Failure Never Has the Final Word

I don't know about you, but I'll bet you do this, too: when I screw up, I really would rather hide the fact that I've screwed up. But there's a problem with that -- it doesn't free me from the fact that I've screwed up. In fact, hiding the fact binds me all the more closely to it! However free I feel when I'm away from the people to whom I'm responsible for the screw-up, the moment I have even a thought that I might have to deal with them, I'm terrified. I am not really free. I lie. I evade. I won't even walk down a hallway they might be in! It screws me up!

And today we have a text in 1 John that is a key part of our liturgy for dealing with failure. For really, genuinely freeing us from our screw-ups. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn't it? Not precisely how I've translated it, but then, you don't remember the Hebrew for the 23rd psalm, either. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul."

"If we confess our sins ..." This isn't as simple an "if ... then ..." as it looks -- in fact, it's far better! This is a promise and a statement: every time, whenever we confess our failures to God, God excuses us from having failed, and washes us clean of injustice and failure by the blood of Jesus Christ. And this is divine justice! This is God being faithful, fulfilling promise, doing exactly what makes God worthy of being our god. Doing exactly the thing that makes it good for us to be this god's people. God removes any reason for us to be afraid to lean on what Luther called "His pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy." Not the Freudian "father-figure" of authority and punishment, but the parent that we instinctively run to when something goes wrong. The one who never fails to help, and who teaches us to trust.

And we trust this god because God has shown us the meaning of life -- the real rationale behind our existence as creatures. And the meaning of our life is Christ. The meaning of life is shown by the one who lives eternally before his Father. There is no trace of shadow in God, nothing of the Father that we do not see in the Son, nothing hidden out of sight and waiting to pounce on us and catch us unawares. Nothing that God is ashamed to show us. The meaning of life is free action built on trust in God, and God purifies a space for that. In Jesus, God makes and tends a space in the world where failure is acceptable. A space in which it is understood, in which it is safe for us to try, and fail, because God does not hold our failure against us.

And this isn't to say that our failures, and the inequities and injustices we create, don't have consequences. This isn't to say that God whisks away the consequences of our actions, and lets us blunder blithely about in the world abusing others while protecting us from abuse. God is a far better parent than that! Instead, by constantly cleansing us and freeing us from what binds us to our own failure and injustice, by washing us from sin in Jesus Christ, God enables us to deal with those consequences. To deal with what we have done as people who can repudiate our own failures and love our fellow creatures and act to help, today, in new ways. Because we are responsible to God, and we are responsible to the world -- and we are responsible for our failures, but we are not responsible to them. Failure does not control you! You belong to God. Failure is not who you are -- the truth of your life is Jesus Christ.

This same Jesus could not be held back by death. This same Jesus appeared among the disciples and breathed into them the Holy Spirit. This same Jesus showed the disciples that God has mastered their failures, that God is Lord even of their failures, and that God has overcome their failures with resurrection and new life. After everything went wrong, after nothing the disciples did was right, after Jesus died and they ran and hid, because it wasn't exactly safe for a Galilean to be seen in Jerusalem -- and after the Father raised Jesus from the dead -- Jesus came and breathed into them the Holy Spirit. Jesus showed them what John shows you today, that you are free from your failures. That you are not bound by the failures of others, and neither are they. That just like God, you are free to exercise your responsibility in justice, by excusing failure, by mastering it and overcoming it just as God has done in Jesus Christ.

Failure does not control your neighbor, either. Failure happens, but no creature in all of creation is a failure. Failure never has the final word -- anywhere. Ever. The truth of your life is trust in God, and loving action in the world, because God is at work in you, in the Holy Spirit that dwells in you from the moment of your baptism. God is at work in you, in the world, just as God was at work in Jesus Christ, clearing and keeping a space where failure happens and is excused, and people are freed to go out and love and serve their neighbors without fear. Freed to deal with the consequences of failure and injustice, and to work to make a better world because God is faithful and just to forgive every failure and wash the whole world clean.


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