The journey through Holy Week and beyond helps us with our unbelief.
The disciples had been through a lot with Jesus; they’d seen multitudes fed, demons rebuked, people healed, and the dead brought back to life. There was still confusion in their minds about who Jesus really was, but some were starting to believe he just might be the Messiah. His teachings were profound at times, confusing at other times as he loved to speak in parables – requiring them to think deeply about what meaning was behind his words and stories. They knew they were headed toward Jerusalem, but they seemed to believe it was for a different purpose than Jesus told them. Three times, he told them what he was going to face. Here is the third passage:
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:17-19 NRSV)
Could he have been any clearer? And yet, the Bible tells us the disciples responded in different ways. Matthew tells us that Peter initially rebuked him; in another place we read they were distressed; in still another we read they did not understand what he was saying. Is it so much they didn’t understand the words he was saying, or was it they simply refused to believe what he was saying could be true? We can only speculate what was in their hearts, but being human like they were, I can easily see their refusal to believe that Jesus was going to die in such a manner. After all, he was just getting started. They believed in him, yet they dealt with unbelief.
The triumphal entry
They reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives and Jesus instructed two of his disciples to go get a specific donkey colt. He told them they would see the colt immediately after entering the village. He even told them what to say to the owner of the colt. We can only imagine what was on their minds. How did he know the colt would be there? How did he know how the owner would respond? What was going on here?
You know the story:
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:6-9 NRSV)
This reception was nothing like Jesus had prophesied. Perhaps he was wrong; perhaps he wouldn’t be arrested. Perhaps he was the king they wanted him to be. It was odd that he rode a colt instead of a stallion, but his reception must have been reassuring. It was a great moment – until they reached Jerusalem. First the crowd wonders, “Who is this?” Then Jesus clears out the temple and chastises the merchants. His authority is questioned, he denounces the scribes and Pharisees, and he cries over Jerusalem saying:
“For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:39 NRSV)
Didn’t they just say those very words as he began his descent into Jerusalem? Some did; we just read that passage. But the citizens of Jerusalem didn’t make that proclamation. No, Jerusalem, as Jesus described, “is the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” (Matthew 23:37 NRSV)
By now the disciples’ emotions must be reeling. They wanted to believe, they needed to believe, yet there were questions as they still dealt with unbelief.
The Lord’s Supper – Holy Thursday
We come to what is now called the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion and Lord’s Supper). Here Jesus demonstrated servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet. He demonstrated mercy and grace by washing Judas’ feet. He introduced the elements of bread and wine as representing his body and his blood of the covenant, “which is poured out for you.” He told us to eat and drink “in remembrance of him” – so that we would always remember his identity, his relationship, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his sacrifice, his dedication, his willingness to become our sin so that we could be gifted his righteousness.
He again tells the disciples he must go away, but he would not leave them alone. He tells them about the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – the Spirit of truth – who would always be with them (us). He gave them a new commandment – to love one another – just as he loved them. He prayed on their behalf and talked of their communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He told them they don’t belong to the world, and because of this, the world would hate them. He told them they would be persecuted, but they were to continue to testify about him. He told them they would be full of sorrow, but then their sorrow would turn to joy. Then he prayed for them.
Questions arose. We know of two specific questions: Thomas wanted to know how to follow Jesus if they didn’t know the way. Jesus said, “I am the way.” Philip said, “show us the Father,” Jesus answered, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Do you believe those answers were satisfactory? I rather doubt it. I’m guessing they raised more questions. Lord, we believe, but please, please help our unbelief.
Jesus and the disciples leave the Upper Room and head to Gethsemane – a beautiful garden full of olive trees – where Jesus loved to pray. Here Jesus pours his heart out to the Father and says the words we aspire to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” A large weaponized crowd arrives from the chief priests and elders, Peter cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, Jesus heals the man, the leaders arrest Jesus and take him to Caiaphas, the disciples flee, Jesus is beaten and mocked and placed in a prisoner’s dungeon below Caiaphas’ house. Has the disciples’ unbelief started to weigh more heavily than their belief?
The next morning Jesus is shuffled between Pilate and Herod. Pilate keeps asking Jesus if he was the king of the Jews. Jesus simply said, “You say so.” The crowds screamed, “Crucify him; crucify him.” Pilate washes his hands and turns Jesus over to be mocked, spat upon, beaten and adorned with a crown of thrones before being led to the cross.
