid the windows because I didn’t like the way I looked in the light. The light in the hall was indirect and soft, so it looked like I had some color when I stood in front of the mirrors on the wall. But in the rooms with windows I looked anemic and weak. Every blemish looked ugly. That is why I mostly stayed away from the windows.

But not always. I couldn’t stand the way I looked in the direct light coming through the windows, but there was something almost irresistible about the light. Sometimes I would stand in the hall looking through a door at the shaft of light shining diagonally across the room from one of the windows. I would want so badly to go in and stand by the window and look that light full in the face, and see where it was coming from. But then I would look down at my skin and think how good it looked in the dark and how pale and splotchy it looked in the light, and I couldn’t go in.

“If you would follow Jesus, you must deny yourself and climb the steps of the gallows unto life.”

There were two doors in the prison — two that I knew about — but they were never locked. I could have left any time I wanted. I mean, if I had tried hard enough. In fact, I did try — several times. But the one door opened onto the King’s palace lawn, and the light there was so bright I couldn’t stand it. And the other opened away from the King’s palace and the darkness there was so frightening I couldn’t enter it.

I mean, I could have. The door was open. That’s where I had come from. I knew the roads on the dark side of the prison. I couldn’t explain what was holding me back. Sometimes it seemed like sheer terror of the dark. Other times what kept me from leaving wasn’t fear so much as an almost overwhelming desire to walk into the light — no matter how painful. But then I would get so angry at the light because of how weak and anemic it made me look.

All the light that I had ever known, far south away from the King’s palace, had made me tan and handsome. It made other people notice me. It made me feel strong and self-confident — at least, most of the time. I was so confused. I looked out into the dark away from the King’s palace, and I didn’t see any light at all. A prison with open doors. Half-way between the light and the dark. I hated them both and loved them both. And I couldn’t move. It was a very strange prison — this prison called “conviction.”

A Kingdom of My Own

You might be wondering how I got there. I hadn’t always been in this prison, of course. For years I had lived as far away from the palace of the King as I could. Everybody knows that if you stay far enough away, you can set up your own sort of kingdom. You can write your own laws, and pretty much run your own life. So that’s what we did. We thought of all kinds of ways to keep the King’s light from bothering us. There were three rules:

  1. Stay as far away from it as you can. Don’t ever look toward the palace. Don’t ever read any of his letters. Don’t listen to his messengers. That’s rule number one: stay as far away from the light as you can.

  2. Use imitation light. You know how this works. You can get far enough away from a blazing star so that it looks like a harmless little dot in the sky of your darkness. But if you want to blot it out completely, what do you do? You just use a lamppost or hang a string of lights across the backyard. Then the stars disappear altogether. So that’s rule number two: use imitation light. Surround yourself with artificial brightness.

  3. Find substitute pleasures. Nobody can live without happiness. None of us would have admitted it then, but what we really had to do was come up with some counterfeit excitements.

Looking back on it now, it seems crazy. Keep running from the King. Keep lighting candles so we can’t see the sun. Keep substituting puddles of pleasure for an ocean of joy. We just could not believe in those days that the light that made us look so bad could be the source of joy. So we ran from the light. We made our own imitations — imitations that made us look good. And feel good.

The King’s Warrant

It didn’t always work, of course. If the King issues a warrant for your capture, there is no escape. I remember the night I was taken captive and brought to the prison called “conviction.”

A young man and his wife moved into town. They said they were sent from the King, and that they had come to take captive some of his rebel subjects and bring them to the palace to meet the King’s Son. They also said that the King’s Son had some business to tend to with some of us, and that the charge was treason.

To my mind this was absolutely incredible. They had no weapons, no soldiers. I remember saying to them, “And just who is it that the King intends for you to take captive, without any weapons and without any soldiers?”

They looked at me with a kind of earnestness and longing that I had never seen before, and said, “The warrants for arrest are kept secret in the vault of the palace. But this much we’ve been told by the King: the people whose names are written there will come when the invitation is given.”

Lose Your Life to Save It

I laughed out loud. “Invitation! To get arrested? You’re crazy! You might as well invite a sheep to the slaughter! Why would anybody come?”

In a split second, I knew something was happening to me. Why did I ask that question? Why did I give the slightest indication that I thought there might be an answer to that question?

The King’s messengers didn’t miss it either. The young man said to me, “I’ll tell you why people will accept the invitation to be arrested for treason without soldiers and without weapons.” He opened the King’s book and quoted some words from the King’s Son. He said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and climb the steps of the gallows and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Then he looked up at me and said, just as obvious as though it were written in the sky, “The reason some of you will accept our invitation to be arrested for treason is because you would rather save your life by losing it than lose it by saving it.”

I just stared at him in silence.

The Artificial Fades

I knew some of the stories about the King’s Son — fables, I would have called them once. That he came to one of our towns a long time ago; that they received him like royalty on one Sunday, and then hanged him on Friday. That he rose from the dead three days later, and lives in the palace with the King, and plans to come again and take over the Kingdom someday. I knew all those fables. And I couldn’t imagine what difference it would make even if I did believe they were true.

