Using Scripture, song, and narrative, this readers’ theater invites the congregation to imagine Jesus’ walk from Gethsemane to the cross through the eyes of different characters along the way. This piece was originally performed during the Maundy Thursday service at Trinity CRC in Ames, Iowa in 2007. The service opened with the Lord's Supper. Then the lights were dimmed, except for lights on the Scripture reader and the narrators. To aid in congregational participation, a summary of the readers’ theater was printed in the bulletin including the Scripture passages, hymn information, and the name of the character giving the narrative. I encourage you to add additional pauses or silences throughout the reading for dramatic effect where appropriate.
Scripture Reading: Mark 14:32-34
Sung Response: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” (st. 1) PH 97, PsH 381, WR 272
Jesus: I knew the time was near, but I did not want to leave my disciples yet. There was so much they still needed to learn. I felt the weight upon my shoulders and closed my eyes to help me breathe. I asked the eleven who were still with me to join me. I took them to Gethsemane—a beautiful olive grove in the light, but it was getting dark now. I had brought them here so that I could ask my Father if this must be the way. When we arrived, I asked most of my disciples to wait for me. Taking with me only Peter, James, and John, I went further into the garden to pray.
Scripture Reading: Psalm 23:4
John: Peter, my brother James, and I had been invited to walk with Jesus further into the olive grove. I felt privileged to walk with him, yet I could tell his heart was troubled. I asked him what was bothering him but he held up his hand and said not a word. His head was bent and tears appeared to be forming on his cheeks. Suddenly we stopped. Jesus lifted his head and said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch while I pray.” Then Jesus walked a little farther, as Peter, James, and I sat together to wait. For a while we talked together and watched as Jesus prayed. His face was intense and sorrowful, his body was stooped over a rock as if a heavy weight rested upon him. We watched as the hour grew darker. My eyelids got heavy, and I shook my head to keep from sleeping. James and Peter had become very quiet; they too were fighting to stay awake. Jesus continued praying fervently—I could barely hear the words—for what seemed like a very long time. Try as I might to stay awake, my eyes closed, and I fell asleep.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:40-41
Sung Response: “Stay with Me” WR 286
Jesus: I prayed to the Lord for understanding. Did I really have to walk the path of a criminal? Was there no other way to fulfill Scripture? I needed to be sure that this was my Father’s plan. After praying for an hour, I returned to Peter, James, and John to find them sleeping. Why now, Father? I need comfort and support from my disciples and Satan lures them into sleep. “Simon,” I said, calling Peter by his given name. “Are you asleep?” His head jerked up, his eyes flew open at the sound of his name. I asked, “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” James and John sat up as well, hanging their heads in guilt and shame. My Father knew I needed support as I prepared for what was coming. Yet Satan was determined that I should walk this path alone. I laid my hand on Peter’s shoulder and gave the disciples these instructions: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I turned and headed back to pray some more. Maybe there was another way. Maybe . . . [Silence]
Scripture Reading: Psalm 143:10
Sung Response: “Stay with Me” WR 286
Jesus: Abba, Father! Everything is possible for you. Everything is possible—does it have to be now? Must I die like criminals and thieves? What will happen to these people when I leave them behind? [pause] Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will. [pause] Father, help me submit to your will. [pause]
My breathing became more labored, as if the cross were already resting on my back. My shoulders slumped and my head fell forward as I wept.
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 53:3
Sung Response: “Stay with Me” WR 286
Jesus: I returned from my prayers to find all three of my friends asleep again! Why, O Lord? Why must I walk alone? I closed my eyes in sorrow. They must have sensed my presence, for all three stirred awake. They said not a word, still ashamed of falling asleep. I turned and walked back to the place where I had been praying. I poured out my soul, praying to keep the tempter away from my disciples, praying for comfort as I walked this road. When I returned a third time to find them sleeping, I cried out bitterly in great disappointment, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Let us go! Here comes my betrayer.”
