Jesus, failure?

Jesus, friend and Lord,
we limit you by our notions;
help us to go wherever your Spirit leads,
knowing that your power alone
keeps us on the road of faith
now and for ever. Amen.

2 Corinthians 12.2–10
Mark 6.1–13

When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (SCM Classics), Kindle ed’n, loc. 4577


Success is important, right?

The soccer World Cup is being held in Russia at the moment, and millions throughout the world have been feverishly wishing and praying for their team to win. 

It was heart-wrenching to see Australia dip out in the first round of the World Cup without winning a game, though I was happy to see England get into the quarter finals. Maybe one day they’ll learn how to play the game they invented. 

Success is rewarded. Failure, not so much.

Paul spent a lot of time reflecting on success and failure. He had many critics—it wasn’t all plain sailing for him. The critics said things like 

Paul’s letters are severe and strong, but when he is with us in person, he is weak, and his words are nothing! (2 Corinthians 10.10)

Paul’s critics boasted about their successes. They looked down on others they thought were not as spiritually mature as them. They included the Apostle Paul among that number. They boasted of their wonderful spiritual gifts and they would order other believers about. 

Paul had successes, but he didn’t boast about them. He could not boast and proclaim Christ crucified. In 1 Corinthians 2.2, he writes

while I was with you, I made up my mind to forget everything except Jesus Christ and especially his death on the cross.

That’s the Good News Bible, a slightly unmemorable reading; the New Revised Standard Version has

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

That wording is much more memorable, but I think the Revised English Bible is much more descriptive:

I resolved that while I was with you I would not claim to know anything but Jesus Christ—Christ nailed to the cross.

Paul had one message for the Corinthians: Christ crucified, Christ nailed to the cross. 

This message is incompatible with boasting, incompatible with gathering lots of money as a Christian worker, and incompatible with abuse or manipulation of any kind.

However, the message ‘Christ and him crucified’ can live with a lack of success. It can even live with failure.

Why this talk of success and failure?

For one thing, Jesus failed in our Gospel story today. Jesus fails at Nazareth. It’s the second time he’s been home in Mark’s Gospel; the first time was when his family came to restrain him because everyone was saying he’d gone mad.

Well, he’s back in Nazareth again.

He’s teaching in the synagogue this time, and at first he amazes them with his wisdom. But then they think, ‘Where did he get all this?’ 

They know who he is! He’s just a carpenter. He’s Mary’s son. That was an insulting way to put it. There is a whiff of scandal there. Normally, he would be named as the son of his father. Being called ‘Mary’s son’ shows that they doubted Joseph was the father. As far as they were concerned, Mary had been playing around. 

So, they soon had Jesus stuffed back into the box they’d had him in all his life. How dare he get ideas about himself?

And then the real kicker:

He was not able to perform any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. He was greatly surprised, because the people did not have faith.

Wow! Jesus couldn’t perform any miracles at Nazareth, apart from a few sick people. What kind of prophet is that?

Here, Jesus falls a long way. The Nazareth Courier-Mail would be headlining it Home Town Failure! Jesus strikes out in Nazareth!

According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus fails big time. You may want to object, Hey Paul, that can’t be right. Jesus can’t fail. If you did think that, you’ll be pleased to know that while Mark says Jesus pretty well bombs out, Matthew’s Gospel agrees with you.

You see, there is a version of this story in Matthew too. The Gospel According to Mark was written around the years 65–70. Around a decade or so later, Matthew’s Gospel was written. It used Mark as one of its sources, and it often changed what Mark had written. Perhaps Matthew changed what Mark wrote because he thought Mark was a bit harsh.

So when we come to Matthew’s version, we find that Jesus doesn’t fail at all. So where Mark says Jesus couldn’t do any miracles, Matthew writes

Because they did not have faith, he did not perform many miracles there.

There’s a world of difference between ‘could not’ and ‘did not’ do any miracles. 

Matthew also omits the part about Jesus being surprised at their lack of faith. Matthew won’t accept that Jesus experiences things like failure or surprise. It’s still hard for some of us to allow Jesus such humanity.

(What we’re seeing here is how different scriptures are often in a conversation with one another. The scriptures don’t always give us the answer; sometimes they get us to ask the right questions. Maybe we’ll talk about that more soon.)

Now, in ordinary, observable terms Jesus’ life ended in failure on the cross. The crowds and the religious leaders didn’t see him after the Friday. He appeared later only to those who believed, even if they doubted too.

But for most people, he died a failure. Remember we were talking about the Apostle Paul? No wonder Paul could say ‘the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost’. (1 Corinthians 1.18)

Among the Corinthians, Paul was determined to preach Christ crucified, Christ nailed to the cross.

Why is this so important? Let me offer three reasons.

The first and more important reason is that in dying as he did, Jesus could be identified with the lowest of the low. Death on a cross was degrading. The righteous One suffered this so that we, the unrighteous, may rise with him. This is the ground of our salvation.

One day our body will fail us for the last time, just as our brother Bob’s did last Monday. But in Christ, failure is not the last word. The last word is resurrection in and with the Lord Jesus Christ, who became one with us even to death so that we could become one with him in eternal life.

The second reason is that we have solid ground on which to resist the sweet talking of those who would promise wealth or health through faith. 

Paul’s opponents in Corinth made such boastful promises; Paul refused to boast. When he had to boast in order to combat his opponents, he refused to boast of anything except those things that would show his weakness. He was taken up into the third heaven, but he wasn’t sure if it was real or if it was a vision. And anyway, he couldn’t share what he heard there with you and me.

And when he was in trouble in Damascus, Paul didn’t escape by any clever feat of derring-do; he was secretly let down the outside of the city wall at night while hidden in a basket.

He refused to boast, because it was in his weakness that he shared the sufferings of Christ, and looked forward to a risen life with him.

The third reason is that we learn more from failure than from success, if we examine ourselves. We can learn by getting up again after we fall. 

Once, when an abbott was asked what about life in the monastery, he answered this way: ‘We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.’

If you look again at Mark 6, you’ll see that Jesus got up after the failure of Nazareth. He commissions the twelve disciples, saying:

Wherever you are welcomed, stay in the same house until you leave that place. If you come to a town where people do not welcome you or will not listen to you, leave it and shake the dust off your feet. 

I wonder if Jesus learnt from what happened at Nazareth?—‘If you come to a town where people do not welcome you or will not listen to you, leave it and shake the dust off your feet.’

We can learn from failure too. If something doesn’t work, we can change our approach. We can get up after we fall down.

You know, I’m as fond of success as the next bloke. Maybe England will win the World Cup, maybe they’ll lose. Who knows? The thing is though, success doesn’t necessarily lead us to depend on Jesus, or to become more like Jesus. And that’s the really important thing in life.

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