The reading today is from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. Before I share these few verses, some background may be helpful. Some call this letter, Paul’s “foolish letter.” They call it that because Paul was accused of being a fool by the Christians in Corinth, and he took that name and wore it like a badge of honor. He could have boasted in his accomplishments and his mystical experiences and his spiritual maturity, but he would not. He would rather, he said, be weak so that the power of Christ would be perfected in him. Perfected power.
Hear now the word of the Lord:
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Let us pray: Living God, speak. Speak in power to heal, and bless; to summon, and transform. Speak words of life and grace, by the illumination of your Spirit. Through Christ we pray, Amen.
Imagine you’re a candidate in a job interview. The interview is going well. You, as the candidate, are sharing your strengths and gifts, and the conversation is clicking. Then, just when you are about to hit the home stretch, you get the question everyone dreads the most: what is your biggest weakness? It’s a seemingly innocent question. But it’s designed to throw you off a little and catch you off guard. It’s made to reveal something about your character that the employer needs to know: how do you handle difficulty?
The trouble is, this little question is fraught with difficulty for the one being interviewed. Business magazines and blogs give out advice regularly on how to answer the question in the most strategic way. They suggest some things you shouldn’t say… When someone asks you “What’s your biggest weakness?”, you shouldn’t under-share. Don’t say, “My biggest weakness is that I work so hard I don’t allow myself to relax.” That’s a dodge, and interviewers hear that all the time. On the other hand, experts say, you shouldn’t overshare either. Don’t say something like: “Well, I have a really hard time managing money, and I forget to pay my bills and that means I have to move a lot, and when I move I miss work.”
It’s the delicate dance of handling our weaknesses. Don’t reveal too little, but don’t reveal too much. We knows how to handle success, accomplishment, growth, strength. We celebrate talent and skill, we stand and applaud ingenuity and creativity. When we see those qualities we read about it, we watch it, we buy it, we hire it, we promote it. This is what Paul calls in the first letter to the Corinthians, “human wisdom.” But we are not sure how to handle weakness. What do we do with struggles, with wounds, with disability, and vulnerability? That is the shadow side of human wisdom.
In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he shares with them with a gospel truth that makes no sense except in the light of the gospel: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had founded the church in Corinth, but it had proven to be a difficult child to raise. By the time we get to the second letter, the relationship has been strained to the breaking point. Part of the trouble was the Corinthian Christians wanted a flashier faith than Paul gave them. They wanted to be impressed with mystical experiences, with flourishing rhetoric, and with hidden wisdom. They wanted, in Paul’s words, a “super-apostle.” And their founding pastor, though he was a powerful writer, did not impress anybody with his speaking skills. Turns out, Paul was a poor preacher. He did not share secret insights, or special visions, or fancy phrases. Paul simply preached Christ, and fashioned himself as an ordinary apostle.
In this letter, he is offering a gospel-based defense of weakness. He writes that in order to keep him humble, to keep him from becoming conceited or thinking too much of himself, the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh.” This is not literal, but symbolic. Paul had a disability that he battled constantly, and which was nearly debilitating to him. He said it was like Satan was tormenting him. Now Paul did not share what this thorn in the flesh was, and scholars have debated since the early church what it could have been. We can safely assume it was some form of disability or illness, perhaps even a crippling anxiety.
Whatever it was, it was noticeable. And Paul prayed for it to be taken away. Three times, he called out to God to please take away this thorn in his side, this weakness. Until the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The Greek word for “sufficient” is arkei. It means more than sufficient; it means content. Arkei is freedom from want that brings contentment and peace. Deep peace that surpasses suffering. In response to his prayer, Paul hears the Lord say, “My grace is enough for you, Paul. My grace is enough for you to be content. Because my power is perfected in weakness.” Perfected means it is fully developed; it reaches its ultimate goal and purpose.