Scripture Reading: Mark 14:44-50
Sung Response: “Ah, Holy Jesus” (st. 1) PH 93, PsH 386, TH 248, WR 262
Peter: James, John, and I followed Jesus, still groggy from our sleep and ashamed of disappointing our Lord. Twice tonight, Jesus had spoken of a betrayer. Then he claimed that I would deny him three times! I would abandon him! After the events of this evening, I thought about those words. No! I must be strong and prevent this betrayer from taking my Lord away.
As we continued to follow Jesus through the garden, I saw a glimmer of light from torches and heard many voices. Men armed with clubs and swords, some temple guards and some local men, came into the garden—following Judas! Judas walked up to Jesus and bowed respectfully. “Rabbi,” he said and kissed him on the cheek, as was customary between rabbis and their disciples. Several of the armed men seized Jesus and began to bind him with cords.
No! They were not going to take my Lord here, not without a fight. The commotion had attracted people who were trickling into Jerusalem for the Passover. Several of these men and a few of us disciples pulled out our swords. I struck at the High Priest’s servant—the leader of the troops. My sword slashed through the air to cut off the servant’s ear. Then Jesus cried out, “Enough!” and I dropped my sword.
Jesus: Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.
Peter: The temple guards began to ready their weapons, anticipating the fight. The boldness I had felt moments earlier vanished. I turned and fled, afraid for my life. The other disciples and bystanders fled as well. Despite everything I had said, I left Jesus alone.
Scripture Reading: Luke 22:66-71
Sung Response: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” (st. 2) PH 97, PsH 381, WR 272
High Priest: I waited in the temple with the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. As the High Priest, I was worried about the outcome of the evening. I looked out into the courtyard and saw the guard leading a bound man back to the temple. We assembled and waited to question Jesus, this man whom the Pharisees claimed had blasphemed God. I feared that his capture might involve violence.
My servant was the first to arrive, out of breath, at the temple. He told me between gasps that one of Jesus’ followers had cut off his ear with a sword, but Jesus had touched his ear and healed it. He also said that Jesus’ disciples had fled. I wondered if he had been mistaken about the ear being cut off. But my servant is very reliable, so I took into consideration everything he had said to me as I left to join the council.
We listened to the testimony of the men the Pharisees had brought. One by one they told us what they’d heard Jesus say. Some claimed that he would destroy the temple; others claimed that he said it would be rebuilt, but not with human hands. Some claimed that he said he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
The testimonies varied wildly; they didn’t agree on anything. The law required us to have two witnesses before we could convict this man of a crime or wrongdoing. We could find no testimony to condemn this Jesus to death.
At this point, I stood up and silenced the crowd. I asked Jesus, “Do you have any reply to the accusations they bring against you?” But the man was oddly silent, neither protesting nor agreeing to the charges. So I asked him again, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?”
Jesus: You have said so. But you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.
High Priest: He admitted his blasphemy with his own lips! At that I tore my clothes and cried, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of the council agreed that he was deserving of death. Some of the chief priests spat on him. Others slapped him and said “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”
I went back inside to think. While I was sure that Jesus’ own words had condemned him and that he was deserving of death, under Roman law we could not kill him without the whole Roman army coming down upon us. We needed to take him to Pilate, the governor of Judah. Only Pilate could have him condemned to death. The guard would keep Jesus at the temple until morning. We simply could not let him blaspheme God. If only Pilate would see it that way!
Sung Response: “Ah, Holy Jesus” (st. 2) PH 93, PsH 386, TH 248, WR 262
Judas: It was a night I wish had never happened. Jesus was right when he said at dinner that his betrayer would wish he’d never been born. That’s exactly how I feel. I thought that Jesus and I were on the same page. That march to Jerusalem during Passover when there were over one hundred and sixty thousand Jews—we were starting the revolution, right? [pause] I knew that Jesus was not popular among the Sanhedrin, and a claim of kingship would bring the whole Roman army down upon us. But the Romans had slaughtered seven Galileans in the temple on top of their own sacrifices. No Jew could stand to watch this go by unpunished. All it needed was a little spark. Something that would get the Jews riled up enough to throw the Romans out of town. It seemed a simple plan.
