'Jesus the Loser : A Theology of Failure'
The following was originally presented as an address at Compline during Holy Week 2019. It was preceeded by a reading from Matthew 27:27-50. I'm aware that some will find its message contentious!
Some of you will be familiar with the old TV Series ‘Rev’ which told the story of the Revd Adam Smallbone, Vicar of what would doubtless be described in today’s Church of England as a ‘failing church’ in the East End of London – ‘St Saviour in the Marshes’.
In one particular episode, Fr Adam is taking a school assembly and asks a question. I can’t remember exactly what the question is, but one child puts up his or her hand and says quite mistakenly, ‘Is the answer Jesus?’
‘No’ Adam replies with a certain degree of irritation, ‘It isn’t Jesus’.
But the child persists, ‘But isn’t Jesus always the answer?’
‘No’ replies Adam, his growing impatience showing, ‘Jesus isn’t always the answer’.
That retort was doubtless intended by the scriptwriters to raise at least as many eyebrows as it did laughs, because for many Christians, the belief that ‘Jesus is always the answer’ is a central tenet of their faith.
The controversial downtown London Vicar and Guardian Columnist Giles Fraser once wrote very disparagingly about this kind of theology:
‘After a while, if you say a word enough, over and over again, it loses its meaning. It even begins to sound a little different. Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated……..
….(and) for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the Cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate.
…..in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails. The disciples run away, unable to cope with the impossible demands placed upon them. The hero they gave up everything to follow is exposed to public ridicule and handed over to Roman execution. And the broken man on the cross begins to fear that God is no longer present.
The fact that this is not the end of the story does not take away from the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith. Even the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his suffering.’
These are fairly brutal words, and I don’t agree with all that Fraser says. I believe, for example, that there is indeed an element of triumph in the cross, because there is a triumph of love and fidelity, and a triumph of courage over fear. Nevertheless, I do agree with the basic thrust of his argument. I believe that there is a brand of evangelicalism that is particularly dominant in the life of the Church of England at the present time that has no proper theology of failure and which is, therefore, unable to work through the true implications of Jesus’ apparent failure at the point of his crucifixion. As a direct consequence of this, I also believe this part of the church to be in many ways pastorally and spiritually ineffective at dealing with human failure in a realistic and balanced way.
It’s ironic - but no coincidence - that Churches that espouse this flawed theology are often highly successful. They offer the appealing certainty of a successful Jesus who will never let you down, however dark life may get. On the whole their ‘Gospel of Success’ attracts a highly successful demographic, so their congregations often include a disproportionate number of doctors, university lecturers, teachers, solicitors and other professionals, along with a large number of university students who are high on adrenalin and optimism because the world appears to be their oyster.
The danger in this theology is that it can generate in its adherents - either consciously or subconsciously - the belief that they are successful because they are Christians, and that God will always reward their Christianity with further success. The rather worrying implication is of course that where people fail, it is God’s punishment for some wrongdoing on their part. We see alarming evidence of this mindset emerging in many of the Evangelical churches of Trump’s America.
Not surprisingly, these churches are seldom perceived as safe or welcoming places for the ‘unsuccessful’- for those whose marriages have failed or whose careers have gone wrong, for those in the grip of some kind of addiction, or even for those who simply don’t conform to the ‘apple-pie’ norm of being heterosexual, happily married with 2.4 children and a golden Labrador.
Where churches lack a realistic theology of failure, there is a danger that their pastoral response to those in need is patronising and, if truth be told, tarnished by a sub-Christian judgmentalism. They will talk a lot about love, but I would seriously question the non-conditionality of that love. ‘We will love you, until you become good and successful like us’ is the agenda that is hidden sometimes even to those who think they’re doing the loving.
So as churches, and indeed as individual Christians, how can we avoid falling into this trap, and how can we cultivate a healthier theology of failure?
In his book, ‘Falling Upwards’ the Roman Catholic Franciscan writer Richard Rohr suggests that all Christians reach a crisis in their life, and that this crisis, if we dare to be open to it, can lead us into a space of spiritual refreshment, peace and compassion that we couldn’t have imagined previously.
Rohr - whose writings draw heavily on the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung - believes that the spiritual life has two stages. In the first, the individual is devoted to establishing himself or herself, making a career, finding friends and a partner, crafting an identity. This process involves being shaped by the norms and practices of our family and community. But then Rohr suggests that we need a crisis – some kind of ‘fall’ – that enables our continued spiritual development. It may be the loss of a job, a fortune or reputation. It could be an illness that has to be endured or a bereavement that has to be suffered.
This crisis can be devastating. It can leave us with a sense that all that we knew about living the spiritual life will no longer work and that God has abandoned us. At this stage our cry may well be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
Rohr goes on to say that the overwhelming message of the Bible is that God doesn’t abandon us even when we feel that he has, and he suggests that we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That may be cold comfort at the time, but later we may well wonder how we could possibly have come to where we are without that crisis.
This notion that a fall must precede growth, doesn’t just come from Jungian psychology. It’s written into the very life of Jesus Christ, who descended to the dead before he could be resurrected and ascend into Heaven. Rohr says that if we dare to welcome this second half of life ‘we will hear a deeper voice of God than we ever heard before, and we will tread a path from ego to spiritual spaciousness’.
I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Rohr’s theory. On the one hand, I do know plenty of Christians for whom a significant crisis has re-shaped their faith and spirituality and who have as a result left a successful, often fiercely Evangelical church for something more – dare I say it – mainstream and thoughtful. I have to say that I have seldom met people travelling in the opposite direction.
