3 Easter C—4/10/16
Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Pr. Scott Kramer
This past Thursday Elon Musk announced that after only one week over 325,000 pre-orders had been made for the much-anticipated Model 3. Elon Musk is CEO of American electric carmaker Tesla Motors, and the Model 3 is the company’s first vehicle priced under $40,000. Elon Musk was co-founder of Paypal and SolarCity and is currently CEO of SpaceX, the company that a couple of days ago successfully landed a reusable supply rocket for the International Space Station. The life of Elon Musk is what many people would call an unqualified success story.
On this Third Sunday of Easter we hear again the story of Saul, who soon would be known as the Apostle Paul. Saul was the very picture of success. He was highly-educated, wealthy, well-respected and very powerful. He knew what he believed and there was nothing that could convince him to change, which is what worldly success often does: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On top of that, he believed he was doing God’s will. If you can dress up self-interest, or even sincerity, with religious justification you have it made—you don’t have to change at all! Only the experience of a lightning bolt, a voice from heaven, and temporary blindness were able to get Paul’s attention. Only then could he see the scope of his failure.
Peter the fisherman lived in a world very different from Paul’s. He was a regular blue-collar fisherman. All the same, he was probably successful in his trade. We know that he was self-assured and confident in his beliefs. But we also know that Peter had failed to understand who Jesus was. He had failed to stand up for Jesus, and in fact denied him three times when his life was on the line. He had failed to believe in the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Peter experienced no lightning bolt, no voice from heaven, and no physical blindness but like Paul he eventually discovered in devastating fashion the scope of his own failure.
Success, of course, and not failure, is what we naturally strive for. So it was interesting this past week to read in the business section a quote from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, a man who by most any measure is an unqualified success: One area where I think we [at Amazon] are especially distinctive is failure…I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!) and failure and invention are inseparable twins.
Bezos’ point is that there can be no success without risk and frequent, repeated failure. He’s not the first to say that but his comment may be worth taking to heart. What if churches—not Amazon!–were known as the best places in the world to fail? What if we were known as safe places for ordinary people to take risks in sharing our personal stories of loss, grief, pain and failure? What if we were known as places where each of us can be who we really are, warts and all, and not some sanitized picture of success that we need to believe, and need other people to believe?
Jesus’ life by most worldly standards was an unqualified failure. And yet, sometimes we in Christ’s church leave the impression that following Jesus is the path to success! It’s not just TV evangelists who believe that if you follow Jesus you will be healthy, wealthy and successful. “Follow Jesus and you will be rewarded in this life—or at least, you’ll be rewarded with heaven in the life to come.” Before we know it we’ve made faith in Jesus into a life insurance policy, and our religious beliefs become little more than an exercise in self-righteousness, self-preservation and self-interest.
But spend a little time with the stories of our faith and you may find that they aren’t really so much about success. In fact, God seems to enjoy hanging out with failures! Doesn’t sound like much of a marketing pitch, does it? “We welcome failures!”
And yet, it is precisely our failures that open the door to God’s saving power and amazing grace. If we’re self-sufficient and in control, who needs God? Another way to say it, especially during this season of Easter: Only through the cross is resurrection possible.
We the people of God really are in the best place in the world to fail. Unconditionally loved and forgiven, we don’t have to pin our hope or sense of self-worth on being successful–or even on being good. God seems to have a preference for sinners, for failures—like Peter, like Paul—because only our failure can make room for God’s infinitely greater power.
But anyone with a bit of self-awareness knows that the burden of failure can feel overwhelming. How can we bear our failures? What do you think? How could Paul bear the realization of his failure? How could Peter come to terms with his failure as a friend and as a disciple of Jesus? Well, the same way we do. Only in the company of other broken lives, only in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ who remind us, who assure us–with a word of peace, a word of forgiveness, a gesture of hope, a life of love.
Here in this place successful people might, like Paul, discover their deep need for God, and maybe even a new direction and new priorities for their lives. Here successful people might find a safe place to discover and acknowledge their spiritual poverty and reliance on worldly measures of success for their sense of meaning and self-worth.
But this is not just a place for successful people to find God. Here in this place people who are burdened, like Peter, with an acute sense of their own failure might find a safe place. Burdened by guilt or shame or fear they might find a sanctuary, a refuge, and know that they are beloved.
What if churches were known as the best places in the world to fail? Not “Amazon Grace,” but “Amazing Grace!”
“Follow me,” Jesus says as the final word in today’s gospel reading. We do so boldly, even while anticipating our failure to follow. Here in Christ’s church we dare to speak of sin. We dare to speak of failure. We also dare to speak of forgiveness, and the good news that our deep experience of failure can be occasions for God’s amazing grace.