Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Boasting of Weakness

Sunday's reading from 2 Corinthians is a little strange. The part that usually gets the most attention is the mysterious "thorn...in the flesh, a messenger of Satan" that Paul confesses had been given to him to keep him humble. Scholars, preachers, worshippers, we all wonder what that thorn could be. But the more we worry about the specifics of that thorn the easier it is to lose sight of what this part of Paul's letter is all about.

Paul is laying out a theology of weakness. He returns to this theme several times in his writings, but this may be the place where it comes together most clearly. He mentions someone whom he knows who was "caught up to the third heaven" and "caught up into Paradise." Paul is willing to boast on that person's behalf, but Paul doesn't want to boast on his own. Be clear, he writes, that he could boast on his own behalf and do so without looking like a fool. In Philippians 3, he provides a lengthy list of his boast-worthy qualifications (e.g. "Hebrew of the Hebrews") that he likewise counts as loss. Instead of boasting of his accomplishments and credibility, Paul boast of his weakness, and the "thorn in the flesh" is a sign of that.

God used the "messenger of Satan" to bring Paul to the point where he could hear God say, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." That's not just a bumper sticker. It's a bedrock of Christian theology. God does what we cannot. God perfects what we screw up. God redeems what we have lost. God's grace is the only thing that matters, and the more we try to matter on our own terms--whenever we boast inwardly or outwardly about our worthiness--we undermine the power of God. For real power is made perfect in weakness.

Because it is full of human beings like me, the Church forgets this on a daily basis. Because the world's perspective clouds our judgment, we think that weakness within its members undermines the power of God. In fact, such weakness reveals God's power most fully. We put our clergy on a pedestal, and, when they inevitably disappoint us, we feel that the Church itself has let us down. Clergy, too, buy into this false framework and do horrible things like cover up scandals and sweep abuses under the rug, believing wrongly that letting such failures out into the light of day will defeat God's work in the world. In fact, shining the light onto them is the only way for the Church to participate in God's victory over those sin-filled failures. Almost 1600 years ago, we fought over the Donatist schism and the wrong belief that clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be authentic, and we still fight over it every time a priest tells an off-color joke, every time a pastor forgets to come by the hospital, every time a bishop fails to stand up for the cause that matters to us, and every time The Episcopal Church assembles for its triennial General Convention.

To those of us taking part in the 79th General Convention and to those of you who will watch to see what is done these next two weeks in Austin, Texas, know that the whole Church, including the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, is broken. We're imperfect. We're weak. We make mistakes. We fight over stupid things. We get so caught up in the legislative process, in the resolutions that matter to us, in making sure our cause is championed, that we lose sight of the gospel. If we pretend that what we will do at GC79 will be perfect, spotless, and holy, we are lying to ourselves and denying the real power of what will happen here. This is an opportunity for God's work--for the Holy Spirit to use our weakness to reveal God's true power. But that's more difficult for us to see if we're boasting in our self-styled accomplishments than in our weakness.

Right now, my context is GC79. It's non-stop, all-in for the next 11 days. But this isn't the only place where weakness matters. Paul wasn't writing to the deputies in Austin. He was writing to Corinth, and the Holy Spirit has given that text to the whole church. How are you boasting in weakness? How is your church boasting in weakness? We must not be afraid to confront our failures honestly and openly. Only then can we see what God is already doing to use our weakness as a vessel for God's power.

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