A sermon for the 8th July, 2018
Karl Barth once said that opening the Bible was like stepping through a doorway into a strange new world which, like the past, is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Today’s reading is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). They’re a church with problems, and Paul has written to them twice before, and visited them, trying to solve those problems. Now he’s writing to them again, partly because some smooth-talking “super-apostles” have turned up, saying the Corinthians should listen to them, rather than him.
Do you remember the televangelists from the 80s, all big hair and shiny teeth? I think of them when I read this letter, talking about all the visions God has given to them, of the miraculous powers they possess, of the health and wealth that awaits those who follow them.
Paul spends a long time, in what is called his “Fool’s Speech”, talking about his qualifications as an apostle. He can match any of their claims: he is a Jew, and a descendant of Abraham; he has been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and in constant danger as a minister of Christ; he has performed signs and wonders, and he’s had visions and revelations from the Lord, too. In the things that he has done, he is more than equal to these “super-apostles”, but the funny thing is, he calls all those things, and his boasting in them foolishness.
At the beginning of our reading, Paul is boasting, unwillingly, about the visions and revelations he has had. He, too, has heard from God, and been caught up into Paradise – but that’s as far as Paul will go, because it isn’t the great things he has seen and done that are important – it is actually his weakness that he wants to boast about.
The country of God is a strange one, and in the world of Christ’s Kingdom things are different to the world outside. Here, weakness is something to celebrate, because God’s “power is made perfect in weakness”.
Paul has been given what he calls “a thorn”, “a messenger of Satan” to torment him. If you can think of an illness, disability, or moral temptation, I can practically guarantee that someone has declared that that is what Paul’s thorn was, but he doesn’t specify, presumably because he thought it unimportant. It was something unpleasant enough for him to keep asking God to take it away, and it was something that God refused to take away. It was a weakness that he would continue to live with, and through which God’s power would be manifested in him.
Sometimes, a weakness can transform someone’s life into a powerful force for good. Do you remember Jade Goody? She was a reality television ‘star’, a laughingstock who was ridiculed for her lack of general knowledge, remembered for a racist incident on Big Brother in 2007. Then, a year later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died in 2009 at the age of 27, after very publically sharing the progression of her illness. She used her terminal cancer to raise awareness and to encourage women to be screened, and in what they called “the Goody effect”, there was a massive increase in the number of young women being screened for cervical cancer. In the weakness of her very public illness and death, she drew power to save the lives of others.
“Weakness is power” sounds like something from 1984, on a par with “war is peace” or “freedom is slavery”, but it’s a theme running throughout the Bible. We can see it in our Gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13), as the people of Nazareth show their incredulity that Jesus, their local builder, has come back to them preaching with great wisdom and working miracles with power, which astonishes them so much that they’re offended by him. We see it, too, in the sending out of the twelve apostles who are, quite frankly, dimwits at this point in the Gospel, still confused as to who Jesus is and what he is here for. Not only that, but Jesus has them go out in just the clothes they stand up in, vulnerable, and dependent on others. Looking from the outside, they are weak, and yet they “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
And there is greater weakness yet to come, the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus, God in the flesh, will come under the power of others, and have his body broken and disabled upon the cross. And on that instrument of humiliation, Jesus will die. It is hard to think of a greater demonstration of weakness than that.
There is weakness on Calvary, but from that weakness comes power, as, three days later, the power of God will be magnificently manifested in Christ’s resurrection. The weakness of Calvary and the power of Easter are entwined, the great mystery at the heart of Christian faith. At the conclusion of Paul’s letter, just after our reading, he writes that Christ “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:4)
Over the last fifteen years, ever since I experienced depression as a student, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about disability. Every one of us has weaknesses, temporary or permanent. All of us are jars of clay, and fragile, breakable as a cup dropped onto the floor. We experience illness, disability, hardship, sleepless nights, sorrow, and all the different pains of being human. Others may have different, harder, or lighter troubles than ours, but we could all join in with Job’s gloomy assessment that “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble”, or with Newman’s prayer asking God to “support us all the day long of this troublous life.”
I described it as “gloomy”, because contemplating our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, can be quite a cheerless task. Yet, when Paul talks about his vulnerabilities; his ‘thorn’, the persecutions he has experienced and the physical hardships and rejection he has endured, he is anything but gloomy – he rejoices in them, saying, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Can you imagine a political leader, appealing for our votes with the message, “I am weak”? Or a national leader revealing they lack something vital for the job? Our leaders like to emphasise strength; that they can deal with anything, they lack nothing, and we are safe in their hands. But Paul, and other leaders in that strange country of the Bible are a bit different. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of Moses, the great lawgiver and prophet who led his people from slavery to the borders of the Promised Land. Moses had a weakness, a disability which you’d think would rule him out from being a leader – he stuttered. When God appears to him within the burning bush, telling him to lead the Israelites to freedom, Moses says he can’t, for he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) – making him an odd choice to teach and to lead. You might expect God to heal Moses of that weakness so that he could take up his rôle, but he doesn’t, just like he didn’t take away Paul’s thorn. Instead, God says, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak”. (Exodus 4:11-12)
It is God who makes weakness into strength, and God chooses to make his power perfect, or fulfilled, in weakness. Weaknesses aren’t pleasant for us, whether they’re hard times, or whether they’re a vulnerability which is part of us. Like Paul, we might ask God again and again to remove them, and have the answer be “no”. We may fear that our weakness stops us from leading the life God wants of us, or from sharing the love of God with others. That isn’t the case, for in this strange, upside-down country of God it is through weakness, through the brokenness that we all, one way or another, share, that he works most powerfully.
When we confront the fact that we are weak, vulnerable and broken, it is then that we realise our dependency on God. It is at those moments that we know that we need God to make us whole, and that the things we achieve aren’t because we are wonderful, but because God graciously works through us. When we are feeling strong, or are “too elated”, as Paul puts it, we face the danger of forgetting all that God does for us and through us. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Mark 2:17), and it is in our weakness that we recognise our need for Christ, who faced ultimate weakness, broken upon the cross.
And when we are weak, and when we suffer, when we rely upon the Crucified One and not upon our own ‘strength’, that is when our weaknesses can be transformed, resurrected into strengths by the power of God.
Lord God, our refuge and strength,
in our weakness, we can do nothing without your help.
May we look upon the weakest of our society with new eyes
for within them lies the greatest potential for your strength to be shown.
Through all our weaknesses, may your power be made known,
to the greater glory of your name. Amen.