To begin, a question: when you talk to someone else about Jesus and how God works in your life, what kinds of things do you say? Do you point to your overflowing bank account and your mansion to prove that you have been blessed? Do you point to the accolades that you have received from your work and civic participation? Would telling those kinds of stories help someone who had less than you, or who was chronically ill connect to Jesus?
I hope that we can agree that talking about our success in the world, whatever that means, is not really good for getting people to believe in God. I have been to churches that do that sort of preaching, where the preacher speaks about positive sports images and time on their boat to talk about the life of discipleship. I have to say, when I read scripture, I don’t see the disciples or even Jesus himself as “successful” in some of the ways we would define success.
That’s kind of where Paul’s words come in here. Paul wants to be absolutely sure that the church in Corinth knows that it is Paul’s weakness, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, that helps him to be strong in Jesus. Why? Because Paul has been brought low in life; Paul knows without a doubt that he is absolutely dependent upon Jesus for his very life and breath; Paul knows that without the strength of Jesus, he cannot face life in the same way. He knows that he is vulnerable, and yet he is not afraid because in his absolute dependence upon Jesus he is made stronger than he can ever be alone; because he is a follower, and a disciple, and a child of God, he now has access to the strength that is present in Jesus.
What do we know about that strength? Well, we know that it is not the kind of strength that most seek; Jesus did not bring an army to end the Roman occupation; after all, he was killed at the hands of the Roman empire. In his willingness to give up the strength of God that he could have called upon, he gave us the ability to defeat death and sin. It is an amazing gift given to us and to all the world. And to think, it was done in an act of ultimate sacrifice and weakness.
Our culture does not applaud weakness; in fact we do just about everything we can to hide or deny that weakness of any kind exists. We give awards for strength; churches that preach prosperity tend to do quite well, and are, in a word, “prosperous”… at least until there are no answers for the darkness that comes to all of us; then the weakness and darkness are described as an absence of God’s favor, as if there was something that we could do to earn God’s favor.
Here’s a not so secret, secret: we cannot earn God’s favor. When it comes to who we are in God’s presence we are forever weak and unable to earn our salvation; it is only God’s abundant outpouring of love and grace that enables us to be saved; it has nothing to do with us, except that God loves us enough to make it happen.
So, what do you tell people about your life as a disciple? My own take on that is that we all need to know that even in and especially in our darkest moments, that God is present. That’s the kind of message about Jesus that endures, because none of us escape those difficult times even if we seem to be blessed with wealth. What the false prosperity gospel seems to say is that only some are worthy of blessing; but that is not what the gospel of Jesus Christ says. In the true gospel, all people are children of God. That means that all countries and the people in them are equally loved and blessed by God. Some of what we think of as blessing is really just adherence to the principles of the empire as opposed to adherence to the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus is where our allegiance lies. Everything else is secondary.
As disciples of Jesus, we know that we depend on him for our very being; and when we realize our weaknesses and let Jesus help us to heal those weaknesses, then we become stronger. I’ve spent part of the weekend catching up on the Marvel superhero movies. Ever wonder why superhero stories and movies are so popular? It’s because most superheroes have some weakness that they have been able to overcome in some way to make their weakness their superpower. And that’s kind of Paul’s message; that we should realize we are all weak in some way, and that when we hand over that weakness to Jesus, we can become strong. So beloved, find out what your weakness is, and let it become your superpower in Jesus. No other identity or allegiance matters for us because all of us are siblings in Jesus, all equally loved by God, all made whole by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Give thanks this day for the blessings that he has given you; blessings such as life, the ability to love, and a community of fellow superheroes of Jesus who know what their weaknesses are and how they are made strong in him. May we give thanks for those ways in which we are weak, because in Jesus we are made strong, and in his strength is our pride and our boasting. His grace and his alone is sufficient for us today and always.