A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 4th July 2021
But God said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ (12:9)
What’s your image of something or someone that is powerful? Physically, I guess, we think of power in terms of size, strength, speed or skill; bigger, stronger, faster, more agile.
If we think of power in terms of the ability to lead the life one wants and/or to influence or direct the lives of others, we might consider charisma, but probably more importantly wealth and connections.
Of the fifty-five prime Ministers the UK has had so far, over forty of them are graduates of one of two English universities (Oxford and Cambridge). No less than twenty of them, including our current Prime Minister, happened to go to one particular school. I bet you can’t guess which one!
If we think of power and nations, then, once again, wealth is one popular indicator of power. We measure a nation’s power by the size of its gross domestic product. If it’s not wealth, then it’s the ability to dominate other, less powerful nations, and perhaps we think of empires, be they ancient Roman or more recent British ones. And then, of course, there’s the size and capacity of a nation’s armed forces – its armies, navies, air forces, and now satellites and ‘Space Command’. Our own nation, the UK, has sunk (if that’s the right term here) a lot of money into building two aircraft carriers in order to be able to ‘project power’ across the globe.
And then there are churches. If asked to imagine what a powerful church looks like it’s all too easy to come up with something that looks like our notions of what makes an individual or a nation powerful, in worldly terms at least. Churches here were powerful – note the past tense! – churches here were powerful when ‘everyone went to church’, whether they wanted to or not. Powerful churches have huge buildings, whether historic cathedrals or modern convention centres jampacked with people. Powerful churches handle the latest technology with ease, often employing staff to do so; feature professional standard music; and attract the young in droves. They know what they believe, and say it with power.
This picture of power may seem a little distant from your experience of Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields! Also, it must be some way away from church life in first century Corinth, at least as we can picture it from the letters Paul wrote to the congregation. When Paul wrote, some time in the mid-50s AD, the powerful Church of later years was still centuries in the future. It might be that if you counted up all the Christians in Corinth at that time you would have come up with a number not a million miles away from the congregation of Saint Columba’s. Who knows, maybe they had fewer members.
Still, that doesn’t seem to have stopped them arguing about how to be powerful Christians. We only get to read what Paul wrote. We don’t get to hear what the Corinthian Christians said or wrote to Paul, before or after this second letter from Paul. But just like eavesdropping on one end of a telephone conversation (not that any of us here would do that), you can read between the lines, get an idea of what was going on.
In this second letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians it’s clear that the relationship between the apostle and at least some the congregation had become quite strained. It seems that some people had turned up in Corinth who had strong links with the church in Jerusalem and a poor relationship with Paul. Part of their argument with Paul, and part of their attraction to at least some of the members of the congregation, was that they looked like a more powerful sort of Christian. That must have seemed attractive to members of a small group, most of whom probably were not socially or economically powerful in this busy trading port, and none of whom had connections with the politically and militarily all-powerful Roman empire.
So, it seems that the newcomers boasted of being spiritually powerful; being more connected to God. And the evidence for their spiritual power seems to have come from convincing accounts they gave of actions they had undertaken on behalf of the gospel, and their spiritual, mystical experiences and encounters with God. They had shared all of this with the congregation, who were duly impressed. After all, everybody loves a winner. They also seem to have been critical or disparaging about the ministry of Paul, who was absent from Corinth, possibly in Ephesus, from where he wrote in order to set things straight.
And what Paul wants to say is that true power is found in weakness; that ‘power is made perfect in weakness.’ That must have sounded as strange then as it does today. At the point where we have entered the conversation Paul has already reminded the Corinthians of their previous shared experiences. He has set out his track record in Christian ministry, which has included various sufferings and hardships. And now, as we listen in, he turns to the question of being perceived as spiritually powerful because you have been the recipient of mystical visions. Yet he does this in a rather odd, roundabout way.
You might have expected Paul to say something like, “Spiritually powerful? I’ve had more cool visions than they’ve had hot dinners.” Instead Paul is round about and reticent about his experiences: ‘I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body of out of the body I do not know; God knows.’ (12:2) Jews of Paul’s time speculated about heavenly layers around the earth – think heavenly Russian dolls containing the earth. As you proceeded through these layer you came closer to God and your vision of God became clearer. So when Paul repeats himself here, as he does, he says that this person was ‘caught up into paradise,’ (12:4), hearing things that ‘no mortal is permitted to repeat.’ (12:5) So, first, Paul seems to be saying, I’m as spiritually qualified and powerful as they are; I just don’t make such a big thing of it!
But there’s more to it than that. Yes, Paul says he has much to boast about, but won’t, which is sort-of boasting, when you think about it. Then, though, he says that God made sure he didn’t get carried away with himself: ‘to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh.’ (12:7) There have been all sorts of guesses about the identity of this ‘thorn in the flesh’, some of which some of us will have known for ourselves: gallstones, epilepsy, malaria, depression, gout, or leprosy. We can’t know what it was, but we do know it wasn’t fun. Paul calls it a ‘messenger of Satan’ which he repeatedly asked God to take away from him, though to no avail. My guess is that whatever it was, it was something that others could see, so ensuring that Paul was never in danger of others perceiving him as some sort of superhero with super-spiritual powers.
But here’s the important thing, as far as Paul was concerned, and with significance for us as well – Paul thought that this painful experience made him more powerful, not less. Now why was that? Paul says that God’s response to his request for this thorn in the flesh to go away was, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ (12:9) And Paul’s response to that is, ‘so I will boast all the more of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ (12:9)
In order to be spiritually powerful it is necessary to realise that you are not the one who is powerful; Christ is the one who is powerful’: ‘so I will boast all the more of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ The person who is spiritually powerful is the one who does not draw attention to themselves by the practice of gifts that God has given them, but who uses those gifts to shift the focus unto Jesus Christ.
And then things go a deeper once again. Not only does the spiritually powerful person attract others to Christ; point others to Christ, not to themselves, they also recognise that Jesus Christ sets the terms for what constitutes power and being powerful. As far as we know, Jesus was not physically powerful. If anything, people saying, ‘physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23) might imply the opposite. We do know that Jesus was not socially well-connected. We do know that he came from a poor family. We do know that he was never accepted by religious and political elites. On all the normal, earthly measures of power, Jesus was as weak as weak could be – so weak that he ended up executed by the powerful.
And yet, Jesus has proved more powerful than any of them. It is Jesus who has attracted the loyalty of millions upon millions of people; Paul being one of them. It is Jesus who has changed lives and civilizations, and all without having any of the attributes, accoutrements or qualifications that one would normally expect of someone called ‘powerful’. In fact, when God told Paul (however God did that), ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’, God was describing the whole approach of the life and career and ministry of Jesus Christ.
So then, to conclude, as long as we keep our focus on following Jesus Christ, our weakness as a church, and the weakness we experience in our lives, could be powerful. This is as long as we keep our focus on following Jesus Christ – for unintentional weakness is just … well, weakness. Weakness that flows from intentionally choosing not to try to be more powerful than others; weakness in intentionally choosing not to demand the allegiance of others; weakness in choosing not to pursue having more money and possessions than others do; weakness, practised in a Christ-like way; such weakness makes power perfect – for the benefit of ourselves, for the benefit of others, and for the glory of God.