Think of a time when your home lost power. In the summertime, these outages are hot, sticky, and frustrating. It disrupts every sense of normalcy we have about our lives, as we work on other arrangements, and mourn the loss of refrigerators and freezers full of food. As we have learned here about our new HVAC system, even a small blip in the power grid can prompt our new unit to shut off to protect the compressor – which is good for the longevity of the system, and less good when you have a hot sanctuary despite things looking like they are running properly on the thermostat. But more than just inconvenient, being without power is so hard because we realize how vulnerable we are to outside factors and sources. To play with the words a bit, we are “power-less,” both literally with the electricity outages, but also in other ways, unable to fully control the situation, forced into waiting it out and hoping for the best. And no one likes to be powerless or weak.
Except maybe the Apostle Paul in today’s New Testament reading. His premise, on the surface, is a little ridiculous – weaknesses, Paul says, are good. In fact, that’s about what he will boast. He even goes so far as to add in the thorn in his side, persecutions and hardships to the list. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? Why on earth would we want to tell others about those places in our lives where we are imperfect? It goes against the very grain of our culture, which tells us to conceal our weaknesses, not boast about them. Focus on our strengths, minimize our shortcomings. Don’t admit when you don’t know the answer, just wing it. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Nowhere in any of these words of advice are putting our weaknesses on display. After all, that would make us incredibly vulnerable, open to criticism, and frankly, less likely to succeed. Consider taking Paul’s advice on your next job interview. Go in and lay out all of your weaknesses, boast about the skills you lack. Probably won’t get you very far.
So what is Paul getting at? By the time this epistle was written, Paul already had a relationship with the church in Corinth. The church had been through challenges and complications, akin to many of the early churches, struggling with what it meant to live as a community of faith, particularly in circumstances where cultures and habits collided. But rather than focusing on these issues, this letter takes a different turn. Here he spends a lot of time defending his own position as an apostle. There’s a reason for this. Earlier he almost sarcastically mentions some “superapostles” who had been traveling around, teaching and preaching a gospel that differed slightly from Paul’s understanding. From the context of the letter, it seems that these leaders were asserting themselves in ways that Paul was not – from accepting financial support from the Corinthians for their ministry to simply being more charismatic in their visits. Rather than try to go “toe to toe” with these other leaders, Paul chooses another route: to use the perception of him as “wimpy” or “weak” as a strength.
This seems counter-intuitive to most of us. After all, if your authority as a leader is being threatened, why not defend yourself, pad that resume a bit if you have to, so that the church in Corinth will follow you? But Paul’s choice isn’t an oversight in church politics. He is a master rhetorician, and once again pushes his readers into considering something more. To understand it, we have to look more closely at what this weakness about which Paul boasts actually is. Theologian Karl Barth describes it in this way:
what is his weakness? Simply what remains of his Christian existence after it is stripped of the religious experience of which he could boast for good reason and in truth, but that means insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities for Christ’s sake (v. 10). There he sees the power of Christ dwelling in him; there he knows himself to be strong; there is what he boasts about.
For Paul, boasting about weakness is an entry point into boasting about God. Rather than taking an “I can do it all myself” attitude, allowing himself to be weak means that he is open to receiving help from someone far more powerful and strong – Jesus Christ. In essence, it is Paul getting out of the way of himself, out of the way of pride, so that God’s strength can be seen more clearly (see verse 9) and the church can get away from power struggles and spend time focusing more on faith development. In this text, he presents humility almost as hyperbole as one way of getting there.
Each week in worship, we follow this pattern as we expose our own weaknesses as Christ’s disciples. It’s called the prayer of confession. In these moments, both silently and together, we admit that we don’t have it all together. Most importantly, we invite God into the midst of our sinful places and ask for forgiveness, healing, and grace. We trust that God’s grace does prevail, that we are forgiven, and in response break out into songs of praise.This is the beautiful image of song revealed in the book of Revelation, and captured in the 19th century hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” written by pastor and missionary Reginald Heber for use on Trinity Sunday. In it, all of creation celebrates the eternal power of the God, with voices united in endless praise.
