This homily by Glynn Cardy 2018 is an adaption of Giles Fraser’s piece in the Guardian called “Christianity, when properly understood, is a religion of losers.”
When Jesus was nothing but a suspended carcass, dripping with his own blood and other people’s spit, there were no worshippers around reading their Bibles, singing their hymns, and planning next month’s calendar. They were long gone. At the very end, he had no followers left. There was nothing left. Only silence. Only darkness.
That says something profoundly counterintuitive about what a successful church looks like. For if the core of the Christian message – suffering and death first, then resurrection – is so existentially full-on that nobody can possibly endure it, then a church that successfully proclaims that message is likely to be empty and not full.
Which is also why, quite possibly, a successful minister ought to be loathed rather than liked; known for her silence rather than her eloquence.
For here, as elsewhere in the Christian story, success and failure are inverted. The first will be last and the last first. The rich are cast down and the poor are exulted. The true king is crowned with mockery and thorns not with gold and prestige. The expendables – the washed up, washed out, rung out, strung out – life’s failures, they embody the Kingdom of God.
So Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers – the worst of playground insults. For not only do we not want to be a loser, we don’t want to associate with them either. We pointedly shun losers, as if some of their loser-ness might rub off on us. Or rather, more honestly, we shun them because others might recognise us as among their number. And because we secretly fear that this might actually be true, we shun them all the more, thus to distance ourselves all the more emphatically. And so the cock crows three times.
But it is true. Deep failure, the failure of our lives, is something we occasionally contemplate in the middle of the night, in those moments of terrifying honesty before we get up and dress for success. ‘Ana, te tino tangata’ said Pilate. ‘Behold, the man’. This is humanity. And the facade of success we present to the world is commonly a desperate attempt to ward off this knowledge.
At the beginning of Lent, Christians are reminded of this in the most emphatic of ways: with the imposition of ashes comes the words ‘know that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return’. Those who used the period of Lent to give things up are invited to live life stripped bare, experiencing humanity in the raw, without the familiar props to our ego. This has nothing to do with the avoidance of chocolate and everything to do with facing the unvarnished truth about human failure.
There is no way 100 top business and civic leaders would endorse the cross. It is life without the advertising, without the talismans of success. It is life on a zero-hours contract, where at any moment we can be told we are not needed.
But here’s the thing. The Christian story, like the best sort of terrifying psychoanalysis, strips us down to nothing in order for us to face ourselves anew. For it turns out that losers are not despised or rejected; not ultimately. In fact, losers can discover something about themselves that winners cannot ever appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are and not because of what they achieve. That despite it all, raw humanity is glorious and wonderful, entirely worthy of love.
This is revealed in the Christian story precisely at the greatest point of dejection: Jesus dying on the cross. The resurrection is not a conjuring trick with bones. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success.
In a world where we semaphore our successes to each other at every possible opportunity, churches cannot be blamed for failing to live up to this austere and wonderful message. We fall into the pit of performance indicators based on numbers of people, programmes, and revenue.
But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion, Christ’s death on the cross, then a church is at its best when it fails in the world of winners and opens its doors and heart to losers, when the church shows others that failure is the site of real triumph, real weakness, and real hope.
O Holy One,
be with us in these dark hours
as we face our collective shadow,
when our fears and needs are laid bare,
and we learn that failure is our faithful companion
on this road.