So what’s your congregation like

Pentecost 6

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

 

 

StMarks‘So, what’s your congregation like?’ That’s a question occasionally asked of pastors by other pastors, or by friends who don’t know the place well. Naturally, one would want to paint our congregation in the best possible light and focus on its strengths. But, having read today’s epistle reading, one could also say that our congregation is full of weakness. We’re not just talking about sin here (although we are sinners) – but weakness.

While we ponder that, let’s look again at the reading, because that addresses the issue of weakness.

First some background: Paul loved the Christians at Corinth, but at the same time their congregation caused him no end of grief. Some dynamic and charismatic leaders had taken over, and were now undermining Paul, and his ministry, and his message as well. These ‘super apostles’ as Paul sarcastically refers to them, were claiming that he didn’t really qualify as a real apostle. He lacked, they said, the proper credentials. He lacked physical presence and appearance. He wasn’t a good public speaker. He was indecisive they said. He didn’t demonstrate any special charismatic gifts,

nor did he have any great spiritual experiences to talk of. And what’s more, all his hardships and difficulties just went to show that he didn’t really have it all together.

So if he was really a spirit filled apostle, would he be hampered by all these weaknesses?

Now the funny thing was that Paul could have easily refuted all these claims. He could easily claim special spiritual experiences and we think of his conversion on the road to Damascus. In fact, in this passage he does (very hesitantly) share some kind of spiritual experience he had – being caught up into the third heaven, or paradise as he calls it, where he saw things he just couldn’t put into words.

He could have, if he wanted to, boasted quite freely about his qualifications and successes. But he didn’t. Instead, Paul made up his mind that he would only boast about his weaknesses. The very things that his opponents used to insult him, Paul boasted about. ‘You think I’m weak, do you?’ asked Paul. ‘Well, you’re absolutely right. I’m really weak. And I’m proud of it too’. Why did he say that? Because he had learnt the paradox that when we are weak then Christ is strong.

Our weaknesses allow the power of Christ in shine in our lives all the more. Paul himself had learnt this from bitter experience. After his special visions and revelations, he says that ‘a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, to keep me from being too elated’. Some kind of suffering, some kind of weakness, was given to Paul to keep him humble. People have puzzled over what this thorn actually was – was it bad eyesight, or epilepsy, or some inner turmoil?

We don’t know. But we do know that it really troubled Paul, because three times, over three successive periods, he pleaded with the Lord to take this ‘thorn’ away from him. But each time the answer came back: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. The Lord was saying: ‘Paul, my grace is all you need. I can work despite your weakness, and you need to know that. In fact, I will work through your weakness. Paul, your weakness will bring glory to my name’. Here we have the motto of the Christian life: God’s power made perfect through weakness.

Think of the cross: Jesus hanging and dying in utter disgrace and helplessness.

Weakness?  But this was God’s great act of power.

Through that seeming weakness of the cross, Satan was defeated, and so lost his grip on our lives.

So think of how God passes his forgiveness to us: more weakness. Simple words of absolution read out of a book – nothing fancy or impressive and then some very bland tasting wafers and wine. It would seem rather unimpressive compared to some great spiritual experience. But that’s how God works. But now let’s get back to our original question. How is our congregation weak, or full of weakness?

Think of all those things which from a worldly point of view make us appear weak. Some might say that we are too small or too elderly or old fashioned. To many, that is a sign of weakness (although we know it can also be a great strength). Perhaps we are not the same as each other and so compatible with each other in regards to personal interests, or levels of education, or musical tastes? Perhaps we don’t have the latest technology? Perhaps we are not all as happy and enthusiastic and dynamic as we should be? Perhaps other places are more exciting to be than church? Perhaps we feel embarrassed about inviting friends to church – that they wouldn’t fit into the Lutheran culture? To many people, things like these make a congregation weak. But friends in Christ – this weakness (if it is weakness) is our glory! Because it is a continual reminder that we do not save ourselves. Our weakness is a testimony to the grace of Christ among us. Our weakness fixes our eyes on Jesus who is powerfully at work among us. Our weakness puts our faith in the right place – not in ourselves, but in our loving Lord. So we remember that when we see the human weakness in our congregation or in the wider church. We also remember our own personal weakness. AND THEN We remember that when the load of sin weighs heavily in our hearts We hear again of how Paul actually boasted in his weakness, And know that then God is glorified as we remember always those comforting words from our Lord to Paul And to us: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Amen.

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