Glynn Cardy, Good Friday 2023
When Jesus was nothing but a hanging mess, dripping with his own blood and other people’s spit, there were no worshippers around reading their Bibles, singing their praise songs, and planning next month’s busy ‘church’ programme. They were long gone. At the very end, Jesus had no followers left. There was nothing left. Only silence, shadow, darkness, void.
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 full-on that nobody can possibly endure it, then a church that successfully proclaims that message is likely to be empty and not full.
Instinctively we want to be with winners not losers, with the successful not the failures, with those who are going somewhere not those who are nothings nowhere.
Which is also why, quite possibly, a successful minister ought to be loathed rather than liked; known for her silence rather than her eloquence. Someone who is in the wrong places at the wrong time with the wronged people, and missing all the important meetings and important people.
For here at Golgotha, as elsewhere in the Christian story, success and failure are inverted. The first will be last and the last first. The rich cast down and the poor 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 not a religion of kings and kingdoms as we popularly understand those terms. Jesus never dwelt in a palace, and nor should his followers. And his movement was not one of growth and success, of energy and enterprise – though that’s what some modern-day marketeers wish us to be – but a movement, a rag-tag ensemble of the lost, the failures, and those who limp.
One of the great and painful stories of the Bible, spreading over eight chapters in the book of Genesis, is that of the relationship between twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. They were born into a culture and family primed for injustice, patriarchy and primogeniture, the favouring of one brother over the other, one the ruler one the spare. No wonder it was said there was a struggle in the womb. (It could have been said they were dancing in there!) But struggle had been scripted before they were born, and they fell into that pottage of conflict.
There are no winners in the story. There is some forgiveness but little reconciliation. Both live with estrangement. Passing on to their children their dysfunctional ways of relating. Jacob, the so-called winner, wrestled with God (or was it an angel, or his brother, or his conscience?). And he came away from that tussle supposedly blessed. But also, mark well, with a permanent limp.
This is my point. ‘Winning’ in this story is not a Disney happy-ever-after. ‘Winning’ was going on, wounded. ‘Winning’ did not mean a deep reconciliation with his brother. Or learning how to bring up children without imparting to them the competitive dysfunctionality of his upbringing. ‘Winning’ and ‘winner’ are not the right words to use of Jacob.
It’s like the resurrection stories where the Jesus apparition that can walk through walls and all, still has the scars of nails in his hands and feet, and probably the tears from whipping on his back and buttocks. ‘Winning’ and ‘winner’ are not the right words to use of Jesus.
Christianity is a religion of losers – that 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, and more.
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.’ (Not a king, saviour, or god, but an ordinary human being). And the facade of success we present to the world is commonly a desperate attempt to ward off this knowledge. We aren’t what we are supposed to be.
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.’ Abstinence in Lent has nothing to do with the avoidance of chocolate (or sausages!) and everything to do with facing the unvarnished truth about our humanity, and our messages to ourselves of failure.
There is no way 100 top business and civic leaders would endorse the cross. It is life without the glittering advertising, without the talismans of success, the salaries, stocks, and other perks. It is life where others could discard us at a moment’s notice. It is a deep vulnerability, that no one desires.
But here’s the thing. The Christian story, like the best sort of introspection, 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 rarely 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.
Or put another way, we can discover that our life is inherently sacred. Not because of anything we have done or earnt. Not because of our own genes, intellect, or culture. But because it just is. There is something holy about us. Every one of us. Deep down. Bubbling up. A blessedness. A beauty. Often in the rough. Often masked over. Often rejected. But there none-the-less. A treasure.
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 mythic story that holds out to us a great truth. Namely the revelation that love is stronger than death, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success. That the sacred is there, breaking out, in love given and received, in the givers and receivers.
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 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, and becomes irrevocably, irrecoverably, tainted and tarred in so doing.
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.