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Sunday 4 July 2021: Trinity 5, Fourteenth in Ordinary time, Proper 9

Strength in weakness

Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6.1-13

By Chris Campbell

Assistant Curate, St John the Evangelist, Cambridge

Context: a diverse congregation (of about 100), on the edge of a university town at the main Parish Communion on a Sunday.

Aim: to reflect on the power of weakness as the way we most fully know Christ’s strength working in us.

Paul paced the small upper room in Macedonia. Still, more news had reached him from the Church in Corinth, and he knew he would have to respond. And yet, it was tiresome to continually be asked to defend his own story, when he would far prefer to be talking about Christ. In their letters, they recounted tales of those so-called super-apostles, stories of their prophetic dreams and revelations. They wondered why Paul hadn’t told them similar wondrous stories …

TO BOAST OR NOT TO BOAST

Of course, Paul could. He could boast of himself, of his background, his education, and his spiritual experiences. He could tell them again of the blinding light on the road to Damascus, or of his out-of-body experience fourteen years ago, which he still didn’t entirely understand himself. He could write to them of both these and more. For each wonderous claim of the super-apostles, Paul could trump it with one of his own.

And, perhaps, if he did not do so, those in Corinth would stop listening to him. Indeed, perhaps they already had. Perhaps their hearts were turned by those who were showier and more eloquent; those whose leadership was stronger; those who would boast of a direct line to God.

But if he boasted of such things himself, what hope would that provide them? How would his own fantastical experience of God help any of those in the Church in Corinth to live better lives? Would his boasting strengthen their own faith and prayer life? Would his criticism and down-playing of the super-apostles, help to cease the never-ending divisions and quarrels in the Corinthian Church? Or would his boasting instead be a stumbling block to them? Would it make them wonder why God had never blessed their lives in that way? Would it draw them into unhelpful comparisons and make them see only their own lack?

THORN IN THE FLESH

Paul freely admitted that he would not have always felt the same. At times he had been puffed up and with a tendency to prideful boasting himself (indeed, some would say he still was!). But the thorn in his side, which Satan had thought he would use to divert him, had instead been the curative he needed. The thorn had helped Paul to stay focussed, not on his own strengths, but on God’s grace and transforming power. Instead of being sucked into self-absorption and self-importance, the thorn continually drew him back to the true message he was called to share; that of the cross of Christ. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Paul was that, despite all his weaknesses, God was still able to use him to continue telling God’s wonderful story of redemption.

FOR WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN I AM STRONG

A story whose focus was the cross. If there was anything that either Paul or the so-called super-apostles, should be boasting in, it was the cross of Christ. The crucifixion of Christ took the greatest moment of human weakness, humiliation and rejection and made it perfect. The most glorious manifestation of God’s love was through a broken man on a cross. And because of that, all who were lost, weak and far from God, could find a way home.

The crucifixion of Christ had stripped Paul of his foolish sense of pride in his own credentials. In the cross, Paul discovered that fragility was never a barrier for God. Instead, it was through the most fragile vessels, that God’s light could shine through the strongest.

And so, Paul would choose to boast in nothing but his own weakness and vulnerability and in how, through them, he has discovered God’s power at work. Paul would never claim that a thorn in the side was a good thing; but through it, he had learnt that God’s blessing is most profoundly known amid weakness, adversity, and vulnerability. Indeed, it is only when we let go of our own strength and self-assurance, that we give God the space to fill us with God’s love, God’s grace and God’s strength. And that, surely, was something worth boasting about.

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