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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How to shake the dust from your feet


So Jesus sends his disciples on their first mission.  Lesson #1 – learn how to fail.


Of course we are all wary of failure, to think that to experience failure is to become a failure.  So Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood “Get Christians preoccupied with their failures. From there the battle is won.”


And yet failure is part and parcel of the Christian life.  My hero George Verwer, who died last year, often spoke about failure as being the backdoor of success.  And the organisation he founded, Operation Mobilisation, has a proud history of many failures – and yet it is one of the most fruitful of all mission agencies. 


This week I’ve been reading BRF notes by Emma Ineson, the Bishop of Kensington, on failure.  We don’t like failure, almost by definition, in that we finish up being somewhere where we don’t want to be.  The problem is that failure can so easily cause us to be anxious, fearful of other people’s judgements, reluctant to take risks. 


And of course, there are some failures which, to quote the apostle Paul, will cause us “to despair of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8”). Sadly we recently witnessed (again) Christian leaders who have, to use the jargon, ‘fallen from grace’ with the result that their failure has damaged and disillusioned many.


However, the key question is, and here I quote Bishop Ineson:  “The question is not ‘Will there be failure?’ but rather ‘Where there is failure, what will we do about it and what will be do with it?’” And here we look to Jesus.


Jesus returns to his hometown. The people of Nazareth are intrigued by the reports of his teaching and healing ministry.  And they are amazed at his teaching.  “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3).


Next thing:  “And they took offense at him.”  Mark does not tell us why, except to say “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (vv5f)


In fact, Luke tells us that the good townspeople of Nazareth actually tried to kill their famous son.  It must have been deeply hurtful for Jesus, to be so openly rejected by folks he knew well, people he had grown up with. 


To some extent he was able to rationalise it: “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”


But what happens next is intriguing, as he sends his disciples out, two by two, to extend his own ministry.  They are to travel light: “no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” (v8).  His strategy is clear:  “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.”


And then he prepares them for failure, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”  Jesus anticipates that they will encounter rejection more often than recognition.


Bishop Ineson again (you can hear her sigh): “Rather than give them the kind of motivational training we might associate with the residential leadership programme that new ordinands are given these days, Jesus knew that the path to which he had called them was strewn with difficulties and more likely to earn them suffering than success, grief rather than glory.”  Amen to that. 


As I mentioned some weeks back,  I’m currently reading Kenneth Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.  He comments on the dust stirred up by the disciples’ feet.  “Shaking it off is a symbolic gesture that means ‘I am finished with you and am leaving.’ Furthermore, as I leave, I take nothing from this house, not even its dust"


He continues that shaking off the dust “can help the apostles leave behind them any lingering sense of failure.  It frees them to go on to the next home or village.  Having tried and failed, they must move on.  It is astounding to see Jesus on this very first outreach beyond the range of his voice offering advice on how to deal with failure.”


This sense of failure must be familiar with anyone who would convey the Gospel message.  Rather than disappoint us it should equip us as we persevere.  To quote the remarkable Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple.  “One who faces his own failures is steadily advancing on the pilgrim's way.”


But what about moral failure, when we have patently let down Jesus by our behaviour, when we hit the front page of the Daily Mail? 


The person to ask here is Simon aka Peter. When Jesus needed him most, he failed.  Three times, no less.  So the cock crows and we read in Mark’s gospel (who probably used Peter as a major source):  “And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:72)


By any reckoning, that’s it.  Peter had to live the rest of his life with this single failure haunting his every step.  He would be known as the disciple who failed Jesus the most, not least because Jesus gave him the name which speaks of solid reliability.  But Peter proved to be no rock.


It is in Mark’s Gospel where we hear the angel speak to the women from the empty tomb  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 14:7). 


No wonder Peter ran as fast as he could when he heard the women’s report. 


Wonderfully there are no failures in the Kingdom of God.  Or to put in another way, the Kingdom of God is peopled by failures.  



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