For power is made perfect in weakness…whenever I am weak, then I am strong. These words from St Paul have confounded spiritual thinking since they were first written.
In the USA, there is a particular heresy which reflects the spiritual longing of many people. It is called the prosperity Gospel. The central belief here is that if you believe in God and walk in God’s ways then you will be blessed. Blessing means a life filled with material things and with being protected and guarded from the trials and tribulations of life. It is such a human longing to have a life where there is no struggle, no pain, no problems. While we may not be foolish enough to subscribe to a prosperity gospel, many of us live with the longing for a life spared the struggles and hardships of life. But even Jesus himself endured the pain of rejection by those who knew him.
St Paul’s words about finding power and strength when we are weak suggest that that there is another way to view our hardships, another way to view the times when we are weak.
This morning reflecting on the Gospel reading and St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians I want to look at three ways we experience power and strength we are weak.
The first way we find power and strength in our weakness is that often in such moments God works in surprising and unexpected ways.
Control is the characteristic of the successful and powerful person today. Control comes through having all the right information, through managing one’s life so there are minimal disruptions, and through dictating what others will do for you. Today we often speak about people being control freaks. Control freaks like to know in advance exactly what is going to happen…no surprises.
Jesus faced a peculiar situation. In his own hometown, despite people being astounded by his teaching and amazed at his deeds of power, people simply did not believe. They even took offence at him, ‘Why this person is not special, he is the carpenter, Mary’s son. We know his brothers and sisters. Who does he think he is?’ The bible says, he could do no deed of power there in his hometown, that he was amazed at their unbelief. We glimpse Jesus vulnerable, rejected, hampered in his ministry, possibly dejected. It is a moment of weakness.
But what emerges from this episode. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two. What emerges from Jesus’ experience of being limited and cramped in his ministry is the mission of the twelve. Jesus finds a new and creative way to expand and extend his ministry through others. His ministry takes a new path forward.
Sometimes we want to control what happens; we want our plans to be clear-cut and unhindered. We get upset when the day or our plans do not go like we expected. But often, that is the moment when instead of us being in charge, instead of us having it all figured out, that we have to think outside the box, that we have to open ourselves to thinking creatively. It becomes a vulnerable moment when the Spirit can move and show us something new and surprising, when God can work in a creative and innovative way, like Jesus sending out the twelve.
A second way that we can experience power and strength in our weakness is by finding the help and assistance of others when we are weak.
Self-sufficiency is a key quality of the successful person today. These lines from the Henley poem, Invictus, are the mantra for our times: ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’ It is perceived as weakness to need others, to be dependent. But there will always come a point in time when we cannot manage on our own, when we will need others. There is power and strength to be drawn from this mutuality, this community, even this dependence on others.
God has created us to be in relationship with others. One of the great lessons we can learn is how to make ourselves open and vulnerable to others.
The reality is, with others we can achieve so much more. It may be slower; it may be more complicated. But working with and alongside others achieves more and benefits more. The common good is the Christian perspective. Jesus’ mission was transformed as he passed the baton on to the twelve. After his rejection by his hometown, he found strength and power in being with his followers and sharing his life and work with them. St Paul likewise, though a strong character, cherished the mission team he worked with: Timothy, Titus, Sylvanias and many others.
We are not self-sufficient. We are dependent people who need each other. The reality is we find strength and power when we open our lives to others and let others share in our life and our work.
A third way we find strength and power in our weakness is by discovering afresh God’s presence and grace.
Sometimes in life when everything is going well, we feel great, in charge, in control. There is, in a sense, no need for God. It is when the need or weakness emerges that we suddenly become aware of our own inadequacy and of our need for God. You heard about the atheist who fell off the cliff and cried out, ‘God save me’. Suddenly his coat caught on a branch stopping his fall, and said, ‘Never mind God, this branch caught me’. But God is not the God of the gaps, only there when we need him or when we can’t make it on our own. None the less, when we face our weaknesses, we often realise our need for God. St Paul, wrestling with this thorn in the flesh, prayed that God would take it away, but it didn’t go. As a result he discovered that God’s grace was sufficient to help him bear this problem. As a result of his need, St Paul discovered afresh and in a deeper way that God was there for him.
The reality, of course, is that we are never alone or forsaken. God is always with us. But sometimes it takes a moment of weakness or vulnerability for us to see that God is there with us and for us. When we are down and we discover God’s presence afresh, we find new strength and power, even grace to carry on.
In conclusion, often our desire is to be in control of our lives in order to ensure that we display no weakness. But life is not ours to control. We will all face moments of weakness and vulnerability, moments when our need is greater than our own ability. We can curse those moments as some kind of failure or we can open ourselves to the way of the cross, to the laws of the Kingdom of God, in which weakness is strength. When we are at our wits end, when we cannot triumph in our own strength, when we cannot succeed as we will—those moments are not failures, but opportunities. In those moments we can discover new and creative possibilities that we had not seen before, we can discover that others are there for us to help us on our way, and we can discover God’s gracious presence to sustain and help us.