July 5, 2009 (RCL Proper 9B) Second Corinthians 12: 2-10
I’ve thought about this passage from Second Corinthians a good deal over the course of my adult Christian life. In fact I remember where I really heard it—really heard it—for the first time, with any impact and the beginnings of a glimmer of understanding. A sermon preached at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley, probably around the early or middle 1970’s, as I had resumed more-or-less regular church attendance after several years of collegiate life and the consequent sleeping-in on Sunday mornings.
The rector of St. Mark’s, George Tittmann, a very influential figure in my spiritual life at that point—and really ever since in a deep-background sort of way. He was a great, old-fashioned Evangelical in the Virginia Seminary tradition, which meant for him two really consistent things: first, that he was passionate about world mission; and second, that he could preach a 40 minute sermon without blinking an eye.
And they were in fact great and memorable sermons, reflecting a deep spiritual maturity, a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, and a zany and wild sense of humor. –In any case, at least 35 years ago, that I heard him preaching on this text, which really does say something. Not many sermons make it all the way to coffee hour.
So Paul this morning. Weakness revealed as strength. A paradox at the very heart of so much of the Biblical story. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. Young David. The vision of the prophet in the second part of Isaiah, as he declares that it is through its suffering that Israel becomes a vehicle for redemption and reconciliation and renewal for all the nations and peoples of the world. And in the New Testament, the central theme, the King of kings born in that stable.
As Paul puts it in the second chapter of Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
The Greek term for this idea is kenosis, translated as “self-emptying.” The opposite of an assertion of rights and privilege and power. Intentionally, self-consciously setting any of that aside.
And so this paradox at the heart of the Christian way: weakness revealed as strength. Not, it’s important to note, “strength cleverly disguised as weakness.” Superman in a Clark Kent costume. But strength in the weakness itself.
Which is the key point. Why the Church has always firmly rejected statements that Jesus the Christ simply “appeared to die” on the Cross. Or that “the human Jesus died, but not the divine Son.” Or really to accept any substantial distinction between those figures who are called by some writers “the Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” or the “Christ of the resurrection.”
The incarnation took place not to avoid weakness or to take it on as a costume, but to embrace it. To become weakness.
For Paul and for the New Testament writers, this kenosis becomes the pattern then for Christian discipleship. What it means to “follow in the footsteps of Jesus.” The image here of John the Baptist, as in the third chapter of St. John. Jesus is now ready to take up his ministry, as John the Baptist has led the way until now. And John says in reference to Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
It is this paradox that is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural for us, no question about that. To find our true selves by becoming less.
So much of our lives about "growing up"--gathering strength, power, autonomy, control. About overcoming limitations and adversities.
Yet here this morning for Paul, this word that it is at the point of our limitations, it is when our adversities overcome us, when we are not full of ourselves, but empty of ourselves, that we are most truly to be identified with Christ himself. We with him, he with us.
I think here of St. Benedict, who in his Rule for Monasteries talks so much about the “gift” of obedience, and who says that the spiritual benefit of obedience always comes not when we are asked to do what we would like to have done anyway, or what we think we do well, something we agree with, but when we are asked to do what we don’t want to do, even when we are commanded to attempt things we believe we cannot do, to set out on a course that will lead us inevitably to fail.
That's when God really begins to work on us. In us.
In the mystery of the divine economy, God saved the world by giving up everything that made him God and going to the Cross. And Paul would ask us to think this morning about how we might become a part of what God is doing by letting go of our desire to be gods ourselves. If God stays in heaven, then there is no hope and no future. If we stay in our strengths along, then there is no hope for us, no future for us. If we are full of ourselves, there is no room for God to give us his gift.
We have to be careful not to kid ourselves in this, of course. Like the guy who said, “I was well on the road to spiritual perfection, until I discovered that I lacked humility. So I went away and meditated, until I felt I truly could say that I had achieved humility. Now, I’m perfect.” And it’s not about passive-aggressive behavior, using real or apparent weaknesses to manipulate others. That’s just the same old power and control game in a different costume.
So often our strength is what we end up using to have things the way we want them. But the image Paul would leave us with I think is more eucharistic. And we would be invited to open ourselves to that image this morning, and to see what we make of it in our lives. Our work, our families. To say that maybe God is working here with a bigger picture than the one I think I see at the moment. Maybe the things I think of as my strengths and accomplishments look different from a different perspective. Maybe the very thing about my life that seems the most broken, the biggest failure, will be from his point of view the greatest thing I ever did. That will be the place where he can enter, and bring his healing and his forgiveness and his peace.
A different perspective. To see our lives evolving, day by day, in all that we are and all that we do, with a more provisional sense of judgment. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares: that the gardener can’t always now when the first green shoots appear, which are the weeds and which are the beginnings of the season’s crop. That it may be in the places where we feel we are the greatest failures, that the most important work of our lives is being accomplished.
The Body of Christ, at the altar, and in us. What we receive and what we are—who we are called to become. That the wheat had to die in the harvest, the grape pulled away from the living vine, to be crushed and opened and transformed beyond all recognition, before it could be placed on the Table this morning, to be the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. Through weakness there is a kind of death, the end of what was, and the beginning of what would be new.