Strength in Weakness

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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.

aidan-hart-apostle-paulToday’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.

eng-jade-teaser-BM-Bayern-Upshire-jpgSometimes, 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.”

02f01And 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)

when-i-am-weak-he-is-strongIt 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.

I’d like to take a moment to plug “Disability and Jesus” and their forthcoming Daily Office. I’ve no affiliation to them (aside from following them on Twitter) but I admire their work.

Ora et Labora: Work, Prayer & Value

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It’s value judgement time!

Alex is always busy. From 9-5 Alex is at work in the office, and then attends prayer meetings and church outreach events in the evenings. At weekends Alex can be found leading worship and preaching the Gospel.

Jamie isn’t quite so busy. Jamie doesn’t work, receives welfare, and rarely makes it to church events. Jamie spends a lot of time in the house, reading, and praying.

Which of these two people is the most useful in the church, and more generally? In what they do with their time, is Jamie or Alex worth more?

Continue reading “Ora et Labora: Work, Prayer & Value”

Unreliable Witnesses?

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“You are my witnesses,” says the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am He.” (Isaiah 43:10a)

“You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8b)

It will soon be Pentecost, the great Christian festival celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples, the power behind the great mission of Christ’s Church, to proclaim the Good News to all creation.

Christ’s followers are his witnesses – people who have seen and experienced his love in their lives, and whose duty and desire is to share that love with others, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) They witness by testifying of what they know and have experienced of God, his grace, forgiveness, and love. Both in their words and in their deeds, Christians are to witness to the truth of Christ’s divinity, his sacrifice upon the Cross, and his resurrection – to the love of God made known in Jesus. This isn’t a choice, or a specialist role, but part of what it is to be a Christian (Matt 10:18, 28:19; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:13; Acts 1:8 and more), and the testimony of Christians helps others to believe (John 4:39; 2 Thess 1:10). So, evangelism, bearing witness to Christ, is the duty of all Christians – but what does it mean to testify to the truth of Christ as a mentally ill person?

Continue reading “Unreliable Witnesses?”

Depression in the Desert

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At his prayer the fire had fallen; at his word four hundred and fifty enemies had perished. Rain fell on a parched land; victory was his. But at the gates of the city he heard the news, the rulers still fought him, and swore on their gods to take his life.

From victor to victim: fear drove him, running, to the city of the desert. There he left his servant, and continued on alone, into the arid wastes. Finally, he could flee no more, and came to rest under a tree.

“I’ve had enough. I can’t go on. Lord, take my life – I’m no better than my ancestors.”

And then he slept, under the tree. While sleeping, an angel came, touched him, and said,

“Get up, and eat.”

Beside his head was bread, still warm from the fire, and a jar of fresh water. The man ate and drank, and slept once more.

Again, an angel came, touched him, saying,

“Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”

He ate and drank, and that food sustained him for forty days and forty nights, as he travelled to God’s mountain. There, he sheltered in a cave.

Then God said,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And the man replied,

“I have been passionate for you, Lord, but your people have broken their covenant with you, broken down your altars, and killed all your prophets – I’m the only one left. Now they’re seeking my life, too.”

“Go and stand on the mountain, for I am coming.”

And a mighty wind split the mountains and shattered rocks into pieces. But God was not in the wind. Then a tremendous earthquake shook the world – but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire – but God wasn’t there either. Finally, there was a sound of sheer silence…

The man wrapped his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said again,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Again, the man said,

“I have been passionate for you, Lord, but your people have broken their covenant with you, broken down your altars, and killed all your prophets – I’m the only one left. Now they’re seeking my life, too.”

Now God said to him,

“Go back the way you came, to the wilderness of Damascus. Anoint Hazael to be king of Aram and Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Then anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha. But I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all those who haven’t bowed to Baal, all those who have never kissed him.”

Continue reading “Depression in the Desert”

From Madness to Ministry

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The Gerasene Demoniac

They travelled by boat that day, over the sea, and into the country of the Gerasenes, a pagan people. In this strange place, stranger things occur, and as they leave their boat, a madman greets them. He came from the tombs, for he lived with the dead. A strong man, no one could restrain him, he tore away the iron shackles and heavy chains they used to bind him. No one had the strength to tame him. Over and over, night and day, his screams echoed among the graves and upon the hillside while he cut himself with sharp stones.

From far off, he saw Jesus approach, and rushed towards him, flinging himself to the ground. “Why? What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, stop torturing me!” for Jesus was ordering the unclean spirit from him.

“What’s your name?” Jesus asked.

“My name is Legion, for we are many,” said the spirits in the man, and they begged Jesus not to throw them out of the country. On the hillside, a herd of pigs were grazing, and the spirits pleaded, “send us into the pigs!”

So Jesus gave them permission to do just that. The spirits left the man, and entered the pigs, and all at once the pigs charged, down the hillside, and straight into the sea. Around two thousand pigs drowned.

The pig-herders ran to tell of what had happened. They told it in the town, and they told it in the countryside, and people came to see what had happened. There they saw the man, the one called “Legion”, and he was sitting, dressed and in his right mind! They were frightened, and when this man’s story was explained to them, they begged Jesus to leave.

And so Jesus prepared to leave the country. As he was getting back into his boat, the once-possessed man asked to go with him – but Jesus wouldn’t let him.

“Go home,” he said, “back to your own people. Tell them what the Lord has done for you, and how he had pity on you.”

And so the man went off, and proclaimed throughout the Decapolis what Jesus had done. And the people were amazed. Continue reading “From Madness to Ministry”