As a way of entering into this morning’s Scripture lesson, consider with me a few famous failures. Thomas Edison failed ten thousand different times trying to make a working light bulb. Yet Edison put those failures in proper perspective when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.”
Albert Einstein failed so often in his early school days that teachers and school administrators thought he had learning deficiencies. Then later on in his life, Einstein actually failed in his first attempt to test into the Zurich Polytechnic Institute.
When Elvis Presley recorded his first songs, they made zero impression on anyone who heard them. Soon thereafter, Presley tried to join a vocal quartet and was candidly informed that he “couldn’t sing.” Finally, right before his popularity exploded, someone in the music business offered Presley the following advice. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
Finally, Michael Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time, was once cut from his high school basketball team. Years later as he neared retirement, Jordan answered a reporter’s question by looking back over his accomplishments and putting his own twist on failure.
“I have missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I have lost almost three hundred games. On twenty-six occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot…and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Failure is a consistent fact of life. Failure knows no age boundaries, no skin color boundaries, no socioeconomic boundaries, no gender identity boundaries. Failure affects those who don’t know any better and those who undoubtedly should know better. While the odds are stacked against some more than others, at a basic, human level failure is equal opportunity and no one is immune.
What’s more, failure often causes people to question their self-worth. How many of us have failed at a particular thing, sometimes multiple times, and blown it totally out of proportion? Instead of seeing ourselves as a failure in the realm of business or sports or etiquette or relationships we extrapolate from those isolated failures that we must be overall failures in life…
If you’ve ever asked yourself the pointed question, “am I a failure?” then welcome to the heart of the Gospel. The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ takes the places where we are feeling most vulnerable and most miserable and most unsuccessful and transforms them into something wonderful…
When it comes to Biblical failures, the disciple Peter may well be the most noteworthy. The pattern started for Peter twelve chapters prior to this morning’s Scripture lesson in the Gospel of Matthew. Back in the fourteenth chapter, the disciples were trying to navigate their way across the stormy Sea of Galilee when they saw Jesus walking across the surface of the water.
Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid but Peter was the one who took Jesus’ words closest to heart. Impulsively, Peter climbed over the side of the boat and took a couple of tentative steps toward Jesus. But the moment he noticed the ferocity of the wind and the waves, Peter began to sink. And Jesus had to come over and reach out a hand to rescue Peter before quieting the storm.
In light of Peter’s failure on the Sea of Galilee, it comes as a bit of surprise two chapters later in Matthew when Jesus declares Peter the rock upon whom he will build the church. In fact, it’s almost comic in its irony. Peter, the one who sank like a stone on the water, will eventually become the foundation stone upon which the church of Jesus will rise on solid ground…
Well you wonder what Jesus thought about Peter when we arrive at today’s Chapter twenty-six. Peter sinking in the Sea of Galilee was a failure related to Peter’s fear. The kind of fear most of us can relate to and the kind of failure most of us would deem worthy of a second chance. After today’s story, however, it’s hard to imagine Jesus wasn’t second guessing the whole Peter as church rock idea.
Early in Matthew’s twenty-sixth chapter, Jesus and the disciples gathered around a table to share their last supper together. During that meal, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would eventually abandon him in his time of need. But Peter, bless his heart, had the chutzpah to claim that he would be the one person to stand with Jesus to the bitter end.
I don’t know whether Jesus gave Peter credit for his audacity or whether he shook his head at Peter’s impetuousness. Or both. In any case, Jesus replied, “truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And the stage was set.
Within a matter of hours, Jesus was proven right. To make matters even worse, Peter not only denied Jesus three times but he also swore he didn’t even know who Jesus was. It would be akin to any one of us turning on our spouse or our child or our best friend. And when the cock crowed and Peter realized what he had done the story tells us he went out and wept bitterly.
There’s a whole realm of mistakes we make that fit in the simple category of failures. The one where Peter denies being with Jesus and then denies even knowing Jesus? That’s not just your average, run of the mill failure. That’s what some in the younger generation would refer to as an “epic fail.” The kind of failure that’s so grand and so spectacular and so train-wreckish it’s a wonder anyone ever recovers…
J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book when she was a divorced, single mother, living on welfare and going to school while trying to write a novel in her spare time. In a commencement speech she later delivered to students at Harvard University, she spoke about her own failures.
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom because a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
I don’t know exactly what went through Peter’s head the night he denied Jesus three times. I suspect though it was a night filled with shame and self-doubt. A night when he questioned his one epic failure, a whole lot of other failures along the way, and whether he himself was a failure. I also suspect, somewhere in the depth of Peter’s torment where all the inessential was stripped away, Peter encountered the grace of God. He received God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness. And he felt God’s overwhelming and abundant love…
If you skip forward in the New Testament to the Book of Acts, there’s another story about Peter which unfolds in the tenth and eleventh chapters. Now in the fledgling, post-resurrection, early church phase of Christianity, Peter is called by God to reach out to the Gentiles and welcome them into Christian community.
So Peter heads to Caeserea and baptizes a whole household of Gentiles into the Christian faith. However, because the Gentiles were considered unclean and Peter performs the baptisms without adhering to proper church guidelines, he is summoned to testify before the council of church leaders in Jerusalem.
Face to face with the most respected elders in the early Christian church, Peter was forced to justify his actions. Yes, he reached out and welcomed those who had been excluded from the church up to that point. And yes, God told him to do it. Nevertheless, Peter baptizing Gentiles would have been considered heretical.
So would Peter buckle under the pressure? Would he revert to his familiar pattern of bold audacity followed by inevitable failure? Standing before those learned, faithful men, Peter’s mind likely wandered back to the night on the Sea of Galilee. And the fateful night he denied Jesus three times.
Yet when asked to explain his actions before the council, here is what Peter said in his testimony. “If God gave the Gentiles the same gift of the Holy Spirit that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
It would take a few more decades for Gentiles to be accepted fully into Christian community. But make no mistake. Peter was the one who opened the door. After failing spectacularly earlier in his life, in the Book of Acts Peter forged one of the greatest success stories in the early church.
Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. Even if those failures are so epic you wonder whether you’ll ever recover to see another day, Jesus comes and meets us and offers the gift of redemption. Just ask Peter…Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this morning’s sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes. His sermon, entitled “The Gift of Failure,” was preached at the Countryside Community Church, UCC on November 18, 2013.