6th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 7/5/15)
first reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5
second reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
gospel reading: Mark 6:1-13
One of the “ideas” that makes Christianity so right for me is an idea that I think, for many, makes Christianity so hard to take. So much so that even many Christians have a hard time with it. And that’s the idea – the theological concept, the secular reality of:
The definition of paradox is: “a statement or proposition that despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable or self-contradictory.”
We find paradox throughout scripture, especially in the New Testament, especially in Paul, and in our reading this morning from 2 Corinthians.
- “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weakness”
- “power is made perfect in weakness”
- “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses”
- “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong”
Equating weakness with strength is a paradox. Thinking of weakness as a cause for boasting is a paradox.
In our culture paradox is almost anathema. We live in a world of black OR white, winners OR losers, yes OR no, right OR wrong. It’s hard for people to consider the colors in between, finding joy in simply just playing the game, the maybe’s, or that a person can be right AND wrong – dare I say sinner and saint!
There are no easy answers with paradox. Paradox requires thought, pondering, the ability to consider seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time. Most people in our society don’t want to take the time or the energy to try to do that.
When I look at our political and religious discourse (or properly the LACK of it!) lately I see it everywhere. There have to be winners and losers, right and wrong, saved and damned. There is little actual talking – mostly shouting, and no real listening.
But the idea that there MUST be a clear winner and a clear loser, a hard line between right and wrong, sinner and saint is pervasive and deadly to faith. It’s deadly because it cannot allow room for one of Christianity’s most basic paradoxes – power is made perfect in weakness.
The ultimate symbol for this paradox is the CROSS itself – the image to which all Christians cling. An instrument of death, which through Jesus became the way of life. An instrument of oppression and hate which through Jesus became the way of freedom and love.
In our reading this morning,the paradox Paul lifts up is that of weakness and strength – that weakness IS strength. He does this for two reasons.
The first is to put to shame those who were trying to discredit him – and there were many in the Corinthian community who were trying to do just that. New Testament scholar Jouette Bassler writes, “Paul counters the charges of weakness and inadequacy that his rivals have raised against him not by refuting them but by embracing them in the name of Christ.”*
The other reason Paul lifts up weakness as strength is because it reveals a “truth about God.”** Paul is claiming for his life all the paradoxes of the symbol of the cross.
How freeing it is when we learn we don’t have to conform to the world’s standards of strength! It is NOT anathema, this paradox stuff. In all its complexity and confusion, in all its hard work, it’s FREEING – because it finds us and accepts us where we are. Because life is filled with paradox. Life is messy. Life is confusing.
The paradox of the cross, the paradox of strength in weakness, of power made perfect in weakness – means that God KNOWS our lives, KNOWS our imperfections, our sins, and will accept them, USE them even, in helping us grow in faith, and to bring others to faith.
We don’t have to pretend to be strong here. We don’t have to pretend to be anything we’re not.
Strength in weakness also reminds us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought – as Paul says, “I will not boast, except for my weaknesses.” Strength in weakness builds us up when we need it, and knocks us down a peg or two when we need THAT.
We are weak people, you and I. We are a weak community. We are weak individuals. We are united in our weakness, because we are united in the cross. I am weak. You are weak.
Some people walk through the doors of this church in great physical pain. Some people have other physical ailments. Some people come to church depressed and emotionally spent. Some feeling hopeless. Some feeling consumed with anger or bearing grudges.
Some unemployed struggling to make ends meet. Some feeling abandoned by family or friends. Some feeling purposeless in older age. Some feeling confused by how fast the world is changing around them. Some in unhappy marriages, or struggling to understand their children or grandchildren.
Some afraid of what today or tomorrow will bring. Some afraid of death, other afraid of LIFE. And for some, their weakness is believing they have NONE.
We gather as a weak people. Not to hear some preacher speak unhelpful platitudes about helping ourselves “get better,” but to hear the WORD tell us, “Yep. I KNOW. And I love you. I have carried that weakness on the cross and I will use it to lift you from death to life.”
God alone can make strength from weakness.
It’s doesn’t mean our weakness is magically transformed so that we’ll feel strong. What is DOES mean is that we’re all in this together, held and saved from it by Christ.
THAT is the power made perfect in weakness. THAT is the power of Christ in us.
There are NO winners or losers – only people equally loved. No black or white – only people of all different shades equally loved. No “yes or no” – only love.
No right or wrong – only the cross where Jesus bears it ALL.
quotes from The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992. Section on 2 Corinthians by Jouette M. Bassler (p. 331, 332).