It is easy to believe we are too weak, too ineffective, to share the Gospel with the world, with others; Jesus, however, has faith in us that we can do this, and sends us out, sharing our weakness, and so bringing his grace to the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 14, year B; texts: Mark 6:1-13; 2 Corinthians 12:(1) 2-10
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“And he could do no deed of power there; . . . he was amazed at their unbelief.”
That’s a pretty astonishing sentence Mark writes. Because the people of Nazareth didn’t believe he could be who he was, Jesus was unable to do “deeds of power” among them, with a couple exceptions. How is it possible that anything wasn’t possible for Jesus? Matthew, whom we believe wrote his Gospel after Mark’s, and who used large parts of Mark as the basis for his writing, seemingly couldn’t bring himself to accept what Mark said. In his hand, the story reads that Jesus “did not” do any deeds of power. Not “could not.” And Luke, who likely wrote a little later than Matthew, simply omits the whole sentence and the question of whether or not Jesus did or did not do miracles in Nazareth, and why he did or did not.
But there is no escaping the reality in all three of the synoptic Gospels’ accounts of this homecoming of Jesus: it was an utter failure. Luke even says that after Jesus pushed back at their rejection they tried to throw him off a cliff, murder him. His own people! Remarkably, Jesus actually did some miracles before the rejection, because all three agree that the people were astonished at what he did, and by what he said, and at his reputation. But it was who he was that hindered them, a hometown boy whose family they knew, who now was teaching with wisdom, doing wonderful deeds, and carrying a growing reputation as a holy man. Their need to see him as the woodworker, the local, known to them, and have him be who he’d always been to them, was more powerful than their ability to believe in him. And so his visit home was a disaster.
Out of the ashes of this failure comes the last thing we might expect. Jesus decides to invest his 12 inner followers with his authority and send them out to do what he’s been doing. He sends them out to heal and to cast out demons. They even proclaim repentance, preaching the sermon he’s been preaching. Just when they see him fail, he sends them out to do the same mission.
I wonder if that was helpful or harmful to their sense of that mission. Did it make them more fearful (if Jesus can’t do it how can we?) or hopeful (even Jesus struggled sometimes so we can’t always expect to do well)? I don’t suppose we can know what it was like for them. But it seems to me that it’s very helpful to us, from our perspective two millennia away. Because there’s no escaping that we’ve been baptized into this mission, too, that we are sent to proclaim God’s Good News in our words and in our deeds, collectively and individually, in our homes, at our work, in our neighborhoods. And most days I don’t think I’ve got much chance to do a very good job of it. Or more accurately, most days I don’t think I do a very good job of it, chance or no. But if Jesus sometimes failed, too, well, maybe that’s a good thing. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing of all.
In sending them out after his Nazareth mess, Jesus seems to be telling them that success is not necessarily his standard. Faithfulness, however, is.
He tells them to expect rejection, in fact. But they are still to go, trusting God will be with them. In contrast to the people of Nazareth and their lack of faith in Jesus, Jesus here shows tremendous faith in his disciples, in us. He sends them out in pairs, suggesting that we are to work together to do our mission, we’re not expected to do this alone. And he sends them without supplies or support except staff and sandals, suggesting that we do this mission expecting that God will provide the resources we need.
But the important thing is, he sends them out. He trusts them. He trusts us.
And given that he’s just experienced the failure of rejection, he tells them they might want to expect that as well. But rather than keep them back out of fear of such rejection, he sends them out. And it’s Paul who today seems to say that is our normal state of mission as well.
Paul today makes it clear where we will be operating in terms of success and failure, and where God’s true power and grace are found.
The context is that Paul, absent from Corinth, is having his teaching and even his own person undermined and mocked by people Paul calls “superapostles.” These are folks preaching in Corinth who are rival missionaries to Paul, people who are elegant in manner and speech, people who boast of incredible spiritual powers and experiences. They’re flashy and fancy, and they’re making Paul look bad.
Intentionally, it seems. They’re contrasting their spiritual strength and knowledge and clever speaking with Paul’s apparent stumbling and less than polished approach. This is hard for someone with an ego like Paul’s, and that ego struggle shows throughout these chapters. But ultimately, Paul remembers that he is not relying on his own skills but on the grace of Jesus Christ.
