2 Corinthians 12:2-10
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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.” Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
It just sounds rather too easy doesn’t it. It’s up there with “never mind, you just lost your job, but there’s always a silver lining.” Or “you know, God has given you this disease, or bad fortune, or awful situation to navigate so that you can really learn who you are.” It’s kind of a grown-up version of eat your spinach because it will put hairs on your chest.
It one of the most knotty challenges of Christianity: believing at the same time in a God of love, and living in a world of pain and sorrow and disappointment. And trying to work out how we navigate the latter whilst believing in the former.
And there are half-dozen sermons I want to preach on these readings. There is a sermon about healing. That comes out of the gospel reading; actually there are two sermons about healing which I could preach. The first one is about the fact that when Jesus is in his home town where he is greeted with really pretty profound scepticism and doubt, we learn that even though “he could do no deed of power there”, she still laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. Wow! What does it mean that Christ is restricted in being able to do deeds of power? And even when he is restricted, he can still lay his hands on sick people and cure them. There’s a whole sermon series in there really.
There is a sermon about what on earth this “third heaven” is that Paul describes someone as being caught up into and the beginning of our epistle reading this morning. Most scholars believe Paul is talking about himself, it’s autobiographical. Where was it that he is taken? There’s a whole sermon there about heaven.
But I’d like to concentrate on the closing lines of today’s epistle. Really the bit that begins with Paul talking about the “thorn in the flesh” that he is given, and ending up with that line with which I began this sermon: whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Because on reading this at first glance, what it seems to be saying is that Paul believes that God has done something to him which brings him pain, or discomfort, or upset. Or at least God doesn’t take it away. Huge amounts of ink has been expended by biblical scholars on what this thorn in the flesh might be. There’s a line of thought that this is a physical disability of some sort, or perhaps speech impediment, as we hear elsewhere in the Scripture that Paul often uses other people to speak for him. Some people interpret this thorn in the flesh as depression. Some people think he’s talking about some sort of chronic illness. Others think it’s more of a spiritual malignancy, perhaps profound doubts or fears. And I guess we just don’t know. But what is clear here is that there is something in Paul’s life which he wishes wasn’t there, which is debilitating or which detracts from him being able to live his life the way he would wish to live it. And he has prayed that it would go away, and God says no.
Okay, let’s stop there. I know that the text doesn’t say that God says no. What it says is that God says “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And there’s a huge difference between that, and simply saying “no-get stuffed". Live with it.
But we are right in the heart of human experience here. I watched people in Amesbury and Salisbury being interviewed on television earlier this week, particularly independent shopkeepers, people who run bed-and-breakfast or small hotels, and so on, who were almost literally weeping as the news of the second Novichok poisoning began to filter through. People who had just got back on their feet, or not even back on their feet yet, but at least up on to their knees, and could see the possibility of some sort of return to normality in the long hot summer weeks ahead, suddenly finding that the region of Wiltshire upon which they depend for their livelihoods is once again being portrayed as a no-go area in some parts of the media. I imagine that if you said to one of them, oh never mind, don’t forget “whenever I am weak, then I am strong”, they would be quite likely to punch you in the face. Or at least explain to you in fairly strong terms that that is not at all how it feels.
The horrible sinking feeling in the stomachs of parents whose children have been playing in the parks of the city, and of Amesbury, upon hearing people hypothesise that leftover Novichok might have been lying about in hedgerows ready to be picked up by inquisitive fingers is a genuine horrible sinking feeling, regardless of the facts, which of course are not clear yet and may never be. The feeling of one's children, one’s family being in danger is not likely to be made better by somebody saying “don’t worry, power is made perfect in weakness.”
And as a beach for in this Cathedral and elsewhere, there have been well-meaning people, on my journey through the last five years since my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis, who have said something along the lines of “God has given you this to make you stronger” or whatever. And that doesn’t feel like comfort to me, that feels like a pretty bitter pill to be asked to swallow.
So what is going on when Paul talks about forms in the flesh, and power being made perfect in weakness. What would you say to one of those independent business owners this week? Some of you here may be exactly such people. What would you say to your friend receiving a life changing diagnosis.
Well here are two things not to say. The first thing not to say is that God sends misfortune upon people in order to make them better Christians, or to teach them a lesson. That is bad theology, because it is in God’s nature only to love. The second thing not say is that God just doesn’t care, or that it is too weak to do anything about it. That is also bad theology, because we believe that God is everywhere, and sees everything, and is all-powerful.
The key, I think, to navigating this very difficult territory is to remember that what Paul is trying to say in our reading this morning is that when we, you and I, experience weakness, sorrow, injustice, persecution, it is not that we find our power or strength there, but that we find Christ’s power and strength there. The whole point of coming to faith in Christ is recognising that we stand in his strength, and not our own. And the reason that we know that Christ is powerful when weakness and sorrow and fear seem to be winning is the cross. At the heart of this Sunday Eucharist, Ian will hold up a broken piece of bread, and that is the ultimate symbol, the sacrament of how God’s love works, what God’s love looks like. At the point where it seems that the whole of Christ’s mission has failed, that all that he and the disciples had hoped for has come crashing down in humiliation and defeat, at that very moment Christ is King. Loving the world as it crucified him. Loving into the injustice and hatred and the brokenness of an angry and hurting world, what Jesus is able to do is what we cannot do in our own strength, and that is just keep loving, transforming by that amazing Grace the lost into the found, and opening eyes blinded by fear and greed and selfishness.
Power is made perfect in weakness because that is where Christ is powerful. And so he can do what we cannot, and when we hit rock bottom, we might be able to find through the grace of the sacraments and through the prayers of the church, that actually what we have hit is the beginning of yet more of the boundless and amazing graces of the peace of God which passes all understanding.
Now that doesn’t keep someone’s shop open. And it doesn’t protect innocent people from the violence of others. This is not a quick fix. But it is a promise that when we get to the end of our own capacities there is no cliff edge for us to fall off, but rather the loving arms of our saviour waiting to catch us and hold us up.