My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
These words Paul received from Jesus must have had special significance for him. These are the only words of Jesus quoted by Paul that are unique to him. The only other time he quotes Jesus is to repeat the words of the Last Supper. So they call us to pay attention and wrestle with what Jesus means by them, and what they meant to Paul.
First, let’s acknowledge the fact that at face value they are not particularly good news. We’re not likely to put the phrase “power is made perfect in weakness” on the sign board outside, or worse, something like “weakness preached here.”
Even the context of these words does not provide much softening of them. Paul says he is afflicted by a mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” We have no idea what this “thorn” was, but tells us that he has repeatedly asked God to remove it from him. Jesus’ answer does not sound all that pastoral. Paul’s suffering, his weakness, will not be taken away.
This exchange is part of a larger story which might help us understand just what is going on here.
The Christians in Corinth seem to have always been in crisis—factions were rife in the community, some who had certain “spiritual gifts” lorded it over those who did not. Even their celebration of the Eucharist was corrupted into something that was a witness to their own social hierarchy.
Paul’s first letter to them tried to deal with all these issues. He talked about their oneness in Christ, their equality in Christ’s body, and the “excellent way” of love that should pull them together.
It appears that his teaching and his pleas had little impact. Perhaps they never had a chance to, because at some point some missionaries showed up in their community who claimed that Paul was not who he said he was. Their evidence was that his message was not the power of the Gospel, and he did not back up his preaching with deeds of power—displays of miraculous gifts of the spirit and healings. Paul, they said, is a weak man, who, as a weak man, could not possibly be the apostle he said he was.
This reminds me of something that happened in my first parish, many years ago. When I began at St. George’s, it was a very small community of 40 or so people. I had one teenager. He was a senior when I arrived, so I had not been there yet a year when he went off to college. He had been in church most every Sunday since he was born, and was often my acolyte.
He came home from college at Thanksgiving and asked to see me. He was clearly troubled. He said to me, “I spent my whole life in this church and no one ever told me about the power of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts he has to give us.”
“What gifts would those be?” I asked.
“Speaking in tongues and prophesying and working miracles of healing. Ways that God’s power can work through us. God wants us to have victory in our lives.”
He was hooked, and I didn’t get anywhere with him. “The power of God is primarily love,” I said, “and the strength we need for daily living. It is not for the purpose of showing off how powerful or important we are.”
That was 27 years ago when things called mega-churches were just coming into being, promising prosperity and social power, and, not surprisingly, the clear divisions between godly and ungodly people.
And over the years they have attracted many of our own people and have seemed so successful that we have spent time and energy trying to figure out how we can be like them, and return ourselves to a day when membership in our churches was highly valued, a time when people listened to us, a time when we had social power.
The rapid demise of mainstream Protestant churches is a kind of thorn in our flesh as a church. We don’t know what to do about it. We try things. They work a little, but not enough. We don’t know the answer.
I don’t know the answer. All I know is what Jesus told Paul, and tells me, and tells us.
My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.
Now that is not a sexy message; it’s not about making anything “great” again; it’s not about returning us to a position of power.
But it may be just what we need.
As a priest over the years I have had plenty of people come to me feeling as if they were called to be a deacon or a priest in the church. They inevitably want to impress me with their prayer life, with their leadership in the church, with their passion for the gospel. And I have wanted to hear about those things.
But I also want to know how they have suffered. I want to know about their weakness and how they live with it. I ask these things because I believe the answer to those questions to be more important than to hear about their strengths.
Why? So I know they have a chance to be able to relate to the rest of us, how to help us find God’s grace in the midst of both short-term and long-term adversity, how to know the power of God in our weakness.
Will that pack the pews? Maybe, maybe not. As I said, it’s not a very sexy message and we are competing with churches who offer the exact opposite.
I only know my own experience, the thorns I carry in my flesh, about which I do not want to boast. I bring them with me every Sunday. I do not try to leave them at home. I bring them here and find over and over again that God’s grace—God’s love for me that I have not earned or deserved—is sufficient.
And it has been consistently true that my weaknesses, drenched in the love of God, are what have made me a good priest, if I dare say that about myself at all.
It may not be how we want the world to work, but it is how the world—God’s world—works. The grace of God—that Paul says elsewhere God has lavished on us—is sufficient and any power and true strength we have is made perfect in our weaknesses, because it is in those weaknesses that we experience the depth of that grace and God’s love for us.
And that is Good News in our real life, the life we are bid to bring to this altar week by week.