“Whoever loses his life for Jesus’s sake will save it.”

But here was a young man, with no weapons and no soldiers, telling me that the issue wasn’t merely believing that these stories are true, but that I was under arrest for treason and that I must face the Son of the King.

That was the end of my running from the King. My friends thought I was absolutely crazy, but I knew I had heard the voice of truth. I invited the young couple over to my house, and one by one they began to turn off the imitation lights in my life. That night I went to bed in utter turmoil — frightened at the darkness around me and almost as angry as ever at the King’s light. The next morning I woke up in the prison called “conviction.”

Led out by the Prince

Well, that’s how I got to the strange prison called “conviction.” Now here’s how I got out. I had been there for maybe a week when the Son of the King himself knocked on the door of my room in the prison. When I opened the door, he simply said, “Follow me.”

He looked very serious. Not angry. Not smiling. Just utterly intent. I followed him through the hall toward the door leading to the palace lawn. When he got to the door, he turned and looked back at me. I shook my head, “No.” I said, “I can’t go there, not now.” He waited a moment longer, then turned back into the prison and went down another hall. I followed as closely as I could for not being sure. Where was he going?

Suddenly, he turned through a door I had never seen. It led out of the prison — not on the palace side, or on the dark side, but onto a dim path in between the two worlds. He turned at the door and said, “Come. This is a different way.”

“A different way there?” I thought. But he was already walking down the path, and I followed him. When my foot touched the path outside the prison, I thought I had taken the most decisive step of my life. But I was wrong. There was another one I would soon have to take.

The path was rough and narrow. The Prince seemed to know every root and stone along the way. Now and then he looked back over his shoulder. I tried to read his face. No smile. No anger. Or maybe it was both. Maybe his face was like this gray path between two worlds.

The Gallows

We turned into a clearing and he stopped. My heart almost burst through my chest with fear. There in the middle of the clearing were gallows. It looked very old. There were steps leading up to a platform about eight feet off the ground. A trap door in the platform was rigged to a lever. Above the platform there was a crossbeam with a coil of rope and noose. And on the platform an executioner.

I looked at the Prince in disbelief. “I followed you!” Anger boiled up inside me. I wheeled around to run back up the path . . . but it was gone, sealed over with vines and thorns. My eyes flashed around the clearing like a trapped animal. There were two paths — one blocked by the gallows, and the other wide-open leading back to darkness.

Just before I bolted for the black hole, he spoke my name: “John.” I will never be able to explain what it was like to hear the sound of my own name coming from the lips of the Son of the King. “John,” he said it again, “if you would come after me, you must deny yourself and climb the steps of the gallows and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

And by some miracle of miracles, by the power of his voice, or something in his bearing, my anger was gone. And then, the most decisive step of my life was taken. Still no smile on his face. And no frown. But what I saw was the assurance of a promise. It was written on his face. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” He lifted his hand up the steps — like an usher seating someone at a symphony.

I ascended the old steps to the platform. The executioner’s face was neither happy nor sad. In fact, he had an uncanny resemblance to the Prince. He put the noose over my head and pulled it tightly around my neck. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would pound out of my chest. I wanted to turn and look back at the Prince. I felt like everything I had ever known was ending. And the future? I closed my eyes, and whispered, “Into your hands I yield my life.”

The executioner pulled the lever. I felt the boards scrape underneath my feet. My teeth clenched. Crack! The door gave way, and I fell. Snap! Was it the whip of the rope? Or was it my neck? That’s all I remember.

Carried Away

The next thing I knew I was being carried by some very strong arms. My neck was incredibly sore, and I could feel the blood running down onto my chest from the laceration. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the scar on his neck. The next thing I noticed were the tears in his eyes. And the next thing I felt was the water.

“Jesus will be with you. And all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.”

He was wading out into a river. It touched my feet first. Then it came up over my whole body, all the way up to my neck. I had never felt anything like this in my life. This was the purest touch I had ever known. The water gathered around my neck and took away all the pain. It came up over my face and hair and washed away all the sweat of fear and anger. When I came up out of the water, he was smiling.

He carried me up out of the river on the other side. As he put me down on the grass I realized that we were swallowed up in a light more bright than any other I had ever seen. But it didn’t hurt anymore. It was lovely to my eyes, and the warmth of sun on my skin was like the caress of a mother on a frightened child.

The Son of the King put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Come, I want to show you the grounds before you go.”

“Go? Must I go?”

His smile was full of hope. “Nobody stays, John, until they’ve crossed the river twice. You remember the young couple that I sent to arrest you? There’s been an uprising in your town. My Father is calling them in. They’ll be crossing the river again tonight. There’s going to be a big celebration here. I want you to go replace them, John. I’ll be with you. And all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. I’d be very honored if you went for me.”

To which I responded with all my heart, “Master, it’s my pleasure.”