You see, what’s interesting is that most scholars seem to agree that Paul is talking about himself here in these first verses of chapter 12. He’s the one who had the spiritual vision, where he was taken up into heaven in some mysterious way. He tells it in the third person because he’s trying not to be like the superapostles and boast about his spiritual prowess (though the boasting does sort of rear its head, especially in verse 6.)
But what he tries to make the Corinthians understand is this: whatever his spiritual strength is, whatever mystical experiences he’s had, even whatever his standing as a good Jewish person and teacher (which he outlines a little earlier), none of that is what gives him confidence.
In fact, he tells them that he’s struggled for a long time with a “thorn in his flesh,” some mysterious ailment, that makes his life harder, his work difficult, and that drags him down. He asked for it to be removed, but three times received a clear message from the Lord that it would not be.
And that, he says to them, is actually the gift. Whatever the weakness, the thorn, was is irrelevant: the gift is that in his weakness and pain he found the strength of God’s grace. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told him, “for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Remember what we learned some weeks ago about “perfect”? It means “completed, finished.” Paul has learned that when he is weakest, God is strongest. When he fails, God succeeds. When he struggles, God strengthens. And God’s power is perfected, completed, finished, in the depths of weakness, not in spiritual prowess.
It’s why the cross is so central to Paul: Jesus, the Son of God himself, found his greatest strength in becoming completely weak. He defeated death’s power itself by letting death’s power defeat him, and in that weakness brought life to the world. He set aside all power to be completely lost for us, that we might be found. And in our weakness, Jesus completes his power as well, and does God’s will.
So here’s what Paul seems to be saying, in the context of Jesus’ sending of the disciples: Don’t wonder whether or not you will fail, and worry if you do. Expect to fail. Expect to be rejected. Expect to be weak. That’s where you’ll find God’s grace.
So what are we given by Jesus and Paul as we go to serve, what staff and sandals are given us for our journey?
First, we are sent with the expectation that it’s not going to be easy. Sharing the Good News with others who expect us to be “normal” people may lead to exactly what Jesus and Paul experienced. It will likely be uncomfortable at times, sometimes we won’t know what to do, sometimes we won’t want to do what we know we are called to do. But Jesus knows just what that’s like, so does Paul, and they say that it will be OK.
Second, we are sent knowing that not all will accept us. It will be hard sometimes to stand in the world as a sign of God’s grace and love in Jesus, and face people’s inability to accept us. Our motives might be suspected, our best intentions misunderstood, and our attempts to do the loving thing, or to speak God’s word in a situation, might be seen as intrusive, as our attempt to seem better than others, or any number of other things. But Jesus knows just what that’s like, so does Paul, and they say that it will be OK.
Third, we are sent knowing we might fail. Trying to make a difference in the places we’ve been planted might meet with resistance, rejection, with failure. We might not be able to do anything where we are sent. In fact, it’s what we should expect. But Jesus also knows just what that’s like, so does Paul, and they say that it will be OK.
It will be OK, finally, because fourth, we are sent out knowing that we will find the power of our Lord Jesus Christ in the very heart of our weakness. In the times we most struggle, that is where we will find our Lord, who’s been there before and changed everything. In the times we most fear, that is where we will find our Lord, who faced the most frightening things and transformed them in love. In the times we are rejected, that is where we will find our Lord, who in being rejected found a way to accept all of God’s people into abundant life.
Here is our Good News: we are sent to be God’s Good News in the world in our weakness, in our failing, in our feeble attempts to be of service, and that is just fine.
The point is not that any of us become superapostles, glibly and beautifully succeeding in sharing the Good News, drawing huge crowds, saving the entire world from disease and hunger, evangelizing all people.
The point is that we go out and put our lives on the line wherever God has planted us, telling in our words and in our bodies that God’s love is for all people, that God’s grace is sufficient for all, that God’s goodness is in all. That we bring healing and life in the name of Jesus because we are sent to do so. And if we fail, if we struggle, if we forget, if we cower, if we hide – all this is our weakness.
And Jesus knows what to do with weakness. He shares it, transforms it with the power of his life and love, and brings grace. Because as he has said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So we go from here to serve the Lord, rejoicing with Paul and the disciples that we can do that mission we were baptized to do. We know we can do it because Jesus has faith in us that we can. And that in his completed power, God’s grace will heal the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen