Transforming failure

Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Based on readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20, Acts 9.1-6, John 21.1-19

There’s a moment around 8 o’clock, when hosting a party, that I get a chill deep in my bones. No one’s coming. Perhaps it’s a legacy of being a socially awkward teenager, when for me really no one would have come; but I think it may stem back to my 21st birthday as a student, when I threw a party.  Everyone in the house we shared was very excited and, expecting great numbers, started taking drastic actions like taking doors of walls to prepare for the great crowds. But then I’d been quite non-committal, haphazard and last minute in my invites. A little too cool.This was also I should say before these heady days of social media which make this sort of thing terribly easy, but also of an age and culture where people didn’t send out pour memoirescardswhich give a good physical reminder. So the party was a rather dismal affair where people tried to be jolly but on the whole everyone felt slightly embarrassed, trying to think of excuses to leave but aware that their planned exit couldn’t fail to attract attention.

This would have also been the case at our wedding, where as I was at Sandhurst I entrusted a friend to make the invitations and on the first print run Rhiannon noticed that he’d got the place and the date wrong, and spelled my name incorrectly. My involvement in the wedding planning after this was quite limited. On the whole, I think my friend really did me a favour. But you can imagine that this failure of mine, does get brought up from time to time; and in general I think, especially when errors are very public, our failures settle in our mind; sometimes becoming a helpful reminder to avoid repetition of disaster, sometimes as a paralysing fear which prevents us from taking risks. And this can be institutional; there are certainly churches that fight shy of social events, or ambitious fundraising, often because there’s a nay-sayer who tried something back in 1983 to an underwhelming response, and now dutifully attends every meeting just to remind everyone of this.

So failure can be a whetstone – sharpening us to be better organised, better prepared; making us more realistic, more honest, more determined; but it can also be the harbinger of fear, that prevents us from taking risks; the humiliation that says “this is not for you”; that confuses realism with lack of ambition.

The resurrection; the joy of Easter; is about the transformation of failure, and reconciliation.

So today’s Gospel is all about Simon Peter. There’s no more compelling evidence of the destruction of failure than when people take a step back to an earlier mode of life. Peter had given up fishing; he was to be a fisher of men, you remember. Now Jesus is gone and Peter let him down, the “gone fishing” sign is back up.

John’s Gospel loves its symbolism so keen readers will note that if anything happens in the Gospel at night, it’s bad, it’s the devil’s time, because Jesus is the light of the world. So famously when Judas leaves the Last Supper to go and betray Jesus, we’re told: he went out. And it was night. Spiritual darkness. Equally here, we’re told ‘that night they caught nothing.’ The weight of failure has left Peter incapable and in spiritual darkness.

Jesus appears ‘just after daybreak’. And suddenly there are fish everywhere, as Jesus turns this failure, this empty handed spiritual night, into something new and exciting. Here – breakfast – the most important meal of the day,  a sort of impromptu party – (there’s no record of pour memoires) sharing bread and fish in words entirely reminiscent of the last supper and the eucharist. But for Peter it’s what comes after that is his resurrection. 

I think we’re usually quite easy on Peter. Mostly when we read the Passion, the arrest and crucifixion, we’re focused on Jesus; but Peter is worth considering. He is the last disciple who is trying to keep up with what’s going on. He’s Jesus BFF, he’s promised never to leave him; and then at night, in the spiritual darkness, before the cock crows; he denies Jesus 3 times, which in that culture is enough to be granted a divorce. While understandable, at the time when it really matters, for Peter this is total moral failure.

Peter has been living with this: failure to live up to his promises: failure to stick by his friend: and the last time he saw Jesus, he pretended not to know him. How can he go on? So in fact he hasn’t gone on. He’s gone back. He’s gone fishing. But this is resurrection. And since Peter denied Christ three times, the risen Christ now asks him three times, do you love me?

So there is here a sense of a great undoing. You might see it in terms of lifting a curse; as in a fairy tale in order to release the enchantment brought on by the three denials; we need a triple release. You might see it as a psychological truth: that the weight of guilt and shame caused by his failure, requires a ritual cleansing; and we can hear the desperation in Peter’s voice: ‘you know that I love you’ he is hurt by being asked the third time; but it’s necessary to fully confront this psychic poison, bringing about this reconciliation and turning this failure into wisdom. He needs to confront his failure. Then he can receive absolution and the commission. Feed my sheep. So finally this whole sequence can end with the words that take us back to the beginning of the Gospel, when we first meet Jesus gathering the disciples: “follow me”.

Now you may well be thinking, this is all very well, but I’m not so terrible. I have not denied Christ. I have not held the coats of those who murder Christians like St Paul, whose conversion we heard earlier. I’m not such a terrible person. You may like Mr Barnaby Lenon, former headmaster of Harrow, feel that you’ve been castigated wrongly, and that it’s not the terrible sin, those left-wing virtue-signallers claim it is, to be middle class.

But it’s central to the Church’s self-understanding that we gather as sinners. That even vicars, for all their good intentions, get it wrong. That we gather in confession, share again each week the peace, and come together as the broken body of Christ. So it’s helpful that in the Gospels the disciples are slightly farcical in their misunderstandings and errors; that Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Church is built, at the crucial moment found himself in spiritual darkness denying Christ; that Christian leadership begins in failure, and so begins in humility. Not so that we can be always beating ourselves up, still less that our faith is based in shame and guilt. But really we just need an awareness of the reality of the human condition; that we are dependent creatures, that it takes time to master ourselves that our quickest learning comes through mistakes and set backs. And we need honesty in seeing our faults and weaknesses because patience, humility and faith, hope and love, are not won easily but over time by renewed discipline and will entail some hard fought struggles on the way. For this reason, I think, my training vicar would always take me out once in Lent to eat or drink whatever we had given up so as to protect us from the sin of spiritual pride. That and a love of gin and cup cakes.

These first Easter encounters are really the beginning of the Church as authority passes from Christ to the disciples. This story reminds us that the spiritual journey begins properly with us confronting ourselves warts and all with relentless honesty; to bring our deaths in fear and failure, perhaps especially our social deaths, into the presence of Christ for resurrection. And if there is something that’s holding you back; a weight that you carry with you, a fear or a regret, perhaps now is the time to confront it and discover some Easter joy. And if you’re planning a summer party, perhaps now is a good time to be ordering the pour memoires.