“When I am weak, then I am strong” – is kind of like saying, when I am hot then I am cold, or when I am old then I am young, or when I am here, then I am there.
Having just returned from holidays, I think I am experiencing the last one, but, on the surface, it still all sounds very contradictory. Yet Paul is talking about discovering something unexpected, and revealing there is always another side to everything that is going on.
In the reading today from 2 Corinthians, Paul continues to refute his critics, as the church in Corinth was a divided and confused community. They had been exposed to Paul’s interpretation of the Christian way, but then others have come along with quite a different version of the Gospel, one that seemed to focus on image and success and status. Sometimes it’s good to hear other voices, even dissenting or competing ones, in the context of community. But sometimes that just breeds division and confusion.
These arrogant “super apostles,” as he calls them (2 Cor. 11:5) have not only attacked Paul’s teaching, they have apparently made a very personal attack on him, apparently accusing him of not being Jewish enough (2 Cor. 11:22), and raising doubts about his achievements and the validity of his experiences, even criticising his physical presence and appearance (2 Cor. 10:10: “For they say …his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible”).
Even people of great stature and ability can be deeply hurt by criticism and personal attack. Recently a very well established and highly respected priest expressed reluctance to speak at a church event because he felt it wasn’t safe, due to certain critical comments that had been made. I was surprised that something like that could get to someone like him, but it was a good lesson about the nullifying effect that a certain kind of negativity can create.
Paul has seen himself as their father in God (1Cor. 4:14—15), even their husband (2 Cor.11:2) in a spiritual sense, which may indeed sound a bit grandiose, but we can appreciate his concern that these critics in the midst are threatening to destroy the trust and closeness he has cultivated.
No doubt stung by their attack, perhaps especially in terms of the physical condition(s) he suffered, Paul initially prayed for his shortcomings to be taken away, perhaps so he can be more acceptable (and many of us have no doubt said similar prayers – Bruce Springsteen’s song Dancing in the Dark comes to mind: “I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face’. But the message Paul keeps getting in his prayers is this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then Paul shifts his attitude to one of embracing his shortcomings and refusing to be caught up in their smear campaign and all its shame and tendency to isolate him. He refuses to let them set the criteria or the agenda in this community that he has lovingly and carefully built.
Tired of being under attack and constant criticism, he just runs with it. Paul is right – only fools boast of spiritual accomplishments or status. And indeed, it is very possible to be far too “elated” about what one perceives to be one’s relationship with the divine. A genuine spiritual experience (which he hints that he himself has had) is impossible to comprehend or describe, much less boast about.
So he said: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30). So I’m not perfect, he says, but here’s the good news! God’s power is actually manifested in our weakness, and when we are feeling self-sufficient and successful and popular and full of ourselves, that may not be a sign of God’s presence so much as the indication of an enlarged and out of control ego.
Often people feel shame because of their infirmities or inabilities and hold back, or allow themselves to be pushed back, because they think of themselves as inferior — inadequate for the task – that they couldn’t possibly contribute. Usually when people are struggling and suffering they take it as a sign that they are out of sorts with God – but according to Paul, that may be the moment when we are actually closest, and most capable of being transformed by God’s love for us. As the great spiritual Sufi teacher Rumi said: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
And so Paul emphasizes the fact that Jesus suffered and that it is the cross that is the definitive sign of his ministry. Even God’s son suffered, so why should suffering or ailments or weaknesses be seen as a sign of inferiority? Whether fortunately or unfortunately, we never hear the answer that the “super apostles” might have made.
It is important to know and believe that even in our darkest and lowest times, new insights, strengths, and approaches often emerge that help us integrate things, gain a sense of perspective, and find a way forward. In a culture like ours, that celebrates power and shuns weakness, we should realize what a powerful, challenging, inspiring and hopeful thing Paul is saying.
Who can relate to someone who’s perfect anyway? And so today’s Gospel perhaps makes more sense in the light of Paul’s theological and spiritual insights, because here is a scene in which Jesus himself seems powerless, weak, ineffective, and the target of criticism from others.
One might expect that Jesus would be celebrate as he returns home to Nazareth. He had obviously developed an amazing ministry of healing and transformation since he left there. Yet Mark’s Gospel indicates he was unable to do anything of significance in his home community, in the place where he should have been appreciated most, due to their “unbelief.”
We can imagine their response to some of the hyperbole: “THIS is the Messiah? … This is the great new rabbi? … He’s just that odd kid that didn’t fit in …. We know his parents …. Remember when he …. Who does he think he is?” The passage reminds us that Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph and apparently grew up in a fairly ordinary way, which is probably why Mark has nothing to say about Jesus’ early years.
Maybe it’s an important part of what the Gospel wants to reveal to us (Luke, for instance, tells the same story very differently): that sometimes it’s good to get off the pedestal and just be a regular person, to be treated as an equal and not a celebrity. Indeed, an important aspect of our faith is that, in Christ, God revealed a down-to-earth, human aspect of his being, and thereby gave our life a new significance.
“A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we are no better than others – that having certain talents or brainpower or physical beauty or prowess does not make us a better person than someone else. In fact it’s good not to get too swelled up by our accomplishments, like those “super apostles” who were giving Paul such a hard time. It’s actually good to be exposed to family and familiars who know who we are, who won’t be fooled by or accept any airs we try to put on. But the other side is that people often do progress beyond what their families and friends are about, sometimes way beyond what they can comprehend, and it’s helpful if families can just celebrate that, without needing to belittle important accomplishments, or bring people down to (their) size.
The story reminds us that Jesus chose the way of weakness and vulnerability – chose to subject himself to the misunderstanding and even ridicule of others – chose to be known as “Son of Man” – a regular guy.
It’s good to know that we do not to have to hide our weakness, or compensate in some way – that we can embrace our own unique human nature and not to feel the need to hide or pretend to be something we’re not. In fact, it’s liberating.
We have a right to inhabit our full self. And the church should be one place where people are encouraged, affirmed, and enabled to move past the shame that binds them. But it’s also a place where people can be honest with us, where we can speak the truth in love.
There is a place for dissent, but within any community it takes discernment to know when questioning and criticism are appropriate, and when affirmation and acceptance need to be the priority.
An important step on the road to spiritual maturity is letting go to some degree of what people think – not allowing the negative opinions of others to limit our participation in life or prevent our gifts from being shared.
Personal attacks and rejection still hurt, but can no longer immobilize us or render us ineffective, once we realize that in Christ, we are “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Or, as the Desiderata puts it: “No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”
Even Jesus was subject to critique and misunderstanding, just like Moses, just like David, and just like his apostle Paul — just like anyone who tries to become something in this world. But it is a price you have to pay, a cross you have to bear, in order to become the full person God created you to be.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Mark 6:1-13 Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.