Here is the gospel truth: the power of God is made perfect in human weakness. This is the truth that Paul staked his ministry on. He did not lift up before the church his gifts and skills. He celebrated the power of God working through his weakness. Now, it was not an excuse for mediocrity; Paul did not aim for mediocre middling ministry. He always called himself and the churches he served to excellence for the sake of the gospel. Nor, was this an excuse for doing nothing. Paul was constantly expending himself, pouring his life out, in ministry and service, preaching and writing. This was not an excuse, and Paul was not dodging the question of, “What is your biggest weakness?” He was stating the gospel truth, as strange as it sounds: God works best through weakness.
Sally Brown, a friend of mine and professor at Princeton Seminary, in commenting on this text, writes, “Spiritual roots … grow deepest and strongest as we struggle together through experiences we cannot, and would not, construct or choose.” As individuals, we face many such experiences that we would not choose. Challenges, tragedies, obstacles; that must press through in faith. And as a church community and as congregations, we face many such experiences. Changing neighborhoods, the loss of key leadership, struggles with funding and budgets, divisive theological issues and institutional debates.
These are weaknesses; they are even thorns in the flesh. But what if these weaknesses are also places of strength? For in these weaknesses, we may be pressed out of ourselves; we may be pressed to trust each other in new ways; we may be pressed to pray as if something is at stake; we may be pressed to trust that God will make a way where there seems to be no way.
There is a hunger in our society for a spiritual connection. If you look at the attendance in churches; if you read studies like the Pew Forum Report on Religion in America, you may doubt what I just said. You may think that people are not interested in a spiritual connection or a life of faith. In the words of Thomas Friedman, you may think the world has become flat, not just economically but also spiritually. There are no more heights of transcendence; or at least if there are, people aren’t looking up.
But there is in our wider world a hunger for spiritual connection. There is a surge in popular spirituality, even though people are more and more inclined to distance themselves from religious institutions. There is an explosion of practices such as spiritual medicine, mindfulness meditation, spiritual pilgrimages and intentional self-care. In the church, ancient practices like Labyrinth walks, contemplative prayer, Ignatian discernment, and Taizé worship are exploding in popularity. People are hungry for a real, living, vibrant, connection with God.
Paul has something to say to us, who are hungry for an experience with God, and it is a strange gospel shaped truth: God’s works best through weakness. The Columbia Seminary professor Walter Brueggeman wrote, “Where life is not rent, the God of Israel is not inclined to be present.”[i] God did not take Paul’s thorn from his side; no more than God removed a crown of thorns from his own head. God’s strength is perfected in weakness. God’s power is made perfect in vulnerability. In the places where individuals and communities are torn apart and wrecked, there God chooses to dwell in power.
Two weeks ago, the whole world watched with amazement as the family and members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston sat in bail hearing and offered forgiveness to Dylan Roof. They did not come at him with anger or vengeance, with threats or invective, though surely they could have and we would have applauded them for it. They came with a broken heart, and many tears, and forgiveness. Then on Sunday morning they gathered for worship before a world that stood in shock, to sing and pray and claim the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
This past Sunday, Joe Biden attended Emmanuel Church to mourn and worship with them. After the service, he told a story of being called that previous week by a leader who governs in a troubled and violent part of the world. The leader asked him, “How? How are in the face of such hatred and murder are people not rioting in the street? How do you do that?” The whole world has wondered that question, and I believe it has everything to do with the faith of the people of the Emmanuel Church. They have claimed that promise that God’s power is made perfect, in vulnerability not in vengeance. And the world has stood with tear-filled eyes.
Does Christian faith have anything real to offer? Does Jesus Christ have anything real to offer? The resounding answer is yes! And when step forward into places that are broken, we find Christ there in power. When we accept, even boast, or our weakness, we find God’s grace is sufficient to bring peace to the deepest suffering. We go and share in the weakness and suffering of the world, we find that God’s power is perfected at that very point of need.
How do you handle weakness? Step into it, entrust it to God in faith, and find that the power of Christ dwells in you, and you rest in Christ.
[i] Walter Brueggeman, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology, p. 129