Power made perfect in weakness…a lesson for our times. Sermon for Adel Parish Church, 5th Sunday after Trinity 2021.
2 Corinthians 12: 2 -10
It’s been a tough 18 months hasn’t it? So many things we took for granted suddenly no longer possible…much of the control we had over our lives removed. Difficult to plan ahead because of changing regulations…yet impossible to be spontaneous as so many things have to be booked.
Last week at our All-Age service, Jane shared what our new online presence has meant to her. As someone with a hidden disability, she gave us an important reminder that this lack of control, this exclusion from things we’d like to do, is what some people face every day, COVID or no COVID.
Hopefully our recent experiences have made us more understanding of the struggles others face. More than that though, perhaps we’re in a better position to hear God’s word – hidden in the middle of our New Testament reading…’My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
Paul is writing to a church which has been swayed into following apostles whose message is one of power and boasting. Apostles who talk more about themselves than about Jesus as Lord…about how they should be followed because they’ve been given special visions.
Paul of course had a pretty special vision of his own. Most scholars think he’s referring to himself when he talks of ‘a person caught up to the third heaven’, but writes as if it’s someone else to step away from this sort of boasting. Instead, he concentrates on the ‘thorn’ he’s been given.
There’s been great speculation about the nature of this ‘thorn’, but that isn’t important…what matters is what Paul does tell us.
He tells us that this weakness – whatever it is – came from ‘Satan’. In other words – it’s not something God inflicted as part of a grand plan; God doesn’t cause suffering to teach us lessons.
Paul prayed for this weakness to be taken away, but that’s not how God seems to work. The message Paul receives from God, is that this weakness, disease, whatever it is, whatever caused it, can help him start to understand God’s ways. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
It’s something Paul had begun to learn…but something our modern world, which puts so much value on what people do, finds really difficult to accept…that God’s power…true power…is made perfect in weakness.
This isn’t about Jesus caring for the weak, but rather Jesus becoming the weak. It’s at the centre of our faith story – but still hard to grasp.
In all the gospel accounts – at the climax of his ministry – Jesus stops being active, doing miracles and works of power. He gives up all power over his life…lets himself be arrested, condemned and killed.
To the world, Jesus’ end looks like failure. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday are now jeering; the fervent disciples have fled; he doesn’t even seem to have words to defend himself…weakness indeed.
Yet in all the gospels this is Jesus’ time of triumph. In John, those who come to arrest him fall down in awe. In the other gospels, the centurion who sees him die responds, ’truly this man was the Son of God’. This is before the resurrection. The centurion has recognised ‘power made perfect in weakness’.
The loss of control brought about by this pandemic has exposed how we struggle with this truth…but it’s a truth we need to learn as we hopefully ‘get back to normal’. Because ‘normal’ life tends to value strength and the ability to be in control, and looks down on those without this power. Dependence, ‘weakness’, is seen as a loss of dignity.
But medical advances mean an aging population, and the survival of people with quite profound disabilities. Technological advances mean many jobs are disappearing. In this modern world, more of us are going to depend on ‘benefits’; more of us are going to need ‘looking after’. Power made perfect in weakness is a revelation Christians need to offer to society.
It’s not about pity, or charity, or even valuing everyone as a child of God. It’s about seeing things completely differently. It’s a truth that’s hard to explain – slightly easier to recognise.
Recently I had the privilege of taking a wedding; and hearing two people, very much in love, say to each other, ‘all that I am I give to you’. All that they are, good and not so good, handed over in trust that it will be received with love. Real love brings vulnerability. It can be exploited, but when it’s reciprocated, it’s the strongest thing we can imagine. It gives a glimpse of ‘power made perfect in weakness.’
As a primary school teacher, I once taught a class that included a child with major learning difficulties. By any conventional measure he was ‘weak’. But the gift he was to that class, just by being himself, was amazing. And it went far beyond their developing patience and kindness.
Somehow his weakness and need for help made it easier for others to acknowledge theirs. As a class we started to measure success differently, we began to ‘boast’ about different things. It was seen as a privilege to be partnered with him. By the end of the year, we all looked on life a little differently.
‘Power is made perfect in weakness.’ I don’t believe that means God sends troubles and weakness to help us grow. I don’t believe it means unemployment, the frailty of age, disabilities, the pain of dementia should be welcomed with joy…they can be difficult and horrible. But I do believe that for Christians being weak should never be seen as a condition of diminished dignity…a degrading state.
In Jesus, God chose to become weak…it’s through the weakness of unconditional love he somehow offers us salvation. The weak in our society then, even in their weakness, are still ‘made in the image of God’, and that surely gives them a dignity beyond anything that comes from what they can do.