All I had to do was identify Jesus to the temple guard that night. Simple—like any good disciple I’d kiss him upon the cheek. That was supposed to be the spark, but when the swords came out, Jesus rebuked them! He went with the guard peacefully. And the other disciples fled—cowards, all of them. But now Jesus has been handed over to the Romans; it is only a matter of time before he is put to death. What went wrong?
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 53:4-5
Sung Response: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (st. 2) CH 684, PH 404, PsH 493, WR 500
Pilate: I don’t know why the Jews brought this man Jesus to me. They told me that he claimed to be the king of the Jews—a title that had not been held by anyone in this land since Herod the Great. They claimed that his offense was a capital crime. When I asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” he replied cryptically: “You say that I am.” What did he mean by that? I did not say he was the king of the Jews. The chief priests accused him of many things, including heresy, which was not my place to judge. Yet still this man said nothing. He neither proclaimed his innocence nor shouted that he was the king, the chosen one. How could I condemn a man to death who said nothing?
I sent Jesus to Herod, who was in Jerusalem at that time. Jesus wouldn’t talk to Herod either. So I went back to the chief priests and told them, “I find no fault in this man.” The priests kept accusing him as crowds gathered to see what was happening. They claimed that he was a revolutionary, that he had encouraged people not to pay tribute to Caesar . . . on and on went the claims. The whole time this man stood there with his head bowed and said not a word. Such charges could not be left unpunished, but I did not see death as fitting.
Since it was tradition to release one prisoner during the Passover, I proposed to release Jesus of Nazareth. A voice spoke, barely audible over the noise of the crowd. “Not Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Barabbas. Release Barabbas!” What was this person thinking? Barabbas had killed a Roman citizen. He was the one deserving of death. But soon a chant arose among the crowd: “BARABBAS! BARABBAS!”
I feared a riot would break out soon no matter which one I released. I ordered the guards to be prepared. Then I stood before the crowd and asked, “What shall I do with the one you call the king of the Jews?” I saw the chief priests whispering to people in the crowd. Then a voice shouted out, “Crucify him!” Soon the whole crowd was crying, “CRUCIFY HIM!” I held up my hand for silence and asked, “What crime has he committed?” But they did not hear me. They kept shouting, “Crucify! Crucify!” To prevent a riot, I released Barabbas. I had Jesus of Nazareth flogged and handed him over to be crucified. Such injustice—dictated by a mob!
Scripture Reading: Mark 15:21-23
Sung Response: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (st. 1) CH 316, PH 98, PsH 383, RL 300, TH 247, WR 284
Simon: My name is Simon, and I come from the city of Cyrene. I was traveling into Jerusalem on a day I will never forget. Usually the whole road becomes a marketplace; all you can hear are the voices of vendors selling their wares. But that day I heard voices cheering, jeering, and taunting. So I went to see what was happening.
As I pushed through the crowd, I saw a man carrying a large wooden cross. A crown of thorns had been shoved onto his head. He was in pain, and he looked worn and defeated as he hung his head, sweat and blood running down his face. Two Roman soldiers prodded him forward, forcing him to carry a large heavy wooden cross upon his back. He was dragging the cross and sinking under its weight. The soldiers mocked him and poked him with the butts of their spears.
Just as he arrived at the place where I was standing, he stumbled and fell. The cross crashed to the ground. After a few efforts to get the man to pick up the instrument that would soon bring his death, the soldiers began scanning the crowd. I tried to look away—not me, I thought—don’t choose me. As one of the soldiers came over I held my breath, hoping he would go away. But he grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the road. “You. Pick up that cross and carry it,” he barked.
I leaned down and put my shoulder into the crux where the two boards met, lifting the heavy cross and stooping under its weight. As we walked down the road, I heard the man whisper in a dry, raspy voice, “God bless you, friend.” I turned my head to look at him, and saw blood trickling from the corner of his mouth where one of the soldiers must have struck him. I will never forget the look in the man’s eyes. What I saw in them was not defeat but grief. A strange yet beautiful grief, as if he were grieving for all of us rather than fearing his own death. I did not know this man, nor what he had done—but that look stirred my soul.
