“What do you mean by success?”

When I was training for the ministry at the Northern Baptist College I was assigned to Jack Swanson, the minister of the Alexander Maclaren Memorial Baptist Church in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, South Manchester. Jack was a delightfully kind Scotsman married to Betty, who could be a somewhat fearsome Scotswoman. I would arrive promptly on a Monday morning at the set hour of nine o’clock, but Jack would often still be recovering from Sunday and so would not be ready to see me; instead I would have a coffee with Betty. 

On one unforgettable occasion I made the mistake of saying to Betty that a certain well-known minister had experienced a ‘successful’ ministry. Immediately Betty growled, ‘What do you mean by success?’ That was a salutary lesson. For Jack was not a ‘successful’ minister in the normal sense of the term. Although he was a good preacher, he was not interested in building up the church – indeed eventually the church had to close. Instead he spent his time with people in need. He was, for instance, the chaplain at Christie’s, Manchester’s cancer hospital – I vividly remember accompanying him to see children suffering from dreadful cancers which were deforming their bodies. He cared for people in prison – I went with him to ‘Grisly Risely’ as also to Strangeways, the main prison in Manchester. He cared for tramps, indeed he cared for anybody in distress. In Jack I saw the heart of a pastor – although the reality was that he should probably have been a chaplain, for he was ill-equipped to run a church.

‘What do you mean by success?’ What would Jesus have said? Probably the nearest Jesus came to talking about ‘success’ was in his use of the term ‘harvest’. When Jesus spoke of the fields being “ripe for harvesting” (John 4.35) he was speaking of a world rich in Gospel potential. This potential was also expressed in the parable of the Sower, where along with the unreceptive soil, there was also receptive soil, for the seed which fell into good soil “brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and hundredfold” (Mark 4.8). This was a bumper harvest. In today’s terms, this was success. On another occasion, using the image of the vine Jesus made it clear that he expected his disciples to be fruitful. He said that the branches that “remained” in him would “bear much fruit” (John 15.8). He went on to tell his disciples that they had been appointed to “go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15.16). Is this not success?

But success – the harvest – can come at a great personal cost. I find it significant that in John’s Gospel, immediately after his so-called ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, Jesus said:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12.24).

‘Success’ entails sacrifice. The great Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond E Brown, commented:

The parable is concerned not with the fate of the grain but with its productivity – it either remains barren or bears fruit. This fruit is to be understood in the same sense as in 4.36, where the context of sayings about harvest showed that the fruit consisted in the people who were coming to Jesus and thus to God (The Gospel According to John: I-XII, 426).

Jesus knew that the death he would die would be no ordinary death – it would affect the lives of many. Just as one grain of wheat when it is buried in the ground and dies produces a rich harvest, so he in dying would produce a rich harvest of life for the world.

But Jesus was not just speaking about himself; he was also speaking about his followers. For Jesus went on to say: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me” (John 12.25, 26a). Here we have the Johannine equivalent of the Synoptic call to ‘take up the cross’ (see, for instance, Mark 8.34, 35), but what is different in John is the context of the harvest. Sacrifice is the way of impacting the lives of others for the sake of the Kingdom. That is an uncomfortable thought! On the other hand, Jesus does go on to say: “and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour” (John 12.26b). Yes, we will be rewarded for our labours – but not necessarily in this life! To judge what is a successful life demands the perspective of eternity.

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