Faithful discipleship comes through failure and struggle, through the life that emerges from them to bless you and the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday in Lent, year B
Texts: Mark 8:31-38; Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You are going to fail as a disciple if you try to be one. That’s certain.
You’re going to struggle to be faithful if you try. Count on that. And it’s the only way you’ll grow as a disciple, and find faithfulness.
Peter’s failures are necessary to him becoming the child of God, the disciple, he is meant to be. When Peter resists Jesus’ path of the cross today, he unknowingly takes up his own cross right then. That suffering he endures today helps him deepen in faith and learn to follow faithfully.
This is the mystery to grasp. Jesus says today that being a faithful disciple is about losing, about letting go. But losing means losing. Messing up. Making mistakes trying to be faithful. And Jesus says this is what you truly need in order to follow.
When Mark wrote his Gospel, Peter was a revered martyr, crucified like Jesus.
When Paul wrote to his Romans, Abraham was millennia into being the beloved head of God’s family. But both Abraham and Peter didn’t start there.
Paul says today Abraham never wavered in his trust of God. But Paul knew Abraham wavered plenty. Promised at age 75 that he’d have a child, a child not born until he was 100, Abraham had lots of doubt and struggle. Thinking God seemed to have forgotten the promise, Abraham sleeps with Hagar and fathers his beloved son Ishmael. Beloved, but not the promised child. Abraham struggled to trust God in Egypt, and when asked to sacrifice Isaac.
Mark painfully shows all of Peter’s failings in his story, though he’s writing to people who hold Peter in awe. After this debacle, called Satan by his beloved Jesus, Peter still has his collapse on Maundy Thursday and denial of Jesus to look forward to.
Paul and Mark take two different ways to say the same thing: these heroes, these models of faithfulness, got there through struggle and failure.
This is hard to grasp. We’d rather avoid failing as much as we can.
You probably weren’t sent out by a parent or teacher with the words, “Go ahead and mess up today.” As for your faith, you probably heard “trust always, be a good follower, you’re called to be like Jesus.”
But Jesus had to fail to become who he was meant to be. He is God-with-us, yes, but Jesus is also a true human being who was tortured, beaten, spit upon, and brutally nailed to a wooden rack for all to witness. Jesus failed miserably to convince God’s chosen people that God had come in person for them. Out of the half a million Jewish people living in Palestine, by his death and resurrection he’d picked up only about 120 followers. And was rejected by the vast majority of the leaders of his own people.
This is the path Jesus calls you to follow.
Peter’s actually brilliant in his courage following that path today.
Look, he’s given up a lot to follow Jesus: his livelihood, his stability, maybe his family. And he trusts Jesus is God-with-us, the Christ, God’s answer to the pain of the world. Things are going well, healings, crowds. And then Jesus says, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to be rejected and killed.”
And Peter knows this is a bad idea, it’s not right for the Messiah. And he privately tells Jesus that. Now, he’s obviously wrong. Jesus makes that clear.
But Peter risked. That’s the blessing. He’s struggling to learn how to follow, and he thought he had the right answer here. Just because he didn’t, doesn’t matter. He tried. And failed. And that helped him become the faithful leader he became.
But not right away. Even at Gethsemane, he’s clearly not on board with this dying. He fights the guards with his sword. And when his life is threatened, he curses that he never knew Jesus. Failures aren’t easy lessons. And sometimes take repeated stumbles to grow from.
But Peter’s risk today is your model.
Following Jesus means living in self-giving love, sacrificial love, for others and the world. Jesus talks about it all the time. But that means risking things, and risks are risky. Sometimes you mess it up. You say the wrong thing. You push someone away trying to help. You know you’re embedded in oppressive systems and try hard every day to break out of that and then do something harmful.
If you try to love as Jesus loves, you will fail sometimes. If you are vulnerable and self-giving as Jesus is, you’ll be hurt, you’ll offend, you’ll self-protect.
But that’s the point. Sitting back and trying to have a perfect faith, hoping you’ll never mess up, will never lead to growth. But your woundedness will make you someone who can walk alongside other wounded folks. In your failure to love, you’ll learn different ways of loving, you won’t make the same mistake again. Or, if you do, like Peter, at some point you’ll learn to stop doing it.
This doesn’t sound like great news. But remember: you didn’t make this path.
That’s the good thing. God called Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac and said, “go where I lead.” And they did, with a lot of stumbling and failing. Jesus called Peter and the others and said, “follow me.” Follow me – Jesus is already on this failure track.
When you stumble and fall, you’re with the God who also stumbled and fell, who will pick you up, brush you off, and help you grow from your failure. This is Jesus’ path – that’s the good news – and he forgives your failures, binds your wounds, heals your pain, and gives you what you need to keep stumbling forward.
But Jesus also shows that the path of failure and loss always leads to life. Jesus’ resurrection is the vindication of sacrificial love and vulnerability. The Triune God who made all things shows that when you take the path that goes through failure you find life that cannot be defeated. Not just when you die. That resurrection life is yours now, the early believers realized. Even as Peter and Paul stumble through the book of Acts, the Spirit lifts them up and sends them on their way, restored for another day, another try.
Embrace Peter’s boldness. That’s your path.
Be the disciple God is calling you to be, even if you stick your neck out and it gets chopped. Even if you try hard and still don’t get it. Even if your love is rejected, or thrown back at you, or offends.
This is the way, Jesus says. Lose your life and you’ll find it. Like Abraham. Like Peter. It turns out failure is a good thing. It’s your way to faithfulness, to being the disciple of Christ you were meant to be.
And maybe, in your failure and growing from it, others who struggle can find hope for themselves. After all, that seems to be the whole plan Jesus has in mind.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen