Faith is messy. I do not think that there is anyone here this morning who would disagree with that simple statement. I think that this morning’s scripture reading demonstrates how messy faith can be.
It is always a difficult decision for pastors when it comes to what one should preach on the last Sunday of the season of Lent. The lectionary always gives two choices—Palm Sunday or the Passion. Palm Sunday is always a “pick ‘em upper” passage highlighting all the pomp and circumstance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. It is a hopeful, joyful story that makes everyone feel good. There are a whole lot of “hosannas” being shouted . . . that is a joyful word! The Passion—on the other hand—is not a story filled with hope and joy . . . it is a “downer” story. It is the opposite of Palm Sunday as it delves into the dark side of the story . . . the dark side of the gospel. Its focus is on the betrayal, arrest, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus. This is not a “feel good” story.
Yet here we are . . . the last Sunday of the season of Lent . . . the end is near . . . and, both stories are vital to the faith of those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. So, what is a pastor to do?
Well, in my experience most pastors are going to go with the Palm Sunday reading and emphasis . . . after the long season of Lent, folks could use a little sunshine . . . a little “good news” . . . in all of this darkness. It keeps the people happy. It is the easy way out and all the folks have to do is to look forward to Easter Sunday in all of its glory and splendor. Typically that would be my choice too; but not this year. This season has been a long one for many of us and I don’t think I can just jump over the dark side of the story and call it good. It just doesn’t feel as if it brings to conclusion all of this hard work we have put into the journey of Lent. There is a lesson to be learned from the Passion . . . from the dark side. As nasty as the story is . . . there is hope to be grasped in that which we would prefer to ignore. We shouldn’t ignore it if we are going to understand our own faith and hope as followers of Jesus.
Basically our reading this morning is the whole story . . . from start to finish . . . of what happens to Jesus on that last fateful night. From sharing a last meal with the disciples to the prayer in the garden . . . from the betrayal and arrest to the run around with the power brokers—the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate . . . the beatings to being nailed on a cross . . . to the forgiveness doled out in the last breath. It is all there . . . the whole story in all of its gruesome detail. We really cannot get from Palm Sunday to Easter without trudging through the Passion.
In the story I want us to focus on the behavior of those involved in the story. There are the disciples with Jesus sharing a meal. Everything seems to be good, but there is Jesus hinting that things are about to change . . . to change drastically; but the disciples—in their celebratory mood, their party mood—are certain that no matter what happens they will never waver in their faith. Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him . . . they all deny it except for Judas. In fact, Peter sears that he would never abandon Jesus . . . Jesus tells Peter that it won’t be once, but three times that he will deny him . . . and, it all comes to be.
Here are the pillars of the faith in the early church . . . the founding patriarchs. These are the guys we hold up as the models of faith . . . especially Peter—the Rock—upon who Jesus says the church will be built. They all fail . . . they all blow it . . . these cornerstones of the faith.
In the garden where Jesus goes to pray . . . he asks several of the disciples to stay with him as he prays. Asks them to stand watch over him as he prays. They fall asleep. They fail Jesus again.
Then Judas arrives . . . plants a kiss—a sign of affection and love—on the cheek of Jesus. A kiss that becomes a sign of betrayal. Jesus is arrested. Judas knows that he has done wrong . . . runs off . . . commits suicide. He has failed Jesus.
Through the whole mess called a trial, Jesus is betrayed over and over again. He is betrayed by the religious leaders who fear that he is who he says he is . . . . they fear Jesus and what he represents—the hope of the people, but they push onward to have him eliminated. Pilate knows an innocent person when he sees one, but defers to the people despite his misgivings. He defers to the people so that they might satisfy their blood lust. Through it all, Jesus is betrayed.
Over and over again in this story we witness good and faithful people—caught up in the moment—dropping like flies as they betray and abandon the one they claim to follow. People with good hearts and intentions who call away and leave Jesus to fend on his own. Believers . . . people just like you and me. These were the followers of Jesus . . . the faithful . . . and, even they fail Jesus.
I was struck by the behavior of those individuals in the story who we, the faithful, hold up as the pillars of faith and the church. And, they all blow it. Yet, here we are over two thousand years later—the church—the body of Christ—the followers of Jesus still plugging away at it all. Plugging away and hoping to establish God’s kingdom here on earth. There is hope . . . hope for us in this story.
Those disciples who blew it . . . the all come through in the end dying as martyrs of the faith. Peter . . . well, he gets his act together and the church is born. Those who witnessed it all . . . who betrayed Jesus despite their faith . . . in the end, they came through too. Our presence here this morning is a witness to this fact . . . despite their failure in the moment, God still worked through them . . . and, God will work through us, too.
The point is that no matter how faithful we think we are, we are no different than those who came before us. We are no different than Jesus’ original disciples or followers. We are just as fragile as they were . . . faith is hard . . . faith is messy. We are going to fail from time to time . . . by the words we speak or don’t speak . . . by the actions we take or don’t take . . . by omission . . . by denial. We are going to fail because faith is hard and it is messy. Yet, there is hope.
In our brokenness we find wholeness. In our weakness we find strength. In our sin we find forgiveness. In our hope we seek God’s kingdom. The story does not end with Jesus hanging on a cross dead. No, it does not end there . . . there is the resurrection. There is hope . . . out of failure comes victory. All those who failed Jesus that fateful night succeeded in the end despite their failure . . . and, so shall we. That is the glory of the Easter story . . . but first we have to get there.
This reading reminds us that we have a God of grace who works through our messy faith to love us . . . and, accept us . . . for who we are created to be. That includes our weaknesses and failures. We are going to fail God, Jesus, and ourselves in the journey of faith for we are no different than those who came before us. Yet, God will continue to work through us. Despite faith being messy, there is always hope. May God bless you in this final week of Lent . . . may you find hope in the struggle. Faith is messy, but God loves us any way . . . and, more importantly, God believes in us. Amen.