It is only through our weakness and “thorns in our flesh” that God will heal the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14 B
Texts: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Do we miss the point of the cross of Christ because of how we look at it?
We make that scene outside Jerusalem into something to behold, an epic tableau for our creative skill. Massive movies, paintings in all media and sizes, deeply moving music, sculptures of marble and gold, countless novels and stories, there’s no limit to our imagination of that day.
The cross is for us the turning point in history, when the God of all time and space endured humiliation and death. We’ve pondered and argued and fought for two thousand years over the theological meaning of this moment on that Judean hillside. This image is the center of our faith.
But that makes it really hard to understand individually what we’re to be doing when Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. It’s more than just that none of us will ever be hung on a cross. Our dramatizing and idolizing this moment makes it exceedingly difficult to grasp what a cross would look like for you. For me. What does it mean to walk the path of the cross, when “the cross” is such an enormous image for us?
But there’s hope.
When the cross is seen in the eyes of Jesus himself, or of the apostle Paul, and they speak of our lives following that path, all the grandeur and spectacle fades out, and the real truth about the cross remains clear. You can see what you are called to be and do. What your cross might look like.
Christ says today: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made complete in weakness.” That’s your path.
The experiences of Jesus and Paul today reveal this truth.
Jesus is riding a wave of popularity. He’s healing, drawing crowds, teaching with wisdom and authority no one heard from the official teachers. And then he goes home. And it’s a disaster. All they can see is Mary and Joseph’s kid who grew up there. They’re amazed, but they discount him, they’re offended by him. And astonishingly, Jesus can’t do any works of power there. He is literally weakened by their unbelief.
We think of Paul as the Church’s greatest apostle. But this second letter to Corinth is riddled with his anxiety and insecurity. His own churches have criticized him, accused him of deceiving them. Other more impressive apostles have come to Corinth. They dress well, speak beautifully, let the Corinthians pay for them. By contrast, Paul was awkward, paid his own way, didn’t speak terribly well, didn’t dress nicely. So now they’re rejecting him.
But in Paul’s pain and sadness he finds the opportunity to remind his people that this is always the way of Christ. We are clay jars, flawed, he says. I get it, I’m not impressive. But it’s God’s power working in my weakness that’s the grace you need.
Now, Paul did ask God to stop his pain. He wanted this “thorn in his side” removed. Maybe it was his lack of impressive speaking skills, or how easily his people seemed to turn on him. But what Paul learned instead is what Jesus learned in Nazareth: God’s power is only complete in weakness.
It’s impossible to overstate how important this is.
After Jesus’ disgrace in Nazareth, remarkably then he sends out his disciples. Not exactly when they’d feel most confident in their ability to serve God as Jesus served, right after he fell on his face in failure. Yet he sends them. Right then. On top of it, he sends them without support, no food, no bag, no money. Nothing but God’s good news and their weakness.
And so he sends you, like them, because that’s the whole message. God’s power will only be known in weakness, not strength. In failure, not success.
Following Jesus is an exercise in accepted humility, as disciples realize their flaws and weaknesses, as they look at the enormous, daunting tasks of healing needed in this world with dismay. That’s precisely when disciples, when you, are able to see God at work.
That’s the point of the cross. God’s mission in the world only happens at the point of brokenness and loss. In everyday weakness God will heal all things.
These weaknesses, these thorns in your side, are the true sign of God’s grace at work.
Is your thorn self-doubt? You don’t have skills to make a difference for God in your life? There are so many more powerful people, more talented people? God can’t use you with your flaws? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your doubt.
Is your thorn pride? Are you horrified to think of following Christ in a way that makes people laugh at you, think less of you? Are you unable to love and forgive some because you don’t want to be seen backing down? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your pride.
Is your thorn fear? Are you afraid to love as Christ loves? To reach out to your neighbor in pain because you don’t know how it will be received? To speak up in that coffee shop or workplace when someone is mistreated, because you don’t want to get in trouble? Do you fear what would happen to your comfortable life if you took seriously Jesus’ commands to love, to give away your wealth, to put your neighbor’s needs first? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your fear.
Weakness and failure aren’t something we might experience. They’re the whole point of Christ’s path. Look at how the first disciples were sent out. True love for the other always loses, always lets go, always gives away. It is out of his weakness and shame that Paul found the cross’s deepest promise and gives it to us, the best we could ever have as flawed people who desperately want to follow Jesus but don’t know how: “My grace is sufficient for you,” Paul heard and shared with us. “My power is completed in your weakness.”
This is God’s way and it works. Even if the Church often misses the point.
The Church typically thinks the way to be faithful is to run the world. Control the kingdom, or the democracy, have the armies, get the power. We did that for centuries and look what we made: crusades, inquisitions, oppression, suffering, killing.
This is never Christ’s way. Yes, as citizens we should vote, absolutely. Get engaged politically: we need to start fixing things. Christians of skill and talent should serve in public office. But control’s not our main strategy. Or God’s.
The strategy is that every day, every hour, followers of Christ love as Christ loves. Through weaknesses displayed for everyone to see. Vulnerable to mocking or distrust, to attack and hatred. You have some place today that needs you to be God’s love. Even in your flaws, your weakness. Every healing God has done in Christ in the world, every change Christians have made in society happened when they followed Christ in weakness and vulnerability and God worked through that to bring life.
Maybe the paintings and sculptures and movies were always the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. But if we spent less time idolizing the scene at Calvary and more time understanding the failure at Nazareth foreshadowing the cross, we’d be less confused about our own paths.
So go, be Christ as you are called. As you’ve been baptized to do. What love-mischief can you and God be up to today for the healing of the world?
But make no mistake, it will happen in your weakness and failings, in what you lack, more than anything else. That’s when Christ’s disciples really start looking like their Master. And that’s when the world really starts knowing the truth about God’s healing and transforming love.
In the name of Jesus. Amen