Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
July 5, 2009
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
What a tricky balance is there between confidence and arrogance – between uncovering one’s light from under the bushel and bragging. I think most of us who are capable people are particularly prone to getting it wrong, to bragging rather than offering our help without tooting our horn or are inclined to be arrogant about our abilities as opposed to being confident and self-assured. Sometimes there is just no help for that. People left out of decision-making are not always generous. Too often, when important decisions are made by those whose job it is to make them, others are going to feel as if the decisions were ill-informed or should have included more input, or are just plain wrong. This phenomenon is true in just about everything, from selecting Dartmouth’s new president to planning a new national health care plan, from deregulating financial practices to letting Manny Ramiriz go back to playing baseball, from choosing the color to paint a bathroom to deciding a discrimination case. It’s especially true between parents and adult children, I’ve noticed. Parental experience counts for very little in the choices our grown children make and no amount of boasting or uncovering of one’s light makes that less true.
I am interested in the relationship between power and weakness in Christianity. It is one of the many paradox that circulate around and through the Christian faith. There are so many - the first shall be last, the poor will be rich, when you relinquish, you receive, when you die, yet shall you live. And in today’s letter from Paul, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong”. If we did nothing more than focus on these teachings for the rest of our lives, our Christian faith would come closer to its true center, I’m certain of it.
As you know, there are two letters to the church in Corinth in the New Testament. The first one, Paul himself refers to as the severe letter, written to a congregation that had allowed itself to be influenced by a group of people who claimed to be truer Jewish Christians. Paul was angry at the direction this congregation had taken, at their behavior and the lengths to which they defended their behavior. He wrote a stern and critical letter, something like the letter I received from my mother when I was 22, I imagine. But then Paul sent an emissary to Corinth, Timothy, and then another one, Titus. Finally, Paul himself left Ephesus and went to visit the stubborn and wayward congregation in Corinth. It was after his personal visit that he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, continuing to mend fences and to explain his earlier fierceness.
Paul was watching, from a frustrating distance, the dismantling of the careful work he had done in Corinth, the fissures of doubt on the minds of the new Christians and from a group of people who claimed to be more Christian than Paul himself. Representing themselves as true apostles and as servants of righteousness, they made a personal attack on Paul’s reputation, his apostolic credentials. He could write threatening letters, they said, but his appearance lacked stature and he was an ineffective speaker. He was a coward, they said. He was unreliable and could say yes and no in the same breath so that his listeners didn’t know what he was saying. He refused to accept money from his supporters because he was unsure of his own authority. In fact, he appeared to be mentally unbalanced.
Paul counterattacked, calling his critics “superlative apostles”, ministers of Satan who, instead of doing the work of starting new Christian communities, simply went where the work had already been done, seeking to destroy the work of others or to take credit for it. They exploited congregations, disguising themselves as Christians when they were actually Satan’s emissaries. In this section of 2nd Corinthians from which today’s reading comes, Paul used words that pleaded and threatened, words of a hurt, indignant, and angry man, seeking to reestablish his authority in the church at Corinth so that the trouble-makers could be dealt with. Paul was defensive, and though he claimed to dislike self-commendation, “boasting” to use his word, he could not allow false modesty to keep him from his Christ-given responsibility. The Corinthians needed to know that he had good reason to boast. He had had mystical experiences and visions, even endangering himself when he revealed them. His Jewish descent was as pure as theirs. He had suffered for Christ, both spiritually and physically. And his suffering had brought hundreds into a deeper acceptance of the cost and joy of discipleship.
Paul, Paul, Paul. He was a brilliant evangelist, to be sure, but at what cost to his personal integrity since, by his own admission, he became all things to all people so as to win more to Christ? Who was he and how did he start so many churches? What can we learn from his words about weakness and strength?
So much in our culture honors power and strength. We feel more secure as a nation when our military power is fully prepared. We revere the power that money engenders, even while shaking our heads at the Bernie Madoffs and Michael Jacksons of the world. We defer to powerful people, at the same time relentlessly seeking weaknesses in their character. And we expect people to defer to us, especially poor people, or people who are in debt, who over-mortgaged their homes, who have chosen not to carry health insurance, and aren’t we taken aback when they are not deferential! We boast all the time, by our appearance, our demeanor, our confidence. I know the road has not been an easy one for many of us to be where we are. We can each tell stories of having been batted down by arbitrary forces, by accidents and losses and moments of genuine despair. We can each confess (though we’d prefer not to) our own shortcomings, the character defects against which we have struggled, the personality flaws that beckon us seductively and relentlessly. But we are much more accustomed to the apex of prestige, privilege, and power. We know the air is thin up here, but it’s clean and the view is spectacular. We walked up here ourselves (having forgotten the help we received along the way), never doubting the sureness of our step, or the ability to successfully meet every challenge.
In Christ, power is made perfect in weakness.
Shall we relinquish the things that give us power? We can. To some degree, though there’s not much we can do about the color of our skin, our nationality, the privilege that automatically comes with the educations we have received.
I’m afraid there is very little we can do to achieve the weakness Paul described. But we can do something – and it is, perhaps, the most important point Paul ever made, we can recognize that the very things that have given us power are the things that make us weak.
I’m reluctant to ask you to ponder something as serious as this, but, well, it’s my job after all. Sometime today, think of something that has given you power. And then consider how that very thing might be making you weak. It would be the first step toward living with the strength Christ has given