Jesus makes seven statements from the cross (see our suggested Good Friday service), then he surrenders his spirit and dies. He is buried by Nicodemus and Joseph, and the grave site is covered with a large stone and sealed. At this point, you can imagine the disciples’ belief is at an all-time low. They certainly saw nothing good about this Friday. Their hope was gone. Their dreams were dashed. The one they thought was the Messiah to relieve them from Roman rule is dead. What to believe? “Lord, help our belief and our unbelief. We feel anything but good.”
The day is good because of what it represents – forgiveness, inclusion, redemption, reconciliation, salvation, newness of life.
There is not much mention of this day in Scripture. You can safely assume it was a day of mourning for the disciples. It was a day of wondering what happened – what did we just witness? Where do we go from here? It was some time before the church looked at Holy Saturday as a day of recommitment. It was a day of rejoicing – knowing Jesus destroyed the power of death and helped us see death as a part of our journey with him that leads to spending eternity with the triune God. Looking back, Holy Saturday reminds us that even when things look bad, we know Jesus is alive and present with us. When hope seems lost, we stand up because we know the author of hope. Holy Saturday helps us; but it was a day of incredible unbelief for the disciples.
The women go to the tomb and everything changes.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:2-10 NRSV)
Grief turns to joy – He is risen! The disciples want to believe. A couple of them run to the tomb to confirm it is empty. Other disciples encounter Jesus on the way to Emmaus. Jesus appears and many believe, but Thomas is not with them. He still has unbelief. Jesus appears again and tells Thomas, “Touch me, see that I am real.” Thomas is the first to proclaim Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus meets the disciples at Galilee and commissions them. Matthew said:
When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. (Matthew 28:17 NRSV)
In John’s gospel we read that even after seeing the resurrected Jesus, some of the disciples went back to fishing. We don’t know all the story. Perhaps they were tired of waiting for Jesus to do something; perhaps they were still a bit discouraged simply because they didn’t know what it all meant; perhaps they were all dealing with the guilt of deserting Jesus; perhaps they wondered if they were still needed. They believed; but they struggled with their unbelief.
Again, Jesus shows up, gives them a bountiful haul of fish, restores Peter, and tells them to wait in Jerusalem.
Let’s read the rest of the Matthew passage:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV)
Over a span of forty days Jesus spent time with the disciples and spoke about the kingdom of God. He then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the “promise of the Father.” Then they watched him ascend. And they believed. Much of their unbelief had passed.
We know the rest of the story. We know what happened at Pentecost. We have the Acts of the Apostles telling us the story of the early church. We have nearly 2,000 years of history showing us how the words of Jesus have come to pass – over and over again. Yet we still struggle with unbelief.
Jesus, do you really have all power and authority over heaven and earth? Then why is this happening?
Jesus, am I really forgiven, redeemed and reconciled? Then why do I feel shame and guilt?
Jesus, are you really with me always, to the end of the age? Then why do I feel so lost, so lonely?
Jesus, are you really going to return? When?
God knows we struggle with unbelief. He knows we get caught up in the cares of the world. He knows we get consumed with worry over family and friends, work and the economy, wars and terrorism. He knows we believe, and he knows we struggle with unbelief. And that’s why it is vital for us to remember that Jesus is the center of the center. That’s why it is so important to focus on the worship calendar – because it keeps us focused on Jesus. It reminds us that he was promised, he did come, he did go to the wilderness and defeat the enemy, he did heal people, he did cast out demons, he did descend into Jerusalem, he was arrested and tortured and crucified, he did rise from the dead, and he did ascend to the Father. That’s why Holy Week is so important for us to focus on.
Paul tells us if we don’t have the resurrection, we have nothing. If Jesus is still in the grave, we have no hope. But he is alive. He is in us. He has forgiven us because he loves us. He has adopted us into the communion he shares with the Father and Holy Spirit. He is leading us toward healthy church. He is reminding us we’ve been called to reach out to others and love them just as he loves us – the Love Avenue. He is telling us to make disciples – the Faith Avenue. He reminds us that he has all power and authority, so we need fear nothing, so we worship – the Hope Avenue. And
he comforts us by telling us we are never alone.
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.