New Testament: Acts (17:22-31)
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
The Response: Psalm (66:7-18)
7 Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
8 Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.
9 For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.
10 You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.
11 You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.
12 I will enter your house with burnt-offerings
and will pay you my vows, *
which I promised with my lips
and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
13 I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts with the smoke of rams; *
I will give you oxen and goats.
14 Come and listen, all you who fear God, *
and I will tell you what he has done for me.
15 I called out to him with my mouth, *
and his praise was on my tongue.
16 If I had found evil in my heart, *
the Lord would not have heard me;
17 But in truth God has heard me; *
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
18 Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, *
nor withheld his love from me.
The Epistle: 1 Peter (3:13-22)
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
The Gospel: John (14:15-21)
[Jesus said,] ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. ”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
For Paul, it must have seemed like a dream come true. Originally known as Saul, he had been born and grew up in Tarsus, a major city, a provincial capital in the southeastern part of what is now Turkey. His world was one that was immersed in Greek culture. The common language in that part of the Roman Empire was Greek. He had apparently been trained in Greek literary and rhetorical techniques. And now, apparently for the first time, he found himself in Athens: in what had been the very epicenter of that Greek heritage. Here, at last, was his opportunity to impress and feel one with the people of that great city as he addressed them at the Areopagus.
Paul’s speech, which we heard in today’s first reading, was masterful. He had been thoroughly prepared for his moment in the sun. He began by referencing the many altars and shrines that filled the city. But instead of condemning them and their gods as superstitions, as worthless things, he skillfully turned their presence around and praised his audience for being “extremely religious… in every way.” (Some fancy footwork there!) Tweaking the meaning of an inscription “to an unknown god,” he then spoke to them about the only, one, true God, even managing to work in a quotation from one of their own poets. He ended with a crescendo that culminated in the good news that God had raised Jesus from the dead. His brief address was a masterpiece.
And, just as he readied himself for a resounding round of applause, Acts tells us that some of his audience began to laugh at him and at his message. Others responded basically, “That’s nice – what did you say your name was? But hey, look at the time. Got to be going. We’ll come back to listen to you some other time.” Basically, “don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
Paul was crushed. Paul was humiliated. Paul had failed miserably.
From the way that he describes that failure in the opening section of his First Letter to the Corinthians, it is apparent that Paul’s experience had been traumatic. He speaks (1 Cor. 2:3) of coming to them from Athens “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” For him, it had obviously been a moment of crisis.
But what was most important for the rest of his life and ministry, and for the future of the Christian faith and life for millennia to come, was the way that he responded to his failure. He didn’t pack his bags and go back home, abandoning the cause in which he believed. He didn’t blame others for his mistakes. Instead he learned from his failure. He recognized the mistakes that he had made both in his overall approach and in his priorities. And he made the changes necessary for him to become one of the greatest teachers and missionaries that the church has ever known.
Paul is certainly not the only character in the bible who experienced failure. There are many others, including Jesus himself. At the time of the Last Supper, during which today’s gospel reading takes place, Jesus was about to be rejected by the leaders of his time, abandoned by his closest friends, and tortured to death by soldiers of the Roman Empire. To all around him, he seemed like an obvious and even spectacular failure. But we affirm that God took that failure and transformed it into new life, not only for Jesus, but for all the world.
Failure is an integral part of human life. We all fail, many times and in many ways. That’s a given. But what is of key importance is what we do in response to that failure. We can try to deny it or to blame it on somebody else; there are plenty of examples of that in some of the most prominent people in our world today. Or we can accept it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. Henry Ford once observed, “The only real mistake is one from which we learn nothing.”
Earlier this year, I listened to a story on NPR about an award-winning, young, high-school biology teacher and about her approach to teaching. She noted that her students seem to be shocked the first day that they walk into her classroom and see the sign that she keeps posted prominently in the front of the room. It declares “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” Her apparently very successful approach to teaching comes in recognizing that failure is an integral part of life, and that failures can be some of the most effective learning tools that we have. It all depends what we do with it.
This past Sunday, the Dayton Daily News included a column written by Dr. Kyle Ramey, Oakwood’s Superintendent of Schools. It addressed the topic of failure in the life of students. He emphasized the importance of challenging ourselves and our children in life, opening up the possibility for both success and failure. And he spoke about how essential it is to be able to reflect, within a caring family and community, on our failures as well as on our successes.
That is an observation that is important for us adults as well as for our young people. And it is important for communities as well, including the community that we call the church. We, too, need to “aim high,” as the expression goes: to take carefully chosen risks in which we might succeed or fail, and then be present with one another no matter what the outcome, so that we can learn together and then move on to the next challenge in our shared life and ministry.
The fact that we fail does not mean that we are failures. It means that we are human. What is illustrative of our character is what we do with our failures.
That is one of the key messages, both of today’s readings and of this Easter season. As the blessing we will use at the end of our service today insists, we Christians live our lives in “Christ, who out of defeat brings new hope and new alternatives.” While it is often hard to see at the time, our failures in life can even be a blessing to us and an opportunity for us. The choice is ours. And the same God of hope who raised Jesus from the dead is always present with us to help us learn from our failures and to renew us for the next mission on which God sends us.