Rather than rely on our own power, which we know to be limited, we rely on God’s, which we know to be infinite. In order to fully understand what God’s love and grace is all about, we have to get out of our own ways. To be “powerless” and “weak,” if you will, like Paul. We must do so with care, for there are some tempting and common traps that we can fall into if we take this boasting in weakness business too far.
First, we can get hung up on our list of weaknesses. Overachievers among us will be tempted to create a long list of imperfections about which to boast. If we have to be weak, we might as well be the best at it, right? In the movie Notting Hill, this activity even becomes a dinner party game, with the person who has the saddest story winning the last brownie in the pan. And it happens in real life, too. You all probably know someone in your life who always has to “one up” any story you tell. Good or bad, this person always seems to have had a life experience that’s just a touch more extreme than your story. If you share, for example, a physical weakness, such as back pain, this individual immediately jumps in with a story about how she threw out her back once, and it was ten times worse than what you had experienced. This is certainly boasting in weakness, but it’s not what Paul is talking about.
For Paul, the boasting is only a means of entry, a way of reminding ourselves who is really in charge in the world – God. So don’t get caught up in naming or proclaiming your weaknesses either. It’s not about you, after all. Instead, get caught up in inviting God into those places in your life. Boasting in weakness means flinging the doors to our weak places open and making space for God to work within us. Because when we get out of our own way, checking pride at the door, we are better able to dwell with Christ in an honest relationship that truly makes us strong.
Second, once we have our laundry list of imperfections, we can fall into the trap of using them as a cop-out for not acting in the world. We can say “oh, I’m weak. I can’t possibly do that. It’s just not in my skill set.” Eventually with this pattern, we wind up not doing anything at all. God doesn’t promise to swoop in where we are weak and just fix things for us. I can’t simply say “I am a really slow runner and tire out quickly,” and then expect the Holy Spirit to do its thing and suddenly help me run a marathon. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Evan Almighty involves God, undercover as a fellow diner at a restaurant, speaking with Evan’s wife. She is lamenting how hard things are sometimes, and is looking for answers that don’t seem to be coming anytime soon. God, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, poses some questions back to her:
If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?
Something similar could be said in the way God works through our weaknesses. When we admit them, does God simply come in and patch things up, or does God give us the opportunity to work on them, promising love and support through the Holy Spirit and through others, so that we can, with God’s help, be made strong? Our strength comes from God, who made heaven and earth, and each one of us in God’s own image. God has promised to continue to strengthen us in all we say and in all we do. God doesn’t promise that it will be easy, doesn’t assure us that we won’t be weak. Rather, God promises to be with us even in our weakness. And I believe God surrounds us with a great cloud of witnesses to help make that possible. Through Christ, we are assured that none of us have to endure hardship alone. Suffering is neither God’s design nor the end result.
Remember Paul’s complaining about the thorn in his side? His begging God to remove it? God’s reply is simple, “my grace is sufficient.” That grace comes from Jesus Christ, who conquers all. By grace, God sent Christ into the world, to walk with us, to strengthen us and show us how to live, to heal us, and most importantly, to save us. Elsewhere Paul writes to the Philippians “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This is what makes us strong – not anything we do or don’t do, but God’s grace alone. It is a gift, ready and waiting for each one of us, if we can be so bold, so crazy, so ridiculously counter-cultural, to be like Paul and boast in our weaknesses, getting out of our own way so that Christ may dwell more fully within us and work for transformation and reconciliation in our lives and in the world. When we are grounded not in our own egos and agendas but in truly seeking to embody our Savior, it is then where we will find the power and strength to live into our calling as followers of Jesus.
This morning’s hymn doesn’t have a particularly unique story behind it as some of our others have this summer, but it does give voice to Paul’s words about our power coming from Christ and nothing else. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” is known as the “National Anthem of Christendom.” It:
first appeared in the November 1779 issue of the Gospel Magazine, edited by August Toplady, who wrote “Rock of Ages.” This text has been translated into almost every language where Christianity is known; and wherever it is sung, it communicates the spiritual needs of human hearts. One writer has said, “So long as there are Christians on earth, it will continue to be sung; and after that, in heaven” [i].
So may we join our voices again with the saints and angels in heaven, giving God all glory, honor, and praise, and proclaiming with our lips the source of all our strength is indeed in Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us sing:
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
July 8, 2018
 Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimination of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 92.
[i]Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012).