Failure and Faithfulness

Sunday, August 11, 2019
Pastor Megan Torgerson

John 18:15-27 

We usually hear this passage during Holy Week, as the church returns to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and death.  That story is so full of pain and brokenness that we can barely absorb it all.  I feel like every time I hear the stories leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, I always hear something surprising.  Certain details stand out to me, and the story of Jesus and his willing sacrifice for us becomes new to me all over again.

But there is one part of story that cuts me like a knife every single time, exposing all my failings and fears in one brief narrative.  It’s the story we read just now, the story of Peter denying that not only did he ever follow Jesus, but he never even knew him, wasn’t even near him.  This story is so important to the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death that we hear it in each gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Then we hear the Biblical story continue into the book of Acts.  Acts is basically the sequel to the gospel of Luke, the story of what happens after Jesus dies and rises again and ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples and earliest followers to figure out what it means to be church together.   The gospel stories all lead to the book of Acts.

And what a surprise we find right there in the first chapter of Acts.  The first named person quoted in Acts outside of Jesus himself is Peter.  Peter, the same Peter who lied and said he didn’t even know Jesus, who fully denied that he followed and loved Jesus his teacher.  Peter is the one who gets up and helps the rest of the disciples fill the spot in their ranks emptied by Judas’ death – Judas, the one who was paid to betray his own teacher by turning Jesus in to the authorities.  But no one mentions that Peter himself renounced his faith and fellowship.  They just let Peter do his thing.  Peter goes on to become a major voice of the early Christian faith.  The church today even thinks of him as the first Pope, the first leader and head, the first and greatest of the apostles.

So what happened there?  Why does he just get to come right back?  There’s no trial employment, no waiting period, no “you can come back but only if” – he’s just right there.  How can a liar, deserter, and faithless man be any kind of model for us if what we’re supposed to be doing for these weeks in August is learning from Biblical characters about how to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus?

Christian writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans died this past spring.  As news outlets tried to accurately eulogize this woman of faith who nearly lost her faith, who chose to leave the evangelical church of her youth to find a place in the Episcopalian church, all the while questioning everything she always thought she knew, I kept hearing one line from these news agencies from Rachel’s own lips.  Rachel would often tell a story from the Bible, but before she talked about what it meant, she would say: “On the days that I believe this story…”

You see, Rachel Held Evans didn’t pretend she always got it.  This best-selling Christian author and woman of faith didn’t pretend she knew the right answers.  She couldn’t even earnestly maintain her faith from day to day.  Some days were hard.  Some days were confusing.  Some days she just felt tired and faith just felt like work.  She knew the stories, and on the days when she believed them, they gave her the hope and challenge she needed to live out her discipleship of Christ, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

But some days, she didn’t believe it.  I don’t care if you follow the theology that faith is an act of the Holy Spirit in our hearts or a choice made by human will, because it didn’t matter.  Some days, she just didn’t believe it.

But praise God, that was never the end of the story.  Because the story would continue the next day, as Rachel got up and did it all again.  The stories spoke to her heart, the Spirit moved through her soul, faith was hers and it gave her life.  And she continued to lead in faith, speaking words of truth and love to believers and non-believers alike until the day she entered the coma that led to her death.

I praise God that Peter’s denial wasn’t the end of his story.  If it were, the story would be: your worst day is the only day that matters.  Your work for the church of Christ and your place in God’s kingdom of heaven would be determined only by the time you said, “You know, I just don’t think I can do this.  I quit.”  Your questions would be all the evidence needed to disqualify you.  Your selfishness or frustration or depression or exhaustion – whatever it was that led you to turn away, to deny your faith, to swear that you don’t even believe this stuff – that’s it.  That’s the end.  Your discipleship ends and never restarts.  You can’t quit – you’re fired.

Whenever I hear Peter’s story, it cuts me deep because I know I deny Jesus.  I do it all the time.  On the days when I believe his story, I know just how very close I always am to losing it – my hope, my trust, my love, my faith.  On the days when I believe his story, Peter reminds me that I will fall and fail – we all will fall and fail – but the story does not end here.  God does not stop seeking us out.  God does not love us based only on our willingness to love God back.  God stands always ready, always welcoming, always loving, always willing.  I will never, ever stop hearing Peter’s story with equal measures of fear and hope, because his story is my story, and your story, the story of a God who does not give up on us even when we give up on God.

This is what it means to be a disciple.  To keep following, even if we didn’t yesterday, or last year, or for a whole lifetime before.  It means that today is a new day, a day of grace, a day where Jesus will always welcome us to his side to walk with him and learn from him and love like him.  Today, I believe this story.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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