On the other hand, I’m not convinced that everyone’s life neatly divides into two linear compartments. Rather I suspect that we go through cycles or shuffle back and forth from ego to spiritual spaciousness, with various crises, large or small, acting as trigger-points.
I do believe however, that failure can be transformative. Personal sin, for example, is the failure to be what we know God wants and calls us to be. In recognising that sin, we’re confronted with the need to cling to the grace of God rather than depending upon our own abilities or merits. Paul writes in 1Corinthians 15:10 that ‘apart from the vine, we can do nothing’. Sometimes it takes a crisis to make us see that truth.
Secondly, being ready to fail – and to deal with failure – means that we are ready to take risks. Those who are terrified of failure – or those who can’t face the prospect of failure because they mistakenly believe that it has to be an impossibility, won’t take risks. Instead, their instinctive avoidance prompts them to cling to a narrow and safe conservatism and protect their beliefs as fiercely as they can. But in doing so, they can imprison the Holy Spirit who is, surely, the ultimate risk-taker. It’s hard to see how the Kingdom of God is served by its people being risk-averse. Let’s face it, a risk-averse God would never have embarked upon the folly of Creation, never mind the Incarnation.
When we suffer from a fear of failure, it’s worth asking ourselves, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen if I fail?’ Failure rarely endangers life, except for those in certain professions. Far more often, it endangers only the ego. But protection of the ego stems from the need for self-glorification, and surely goes against the call of Christ to deny ourselves.
So if good can come from human failure, how much more can it come from divine failure?
As Jesus hangs on the cross, naked, blood-stained, wearing that grotesquely comical crown of thorns, having endured the booing of the crowds and the sneering and mocking of the guards, to all present he is an abject failure; and like so many human failures before and since, he feels abandoned by his God and cries out in despair, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Only when Jesus later cries out, ‘It is finished’ and gives up his spirit can there be any suggestion of success, let alone victory.
Christ’s death on the cross was a real failure just as his pain and despair were also real; and as Giles Fraser rightly says, that failure isn’t invalidated or cancelled out by the resurrection as some would have us believe; rather it remains a crucial element in the story of our redemption, and at a specific point in time it was absolutely real. For a short time in history in the drama of our redemption Jesus was a failure. He was Jesus the Loser – and it’s important that we never lose sight of that fact.
Some years ago, in a previous parish, Churches Together arranged a Good Friday walk of witness around the town. As we met to plan the event, the differences in the theologies of the various churches became very evident. Those of a very evangelical persuasion wanted to sing joyful hymns and songs of triumph and to hand out celebratory hot cross buns and Easter eggs. Those of us of a more catholic persuasion wanted to capture the solemnity of the occasion – not, I hasten to add, to be miserable – that would never be a helpful act of witness – but to at least capture something of the sobriety and deep significance of the occasion. (That’s what our liturgies do, of course. Over the Triduum - the three great days - we effectively commemorate the events of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, entering dramatically and powerfully into the spirit and mood of all the key moments and soaking up the spiritual reality and meaning of those moments.
Having reached some sort of compromise over the music and mood of our walk of witness, we then decided to stop at various key points – by the local school, by the GP’s surgery and by the local shops and so on in order to pray. Different churches were asked to lead the prayers at each of these ‘stations’. When we got to the local GP surgery, a member of a very large Independent Charismatic Evangelical Church offered this prayer:
‘Lord, as we pray for our local doctors and for all those for whom they care, we just want to thank you that because of our faith in you we are spared from sickness and suffering.’
Well, if that man - who I would guess was in his fifties - had indeed been spared from all sickness and suffering, he must not only have been very fortunate, but must also have led a very sheltered and strange life. More importantly, however, his words were, of course, totally heretical and deeply offensive. He had no theology of failure, and as a result nor did he have the ability to engage realistically and empathically with human suffering. Instead he denied that reality and reduced God from the magnificent, glorious, mysterious figure that he is, into ltitle more than some sort of magical sky-pixie. This God magically fixes everything, and if he doesn’t it’s your fault. You’re the failure because your faith isn’t strong enough.
If Jesus could be a failure; if Jesus’ faith could fail him so that he cried out in despair, then we should never deny the reality of our own failures nor look judgmentally and patronisingly on those of others.
So I’m going to end where I started – in the parish of St Saviour in the Marshes.
In the third and final series of ‘Rev’, the last two episodes are set in Holy Week. There’s very little comedy in them and there’s a great deal of pathos and shedloads of brilliant theology. St Saviour’s is closed. As a Church it is a failure. Fr Adam feels a total failure as a priest and sinks into the depths of despair. As he carries a large cross to a neighbouring Roman Catholic priest who wants to borrow it, being mocked and falling under its weight en-route, Adam encounters a stranger, who, despite his tracksuit, can of lager and Irish accent, we are clearly meant to believe is Jesus, and he remonstrates with Adam.
In the end, in the early hours of Easter Day Adam leads his faithful remnant of parishioners - and his rather prickly Archdeacon - back to their beloved church. They break in, smashing through the yellow and black health and safety tape, and celebrate the Easter Vigil amidst a scene of dereliction. All those who gather round the new fire as Adam lights the Paschal candle representing the risen Christ are odd characters who throughout the three series have shown their lives to be a mixture of comedy and pathos and, very rarely - if ever - success. But there they are - failures and losers maybe - but celebrating the resurrection of the Christ who was himself once a loser but who passed into, and leads them and us into, the victory of resurrection.
So we begin our journey through holy week, our lives doubtless a patchwork of comedy and pathos, success and failure, and as we do so we should resolve never to give up on ourselves nor anyone else however much of a failure we may feel or they may seem, for we follow the one who was himself an abject failure – Jesus the Loser, Christ the King.