Following a Glorified Failure


Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“…in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20.

Sunday’s gospel lesson makes abundantly clear who the church is to acknowledge as its sole monarch. It was the one put to death under Roman law for sedition. It was the one religious leaders and moral authorities rejected as lawless and immoral. It was the one ridiculed even by his fellow death row inmates. This man hanging on an implement of ruthless torture is the one in whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created…,” the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” His life is the template for his disciples. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” says Jesus. “And where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:27. As our gospel graphically illustrates, “carrying the cross” is not a metaphor.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has observed that the church is a people whose lives make sense only in light of Jesus’ resurrection. It does not make much sense for young people, who could be doing far more entertaining things, to be walking the beaches of Cape Cod in the pouring rain picking up plastic bottles-even as tons of unregulated materials and waste are daily pumped into our oceans, thereby eclipsing whatever modest gains these hapless volunteers make. It does not make much sense for a young person to spend the best years of her life in a refugee camp where she can offer little to nothing other than bare subsistence for people who have little to no hope of a better life. It makes no sense and (as I have often been told) it is futile, hopelessly naïve and morally irresponsible to confront hostile armies, dangerous criminals and terrorists with nothing more than love, prayers and acts of kindness. None of this makes any sense-unless you believe that God raised Jesus from death. In that case, all of this makes perfect sense.

As Americans, we have been infused with a “can do” mentality and confidence that success is always within reach. That isn’t all bad. A lot of problems are easily fixable. Some are more complex requiring thought, research and a careful, patient trial and error approach to finding solutions. Others appear to have no solution, but that does not justify giving up the search for one. There is no virtue in cynicism and weak resignation. But there are limits to what human initiative, knowledge and technology can do (ask any hospice worker about that!). In a culture where success is the measure of happiness, self esteem and the significance of one’s life, that is a bitter pill to swallow.

The gentle, just and peaceful reign of God comes on God’s own time and in God’s own way. Like love, you can’t hurry it. “You just have to wait.”[1] But the waiting to which Jesus calls us is not passive. Between now and the end when God is all in all, there is work to be done. Truth must be spoken boldly to power. Resistance must be made to the tyrannical overreach of the “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” and the systemic injustice sustaining them must be exposed and dismantled. Disciples must create communities in which the mind of Christ can be formed in order that the Body of Christ may become visible to the world. For followers of Jesus, the reign of God is not merely a future hope, but a present reality in which they live, however imperfectly, in the midst of hostile foreign occupation.

The toughest lesson to be learned when following Jesus is that his way does not bring the most efficient, cost effective or successful results. Faithfulness sometimes means sacrificing golden opportunities for success. Nobody knew that better than Jesus, who was offered the glory and authority of the world’s kingdoms. Luke 4:4-8. Putting aside for the moment the fact that this offer came from the lips of the devil, it certainly has its appeal for pragmatic realists like us. Think of all you could accomplish with power like that: universal health care, mandatory living wage, quality education for all, affordable housing in every community, world disarmament-and the list goes on.

There is, however, a hidden moral and spiritual cost the devil is concealing. The exercise of political power requires compromise. In order to get your education bill passed, you might have to let the civil rights bill die in committee. If both bills are unpopular and it happens to be an election year, you might have to let both die. After all, you can’t do any good in the halls of power if you can’t get re-elected. Moreover, behind all political authority is the raw power of violent coercion. If you would hold the authority of nations, you must be prepared to use it. If persuasion, rule of law and threats fail, the use of force cannot be ruled out. You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs-or so the saying goes. None of that squares with what Jesus teaches us.[2] But you have to decide whether you want merely to be good or get good things done. Our culture values the latter. Jesus calls us to the former.

“I just want to make a difference.” That is the reason commonly given by those of us who go into careers like medicine, social work, law, policing and, yes, ministry. It is a noble sentiment. It clearly sets us apart from those whose only ambitions are wealth and power. But it also sets us up for temptation. What happens when making a difference requires sacrificing personal integrity? What happens when doing the “right thing” doesn’t get results? Is tampering with evidence such a great evil when you know that doing so will take a dangerous person off the street? Is bending the truth a little bit so very wrong if it will win enough popular support for a piece of legislation benefiting the most vulnerable among us? Is it so wrong for national church leaders or even parish pastors to temper their welcome to LGBTQ+ folk in the interest of preserving church unity and support for all of the important ministries that might suffer from substantial membership loss? What is the price we are prepared to pay in order to “make a difference?”

