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God’s Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?

God's Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

Related Posts:

How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    Look for signs of Heaven here, now.

  • Elizabeth O’Sullivan

    I appreciate this so much. Preach it brother. We started a conservative meeting, and it was beautiful, and then it had a devastating crisis over an attender’s behavior around young girls. Five years later, we are still meeting, but with half the numbers and without the children’s program. I struggled with much of what you described in terms of feeling a sense of failure. I also relate so deeply to your view of holding up pentacost as a model for what should happen in worship. And I relate deeply to being challenged to accept God’s gifts in brokenness instead. This speaks to my condition and gives me hope.. I appreciate the audio format because it makes your work more accessible to me. I have listened to many of your pieces on YouTube. I would encourage you to post these audio pieces on YouTube as well if it isn’t too much work.