Sunday after Ascension – St Mary’s (Matins with Communion)

Sermon on John 17:1-11

I would like you to imagine someone who has never known failure, someone who has made a real and palpable success of everything they have ever undertaken, someone whose progress through life has been unchecked by any failure whatsoever. Everything they do flourishes just in the way they planned it. I’m pretty confident you’re having difficulty imagining such a person because it is probably impossible for such a person to exist. The lives of all of us are peppered with failure. We fail time and time again. Sometimes it’s not our fault. Usually, I would guess, in some way it is.

It seems to me there are three kinds of failure:

  1. There is failure that is simply failure. It has no redeeming features and we learn nothing at all from it. Or rather we refuse to learn anything from it.
  2. There is failure that we can turn into something positive. The past is done with and we can’t change it. But we can change the future – and the present. We can make use of failure
  3. There is failure that is only apparent – apparent because, despite appearances, what looks like failure is actually success.

Jesus, like the rest of us, knew what it was to fail. He went about Palestine preaching the good news of the kingdom. He wanted people to repent and believe. I see no reason to suppose that from the outset he knew he would be executed, that execution was part of the plan all along. He may have realised fairly early on that it was going to happen but it wasn’t his initial intention. His intention was to bring everyone into the kingdom. And yet that didn’t happen. And yet we regard Jesus as the very epitome of accomplishment.  God was able to use the rejection that Jesus met with and turn it into something positive. Simon Tugwell in his book on prayer says that God ‘is that expert dancer who can make dance out of the stumblings of the most atrocious partner’. God’s atrocious partner is of course we human beings, you and I.

Think of that verse in the letter to the Romans: ‘All things work together for good for those who love God’. It’s strange and wonderful, whenever we can manage it, how things work out when we put ourselves fully into the hands of God. That doesn’t mean to say that life is made easy – far from it – but it is made fruitful.

As Simon Tugwell goes on to say: ‘God is able to integrate all our free choices – mistakes and sins and all – into his plan. God is not defeated’. In the eyes of the world Jesus looked like the most complete of all failures when he was hanging on the cross, dying and reviled by most of the bystanders.

There were several men who claimed to be the Messiah before, during and after the time of Jesus. They were all violent rebels against Roman rule and they all met violent deaths. Meeting a premature and violent death was a sure sign that any claimant to messiahship wasn’t in fact the Messiah at all. And so it was with Jesus. He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because, well, look – there he is hanging on a cross. We’d better look elsewhere for someone to save us from the Romans.

It’s easy for us, looking back, to see that those bystanders had got it wrong. We know the sequel to this story. We know about the Resurrection. We see the cross as a sign of triumph but no-one at the time would have seen it like that. A crucified Messiah simply wasn’t within the range of possibilities.

In our gospel reading from John, although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Jesus is anticipating the cross. This is the moment, he can now see, that his whole life has been leading up to. Jesus talks of himself as being glorified. The cross is the glory of Jesus because self-sacrifice is the expression of love, and the expression of love is the glory of God. John’s gospel gives the impression of Jesus being serene as he approaches his death but we know from the other gospels that this was far from being the case. He sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed with all his heart that the nightmare wouldn’t happen.

It would have been easy, in one sense, for Jesus to disappear into the night, to scuttle back to Galilee, refine his carpentry skills, settle down, marry Mary Magdalene perhaps. He might meet his former disciples occasionally and feel a little shame-faced but that would be a small price to pay for avoiding crucifixion.

But that would have shirking what he had come to know must happen. That would not have been Jesus putting himself fully into the hands of God. For him that would have been failure.

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