When we finally reached the top of the hill called Golgotha, the soldier ordered me to put the cross down and leave. But I knew I had to stay, even if it meant watching this man die. I had to know who he was.
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 53:7-8
Sung Response: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 1) CH 321/324, PH 100/101, PsH 384, SFL 166, TH 252, WR 261
John: One of the soldiers laid Jesus on the cross and held his arm firmly against the board. The other soldier set the nail upon his wrist and hit it with a large mallet. Every blow caused Jesus’ body to twist in pain. I could see tears flowing down his cheeks. Two other men were also being prepared for crucifixion, and their screams sent chills down my spine. The crowd kept taunting and chanting; one of the soldiers spat in Jesus’ face as the nails were being secured. As I turned my head away, I could see the man who had carried Jesus’ cross. He was standing there watching, wincing at the blows being struck. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off Jesus. Maybe he had found in those few minutes with Jesus what it had taken the rest of us years to see.
Above his head, the soldier nailed a sign that read “The King of the Jews.” Two soldiers lifted the cross roughly and carried it to a place on the hill where three holes had been dug. One of the criminals had been brought over earlier, and his cross had already been dropped into the first hole. The soldiers lined the cross up with the second hole, then lifted it up and dropped it in. I could hear Jesus gasp as the impact jarred his pain-wracked body.
A little way off, a few soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes. Part of me wished I could be with that group, so that I might save something of Jesus for myself. The crowd continued to taunt him, telling him to save himself. I found myself crying silently: Why, O Lord, why?
Scripture Reading: Luke 23:39-43
Sung Response: “Abide with Me” (st. 1) CH 642, PH 543, PsH 442, TH 402, WR 521
Jesus: My body hung forward, making each breath painful. My mouth was parched. I could hear the taunts of the crowd, and they stung. My Father loved these people so much that I was offering myself for them. I was dying to give life to those who were taunting me as well as to those who had followed me for years.
I could hear one of the men on the cross next to me trying to get enough breath to speak. Once he had filled his lungs with air, he hissed, “Aren’t you the Messiah?” He paused, pushing himself upward to get more breath. “Save yourself and us!” The other man lifted himself up to grab a breath and replied, “Don’t you fear God,” pausing as he gasped for more breath, “since you are under the same sentence?” He labored for more breath so that he could speak again. “We are punished justly.” Another gasp. “But this man has done nothing wrong.”
There was a long pause as he lifted himself up again to breathe his last words. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I pushed down on my feet to lift myself up for breath. I had to respond. “I tell you the truth,” I said, pausing for another breath, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:50-54
Sung Response: (choose one)
“Surely the Presence of the Lord” CH 219, WR 131
“Surely, Surely” SNT 115
Centurion: I had been assigned to watch the cross of this man they called Jesus of Nazareth, “Just in case he comes down,” they said. Jesus didn’t look like he was going anywhere. His head hung limp as he struggled for every breath. I had watched many crucifixions in my service with the Roman army, and no one had ever come down. This man did not seem any different.
As the time reached midday, dark clouds swiftly moved in, blotting out the sun and chilling the air. I pulled my cloak tighter. The wind began to blow, whistling as it whipped through. The crowd quieted, though some still taunted and jeered. Many people left, having had their fun. A small group of women, weeping and wailing, stood a short way from the cross.
Soon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” I do not understand the language of the Jews, but I heard some men standing nearby claim that he was calling for their prophet Elijah. I gripped my spear a bit tighter and waited to see what would happen. A man ran up with a sponge tied to a stick. The sponge was wet—almost dripping—with wine vinegar. I could smell the wine as he lifted up the stick. But the man on the cross, as parched as he was, did not drink.
Then I watched as Jesus pulled himself upright, struggling to fill his lungs with air. He cried out again in a loud voice. The ground began to tremble and shake violently, causing me to fall to my knees. I could feel the power in the air and knew that God must be with this man. Jesus’ head fell forward and his body went limp as he passed from this life. At that moment, I knew that the stories I had heard were true.
Surely this man was the son of God.