The life of Jesus is a classic example of one that didn’t make a difference. Jesus was misunderstood, betrayed, denied and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by the leaders of his people. He died the death of a criminal. And nothing changed. Roman tyranny still held sway over Judea. The religious status quo remained unshaken. The poor were still poor, the sick still sick and the outcasts outcasts still. Jesus is Exhibit A for the proposition that “nice guys finish last.” His story illustrates what happens when you let your ideals get the better of you; when let your moral scruples get in the way practical necessity; when you fail to put the ends ahead of the means. The way of Jesus doesn’t work against bad guys with guns. The way of Jesus doesn’t work in the halls of congress. The way of Jesus doesn’t work in the commercial market place. The way of Jesus doesn’t work for running ecclesiastical institutions. Jesus is the last one you should emulate if your highest objective is “making a difference.” Nothing Jesus did or said during his lifetime “made a difference.”

But here’s the thing. Jesus is the one God raised from death. Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation.” In Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Through Jesus “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” We would have preferred that God had raised General Patton, Steve Jobs, Franklin D. Roosevelt or somebody whose life made a real historical difference. That would have confirmed everything we believe about power, glory and success. But by raising Jesus, God turns our understanding of all these things on their head. Jesus’ way, spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain and put into practice throughout his faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection is the way for his disciples as well. It is not for us worry about making a difference. Ours is to choose obedience even when it invites hostility, bypasses every prospect of success and ends in failure. Ours is to live faithfully as Jesus lived and, with our last breath, to say “into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” It is for God to gather up the imperfect offering of our obedience and make of it something beautiful, something that matters, something that makes a difference.

Here is a poem by Ha Jin reflecting the spirit of inner confidence that I believe disciples cultivate as the mind of Christ is formed in them.  

A Center

You must hold your quiet center,

where you do what only you can do.

If others call you a maniac or a fool,

just let them wag their tongues. 

If some praise your perseverance, 

don’t feel too happy about it—

only solitude is a lasting friend.

You must hold your distant center.

Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake. 

If others think you are insignificant,

that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.

As long as you stay put year after year,

eventually you will find a world

beginning to revolve around you. 

Source: A Distant Center, (c. 2018 by Ha Jin; pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Ha Jin is the pen name of Chinese American poet, Jin Xuefei (b. 1956). He was born in Liaoning, China. His father was a military officer. At thirteen, Jin joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. Jin began to educate himself in Chinese literature and high school curriculum at sixteen. He left the army when he was nineteen and entered Heilongjiang University. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in English studies. This was followed by a master’s degree in Anglo-American literature at Shandong University. Jin was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre occurred. This tragic event hastened his decision to emigrate to the United States. He eventually obtained a Ph.D. You can read more about Ha Jin and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] You Can’t Hurry Love, Diana Ross and the Supremes, 1966.

[2] I have been asked whether, in view of these observations, I believe that disciples of Jesus can enter faithfully into a political career. My response is a qualified “yes.” There is nothing wrong with seeking elected office in an effort to advance the public good. Yet while a Christian can in good conscience be a politician, s/he might not be a very successful one. For one thing, national priorities are often at odds with the priorities of God’s reign. Secondly, the way to which Jesus calls his disciples inevitably collides with morally repugnant practicalities one must often accept for political success. Does that mean political involvement for Christians is futile? Not if witness rather than success is the objective. Many people have run for political office with no realistic prospect of being elected. Many elected leaders have put forward proposals that had no realistic prospect of becoming law. Still, they brought into the realm of public discussion important issues that, in some cases, changed the course of public deliberations, helped to shape future legislation for the better and paved the way for election of subsequent candidates that might not otherwise have been considered.

1 thought on “Following a Glorified Failure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s