Easter B Sermon (2000)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: Mark 16:1-8;
Acts 10; 1 Cor 15:1-11

MUCH MORE THAN A MORAL VICTORY

The game was over. The coach entered a sullen, utterly quiet locker: “I just want you guys to know that I am real proud of the way you played this afternoon,” he said. “Real proud. We didn’t win, but we did prove to a lot of people what we could do. It was a moral victory.”

On the way out that evening, with autumn sky now dark, the second string tackle turned to the quarterback and asked, “What’s a moral victory?”

The quarterback said, “It’s what a coach tells you when you lose the game.”

If you can’t fool a seventeen year-old football player about failure, who can you fool? When the scores are read on the 6:30 sportscast, nobody ever talks about “moral victory.” They tell you the scores, and the teams with the lower scores are simply the losers. No “moral victories.”

There’s still many who will be heard to say, “It’s not who won or lost, but how well they played the game.” And in some situations that may be true. But we live in Vince Lombardy country, who was realistic enough to know that, for the most part in our world, winning is the only thing. A coach remains a coach only when the win-loss record is in his favor. The corporate president stands up before a drooping sales graph and says to the shareholders, “Well, we lost six million this year but we’re calling it a moral victory, a year of character building for our company.” A week later, there’s a new name on the front door.

Failure. It’s that sinking emptiness in the stomach when you look down the list of grades on the exam. There are your initials. At the bottom. It’s that physician, returning from the operating room, “Well, we did everything we possibly could.” It’s packing up and moving from the house to separate apartments, packing last the book of wedding pictures that won’t be viewed again because they’re too painful. Failure. Defeat.

What to do with defeat? One response is cheap rationalization: It was a moral victory. I remember, as a young pastor, entering the home where her husband had just died, and she met me at the door with a fierce look on her face saying, “Preacher, don’t tell me nothing about how ‘he’s better off now,’ or ‘he’s in a better place’ or any of that other stuff. He’s gone!” She knew. She wasn’t up for any preacher-talk. He was gone.(1)

Today, in the face of failure, we have more skillful rationalizations. “Spin doctoring” we call it. And the best spin doctors are able to shrewdly shift responsibility to the some other person, the modern version of a very old story: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” And the woman said, “The serpent whom thou created, he gave me the fruit to eat.” Rationalization, blaming is not new, you see.

Failure. Defeat. How do we respond in the face of it? On this Easter Sunday — the day we celebrate God’s victory over death, much more than a mere moral victory, but the most real and important victory in history — we nevertheless notice that we have the version of the Easter story which you might say is the most realistic. Mark’s version. It hardly even looks like a victory. Jesus never appears. Just a young man who plays messenger for Jesus, asking the women to be messenger to the disciples. And the very last verse of Mark’s gospel is this: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Failure. Isn’t it?

In fact, Mark’s Gospel might be said to be the Gospel of Failure. Of the four gospels it is the most realistic about the fact of human failure. From beginning to end it seemingly is a catalogue of human failure. And yet it is a Gospel, that is, a story of Good News. So what gives? Is this just a “moral victory?” No, of course not. Because even as it catalogues for us all the human failures, it tells us the Good News of God’s response to it. It’s not a matter of what our response to failure might be, so much as it is the Good News that God has the perfect response for it: forgiveness. Jesus comes for those who need a doctor. Jesus comes precisely for those of us who fail a lot, because he has the perfect cure: the Good News of a God who loves us unconditionally with a forgiveness that is greater than even the greatest of our failures. Mark’s Gospel seems to want to prove that to us by not shying away one iota from that failure. No cheap rationalizations here.

Take the case of Peter as the #1 example. And, perhaps surprisingly, that’s precisely what I think Peter is in Mark’s Gospel, the epitome of failure. We could almost tell it like Paul Harvey, needing to know “the Rest of the Story.” We know Peter as the head disciple, one of the good guys. But, in Mark’s story, the rest of the story is that Peter, as head disciple, is the chief example of failure.

Consider his name. We know that his actual given name was Simon, not Peter. No, in fact Jesus gave him the name Peter, which means Rock. I ask you: Did Jesus mean that as a compliment? We know from St. Paul in Galatians that Simon Peter was also called Cephas, which means “head.” Simon Peter Cephas. Simon, the Rock Head! Could that be the rest of the story? Well, it’s how he behaves in Mark’s Gospel. He’s exemplary of a group of disciples who don’t ever seem to get it into their thick skulls what Jesus is really about. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Peter actually gets it right: that Jesus is the Messiah. But as soon as Jesus tells him what that means, “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. To which Jesus doesn’t just say, “Peter, you Rock Head!” No, it’s even worse. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

But there’s even more. Peter’s the rock, right? Do you remember Jesus’s Parable of the Sower? Well, some of the seed of God’s word falls on the rocky soil. This is how Jesus describes that rocky soil: “when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” Isn’t that the perfect picture of Jesus’ disciples? In the end, they all run away, failing Jesus at his most crucial hour.

Here again, Peter is the chief example, not the chief exception. Minutes before Jesus’ betrayal, this is the last exchange between Peter and Jesus that Mark records for us:

And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Now listen again to what the young man says to the women on that first Easter: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Did you notice that he singles out Peter? We might tend to miss that, because we usually think, ‘Oh, yea, Peter, the head disciple, of course Jesus wants him to know especially.’ But, now, “you know the rest of the story!” Peter is singled out because he is the biggest failure of all, and God’s response is that of a forgiveness which can outlast even our biggest failures. It is a forgiveness that can even outlive death on a cross.

What failures did you and I come here with this morning? Job-related failures? Personal relationship failures? Moral failures? Well, the Good News for us once again this Easter morning is that our God has a victory for us which is much more than a moral victory. It’s a forgiveness that can’t be defeated by even the most deadly of our failures. “He’s risen! He goes before you! There you will see him, just as he promised you.” (In fact, he’s waiting for us right over there at that table…)

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 23, 2000

Note

1. Up to this point the sermon has been largely based on a sermon by William H. Willimon, “Failure,” in the March 30, 1997 issue of Pulpit Resource, pages 51-54. He develops it with examples from the Old Testament, Moses and David. I develop it using Mark’s Gospel, especially focusing on Peter.

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