2 Corinthians 12:2-10
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
This past Thursday, it was my turn to make breakfast for the Men’s Bible Study. It’s a tough crowd, so I was up especially early, slaving away over hot griddles. When breakfast was done, and Bible Study was over, and I was finished cleaning the kitchen, I sat down in my office to begin working on this sermon and I read those words from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and thought, “Yes, this is what I want to talk about” — and then promptly fell asleep. So I am on it: I can preach about weakness.
And I need to. People occasionally talk to me about things they find hard to believe. How can there be a good God when the world has so much suffering in it? Did Jesus bodily rise from the dead? And what about the virgin birth? Those can be tough questions for people, and I can certainly see why they might struggle with them. But let me tell you, those are minor league issues compared to the Big One, the one which people often struggle with the most but have a hard time naming: Does God really love me the way I am, with all my sin and brokenness? Is God’s power truly made perfect in my weakness? Unlike debating some clauses from the Nicene Creed, that hits home: it’s personal and shapes the way we actually live, or fail to live, our faith. And it goes against everything our culture teaches us. We are supposed to be strong, not weak; invincible, not vulnerable. Our icons tend to be super achievers; every summer the most popular movies are superhero movies. We may be taught to pity the weak, but not to emulate them. And the idea that we are weak in very real ways is not at all comfortable to many people, even and especially religious people. Oh, we talk a good game, and we claim to have faith in a God of love and mercy, but scratch the surface, and lots of people don’t actually believe that. They believe that you need to be good to earn God’s love and you need to be super good to get into heaven. God may forgive, BUT for many people there are always strings attached: you better feel bad about your weaknesses, you better not mess up again, you better recite the right religious formulas, you better improve, you better become stronger and more perfect. There are many churchgoers who are practical pagans. I know this because I used to be one of them.
This is why Paul’s witness is so extraordinarily important. He has real gifts and strengths. And he has had profound spiritual experiences, one of of which he alludes to in this passage today, when he was caught up in the “third heaven” (whatever that means) and heard things that no mortal is permitted to repeat. But Paul is just a human being, flawed and imperfect like every human being. We don’t even need him to tell us that: we just need to read his letters! He can be super intense, overbearing, difficult, irascible, and frustrating. And in addition to all of that, he has this mysterious “thorn in the flesh” which afflicts him. We have no idea what that is. Over the centuries, commentators have offered lots of guesses: an eye disease, a speech impediment, epilepsy, addiction, a besetting temptation. I like that we don’t know what it is, because it could be anything. But whatever it is, it’s a big deal and cannot be overlooked. And what Paul says about it matters to us: God does not love him in spite of his weakness: God loves him in his weakness. God is even glad that he’s weak so that God can shower love and mercy on him. Paul grasps the Good News in a way that changes his life: God loves us as we are, even with our weaknesses, even with our sins, and proves it by working through us as we are for the good of the world.
We also have gifts and strengths, and we should use them and rejoice in them. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that they earn us God’s love. For one thing, they come from God: that’s why we call them gifts — we can’t take any credit for them. But more than that, we cannot limit God’s activity to them. God will often work through our weaknesses even more effectively than through our strengths. When I was first ordained, I didn’t really believe that. I thought I had to be super competent and good at everything I did. But I really struggled with that because I messed up so often. Years ago, for example, I preached a really terrible sermon: I got up in the pulpit, and completely lost my train of thought. I stumbled around, trying to improvise, finally had to pause for a few moments and collect my thoughts, and then lurched to some kind of lame conclusion. I sat down hating myself and thinking “I am a piece of garbage,” but after the service, a woman came up to me and told me I had said exactly what she needed to hear that day. And it was like the Holy Spirit gently shook me and said, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you or your perfectionism or your ego. It’s about my love and my grace, and I can make those flow through anyone, even you.”
What if we really believed that? What if we really lived that? Imagine all the time and energy we would save. After all, we spend monstrous amounts of time and energy trying to be perfect or at least seem perfect, building up our image and boosting our egos, constantly defending and justifying ourselves. What if we could drop all that nonsense and just accept that God really does love us as we are, with our gifts and strengths, our weaknesses and sins? Then maybe we would actually experience the Good News of Christ. And then maybe we could actually understand this Gospel. Forget about the tunics and sandals and other details of first century travel: Jesus sends out his disciples with nothing but the authority of love: no seminary degrees, no credentials, no insurance, no protection, and no expertise. He sends them out into the world as flawed and vulnerable human beings, because he knows his Father will work through them as flawed and vulnerable human beings. His basic message to those disciples: “God loves you as you are. Go show others that God loves them as they are.” All the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, all the changed lives and transformed people, flow out of that basic truth.
This week I ask you to practice living that truth. Everyday, practice believing that God loves you just the way you are. Everyday, practice believing that the Holy Spirit will move through you just the way you are. We don’t have to be perfect or close to it. We don’t have to achieve anything. We just need to drop our defenses, let down our guard, and trust the Good News: My power is made perfect in weakness.