In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know if Christians—if you and I—living in the United States of America in 2015 can understand Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul boasts in his weaknesses. Where he tells about this impressive revelation that he received, where he was caught up to God’s presence in heaven, and heard things that people are not allowed to speak. But he says that in order to keep him from being too elated, from having too high an opinion of himself, he was given a thorn in his flesh. Whether it was a physical ailment, a mental ailment, or a spiritual ailment, he doesn’t tell us. But he says it tormented him, even calling it a “messenger of Satan.” He asked God three times to take it away, and God didn’t say, “Hey Paul, I made you this way, it’s good.” God just says no. “My grace is sufficient for you; it’s enough. And My power is made perfect, brought to completion—it comes to its proper end—in weakness.” So Paul will boast in his weakness. Not because it’s good, or because it’s just who he is, a sort of personality quirk. He boasts in his weakness so that the power of Christ can rest on him. His weakness is proof that he needs Jesus. If he were to boast in his revelation, in his apostleship, in something else, then he would be downplaying the power of Christ and highlighting his own strength. But Paul says that when he is weak, then he is strong. That is not a generic motivational statement about how your weaknesses are really your strengths. It is a very specific statement about Paul’s weakness, and Christ’s strength.
But I wonder if you and I can really understand this. We understand it theologically from the Scriptures, but can we really comprehend it for ourselves? Think of it this way: when you are applying for a job, or in the interview, are you going to boast in your weaknesses or your strengths? When you as a parent or grandparent are sitting with other parents or grandparents, are you going to talk about your child’s or grandchild’s weaknesses or strengths? When pastors are sitting around, I can tell you that we’re generally not going to talk about our weaknesses or the weaknesses of our congregation’s outreach, or in some other area. We’re going to say how well things are going, and how healthy our congregations are. People might talk about other people’s weaknesses, but we’re not going to talk about our own, let alone boast in them. And even when we do, it comes across as sort of ironic, like our weaknesses are really our strengths.
But if we cannot boast in our weakness; if we can only think of weakness as a bad thing in this world, that we have to overcome; something we need to stand strong and fight against; something we need to be victorious over; we will not understand the Christian faith. The very heart of God’s work in Jesus Christ is that God’s power is seen in what looks like weakness to the world. In fact, just a few verses later, in 2 Corinthians 13, Paul says that Christ was crucified in weakness, but that He lives from the power of God, in resurrection. And not only that, but it was while we were still weak that Christ died for the ungodly. While we were too weak to get ourselves out of the messes we had made—it was then that Christ took the weakness of our flesh, the weakness of our sin on Himself, and was crucified for the weak and ungodly, even His enemies. Because God uses what is weak in this world to shame the strong; and His weakness is stronger than men. This is the story of what God has done from the beginning: from a creation out of nothing. Think of David’s sling burying a stone in Goliath’s forehead, armored and strong. Or how God takes the weakness of barren wombs, and gives new life to Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth. And all the way to the weakness of Mary’s virgin womb, to which God gives life where there was none before. This is the consistent pattern of God’s work, strength in the midst of weakness; life in the midst of death; taking what is not, and making it something that is.
Particularly in the weakness of death, and of the death of Christ. It is exactly in His greatest weakness and shame on the cross, in His dying and His death, that God’s greatest work of restoration takes place. You can’t be any weaker than dead. But God’s power is in resurrection. So it is that we have been baptized into the weakness of Christ’s death will also receive the strength of resurrection. In the hope and certainty of that power, we can boast in our weaknesses, so that the power of Christ rests in us, weak vessels and clay pots though we are. We boast in the weakness of our preaching, in the weakness of our congregations, in the weakness of the Church. When the world counts this preaching as irrelevant, as having no influence in the public square, then we can boast in that weakness. Whenever the Church tries to become more relevant to unbelief by changing the weakness of the cross to some perceived strength, we become even more irrelevant. So perhaps it works the other way around as well: if we are irrelevant to the strength and success and power of this world, perhaps we will be more and more relevant to the weak, suffering, and burdened around us. We boast in the weakness of the Word of God, whose work we cannot even see. We boast in the weakness of a little water, a little bread, a little wine. Behind and in these weaknesses is the power of God for salvation to those who believe. We boast in the weakness of our liturgy and our hymns, because we know that in them is the very Word of God, which is life and strength to the weak. Only the weak can believe it, because the strong will see nothing that they need or want.
And it is here, in the weakness of the Body of Christ in this world, that we can best bear with one another’s weaknesses and burdens. If you have ever asked God to take away some thorn in your flesh, some torment, and He hasn’t, here is pure Gospel: His grace in Jesus Christ is sufficient, it is enough, for you. His power is brought to completion in the weakness that we know. Not only is His grace enough to sustain us throughout our lives, but we do not all have the same weaknesses. So we work together as the Body of Christ to bear with one another, to struggle with one another, to suffer with one another, taking refuge all together in the word of grace in which we rest, in the food and drink we share. So we will boast all the more in our weaknesses, we will be content with them for now, knowing that God’s grace is more than sufficient for you and me and the entire world, and that He will one day bring to its completion the power of the resurrection of Christ.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/4/15