Discipleship: Failure & Grace

What does being a disciple mean to you?

At the beginning of this series on discipleship, I asked the question “What does being a disciple mean to you?” and together we explored how we might complete the sentence “A disciple is someone who…”  Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience.

It is very easy for us to think about the life and ministry of the disciples and in some ways set them on a pedestal, and to almost come to some sort of subconscious belief or view that we would never make the grade…or think that we aren’t good enough to be disciples. But perhaps surprisingly when we think about words we might associate with discipleship, another word I believe we should include is failure.

The Missionary George Smith

Many years ago, a Moravian missionary named George Smith went to Africa. He had been there only a short time and had only one convert, a poor woman, when he was driven from the country. He died shortly afterward, on his knees, praying for Africa. He was considered a failure. But a company of men stumbled onto the place where he had prayed and found a copy of the Bible he had left. Shortly after they met the one poor woman who was his convert.

A hundred years later his mission counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith.

How Mark portrays the disciples

I don’t know if you have ever worked through Mark’s gospel and looked at the way in which he chose to depict the disciples.  Some theologians say that of all of the Gospel accounts, Mark’s Gospel is the most critical about the disciples. It is easy at first glance to see why:

  • The disciples failed to understand Jesus’ parables (only Mark 4:13; cf. Matt 13:16-17, 51)
  • When they spoke with Jesus in the boat, they didn’t understand what he meant (Mark 8:14-21; cf. Matt 16:5-12; Luke 12:1)
  • After the first Passion prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter (Mark 8:32-33)
  • The disciples were unable to perform an exorcism (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matt 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43a)
  • After the second Passion prediction, the disciples argued about which of them was “greatest” (Mark 9:33-34)
  • After the third Passion prediction, James and John asked for “seats of honour” (Mark 10:35-40)
  • Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities (Mark 14:10-11, 18-21, 41-46)
  • Peter denied even knowing Jesus (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72)
  • All the disciples ran away after Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-52; cf. 14:27)
  • The women left the empty tomb in fear and silence (Mark 16:8)

Their track record certainly leaves a lot to be desired doesn’t it? Are these the kind of people we should really put on a pedestal?  Are these the kind of people we should aspire to be?

Mark is also critical about the ways in which the disciples responded to Jesus because of their lack of insight and understanding:

  • The disciples “pursued” or “hunted for” Jesus despite Jesus having got up early for a quiet time to be with His Father (only Mark 1:36)
  • They were afraid during a storm and were reproached for lacking faith (only Mark 4:40; cf. Luke 8:25)
  • After Jesus walked on water, they didn’t understand about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (only Mark 6:52; cf. Matt 14:28-32)
  • They had eyes that didn’t see and ears that didn’t hear (only Mark 8:18-19; cf. Matt 16:12)
  • The disciples didn’t believe the resurrection witnesses (Mark 16:13, 14, 16)

Hope in the midst of failure

One of the most striking examples of failure in Mark’s Gospel can be found in the account of Peter’s denial of Christ.  “You will all fall away… before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”  Even in the starkness of this passage, we see something of God’s grace which at the time probably went completely over the heads of the disciples.  It is easy for us to miss it too.  Jesus said “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”  In other words, despite knowing how the disciples would desert him, and despite knowing that Peter would disown him three times, Jesus still gave an assurance that they would come back together once again after he had risen.  And as we know from the Gospel accounts, Peter was indeed forgiven, reinstated and also transformed.  God’s strength was made perfect in his weakness – he was grace touched for the rest of his life and ministry, and Jesus’ prophetic words about him became true… “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

I think one of the reasons why Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.  And when, like the disciples, our track record leaves a lot to be desired and we too show a lack of insight and understanding, Jesus will be right there waiting for us – strength to prevail, and grace and mercy when we fail.

One of the things that saddens me the most is when I see people who are too paralysed by fear – fear of so many things – to even try, people who can’t let go and let God.  And one of the things that perpetuates that fear is how critical the church – and I mean the church in general – can sometimes be.  Jesus said “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)  People who are critical often have critical spirits and are not at peace with themselves or with God; if they were grace-touched, and were truly aware of their poverty of spirit, they would also be grace givers.  We are called to disciple each other, and spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Faith is being able to risk failure…“faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)

A journey into grace

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples reminds us that we are not called to follow the disciples who have gone on before us, or even the disciples we journey with now; we are called to follow Christ and Christ alone.  The writer and Senior Pastor Revd Michael Foss said “Leaders in the church should not have disciples.  When they do, the community of faith all too often degenerates into a personality cult.  When the leader leaves, the church falls apart.  The leader’s call is not to gather people around himself or herself, but to gather them around Jesus.”  If you go into any church and expect to see perfection when you look at its leadership, then you will find your expectations dashed.  If you go into a church and hope to see a leadership that is grace-touched, hope-filled, alive with a knowledge of God’s awesome love with a heart to work out faith with fear and trembling, then you may find your hopes realised.  It is said there is no such thing as a perfect church and no such thing as a perfect congregation either.

People have dignity when they can make decisions and then live with the consequences of those decisions, even if the decisions that they have taken were wrong.  But when we have the freedom and ability to make decisions, we need to be clear we MUST accept responsibility for making them and be prepared to live with and journey through the consequences, as uncomfortable as it may make us.

Of equal importance is realising that in God’s economy it is only when we are in that place of failure can we acknowledge more fully our dependency on and need for God and his love and grace.  It is only when we recognise the depth of the poverty of our spirit that we can recognise and appreciate the enormity of God’s lavish grace.  If there are times when you feel that you aren’t good enough, the reality is none of us are…not one.  “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a).  In the knowing, the deep knowing that we are not good enough, there is an even deeper truth we must write on the tablet of our hearts – we are infinitely loved by a God who made us.  Sometimes we have to journey to come to a realisation of that.

The mark of a genuine disciple is someone who journeys well with and through failure, someone who in the depth of their brokenness can say like Job in all integrity “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)

Michael Foss also said “Modelling discipleship means being honest and transparent about one’s own life of faith, admitting difficulties where they exist, owning up to mistakes, and making amends – but never as failure!  In a discipleship church, failure is not failure if we learn from it, grow from it, and change as a result of it.”  The mark of a disciple is when we are no longer in fear because we know the love of God.

The culture we must seek to foster together in being disciples is a culture of grace, forgiveness and self-sacrificial living; we must seek to put away “…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2)  Yes, there will be times when we might say something to each other that “gets our back up”; there might be times when we cause offence, and likely there will be times when we fail to live up to expectations.  But I ask you to exercise grace, I ask you to love each other sacrificially, I ask you to seek to look at one another as God sees you – as beloved children.  And I ask you to remember, always remember, this:

He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So when we go out this week, let our memory verse be this:  “Go and learn what this means…I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

I hope you are encouraged by this aspect of discipleship.  I hope that you approach Mark’s gospel with a different perspective.  I hope you realise that God call people just like them, just like you, and just like me.  I hope you find courage to step out in faith, to try…God knows your heart.  He knows mine.  And every time we fail, as at times we will, then together let’s journey into a deeper knowledge of God’s love and grace.  And let’s celebrate those glorious times we truly shine with the light of Christ and his strength really is made perfect in our weakness.

Amen

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