The pattern of the cross: failure and courage
When the Roman authorities decided to do away with Jesus by crucifying him, they
could little have imagined that for Christians the cross would become a way of speaking
positively about their values and the moral pattern that they sought to follow as
• The cross was intended to be such a horrifying way to die that a rebel’s followers
would scatter out of fear.
• But here we are, thousands of years later, still applying the cross as the standard for
our moral lives:
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my
followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who
want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the
sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and
forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8:34-37)
Most frequently, the cross is a kind of shorthand way for Christians to speak of a life
lived in complete self-offering in obedience to God and loving service to the neighbor.
• This is the kind of life that is really life, as God intends it.
• There is no substitute for this kind of life, and its value outstrips anything that you
might have to give for it.
Today, I would like to add to this understanding of the cross in our lives: the cross gives
us a way to think about failure in relationship to discipleship.
• Failure is a cross that most of us are loathe to pick up, and yet the Gospels witness
quite openly to the original disciples’ instances of failure and return.
• Even Jesus had to wrestle with failure in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he saw his
active life of ministry giving way to the cross and passion.
Immediately after one of the times in which Jesus predicts his suffering and death, we
Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked the disciples,
“What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they
had argued with one another who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-34)
No doubt this was a difficult moment for the disciples. Without commenting directly on
their foolish argument, Jesus says simply, “Whoever want to be first must be last of all
and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
• The disciples are corrected, they stumble again, try again, all the way through the end
of the Gospel of Mark, when Peter is mired in regret for having denied Jesus in his
time of need, and the terrified women flee from the empty tomb.
• And yet, without Peter’s and Mary Magdalene’s and Martha’s and James’ and John’s
and Thomas’ ultimate courage to proclaim the Good News in front of crowds and
tribunals, all the way to their deaths, we would have no faith handed down to us.
• Failure was a part of their discipleship, but it was not all of their discipleship.
• Failure is a part of our lives of discipleship, but it is not all of our discipleship.
Questions for Reflection
•What has been your greatest failure in life? How have you worked through it (or are
you still working it through)?
•What does God do with human failure? How do the cross and resurrection inform
how we think about and experience failure?
•Are there certain kinds of discipleship that you are afraid to attempt because you fear
God of both the darkness and the light, teach me to see my failures as a chance to learn
more deeply and completely how you love me, and give me the humility to
acknowledge the truth and to have the spirit of a learner in all that I do. This I pray in
the name of Jesus, whose beauty and power shine out from the rough darkness of the