Christian Community: The Power of Weakness
Saint Paul was a man of tremendous ambition. We have a museum-quality idea of saints that preserves them for history in a sort of cotton wool halo of meek-and-mild perfection. But you cannot read what he actually wrote and hold onto that image for long. Saint Paul is a complicated, ambitious, difficult guy. And maybe just the littlest bit egotistical as well.
That doesn’t make him any less a saint. But it does make him a bit more of a human. And in his words to the Corinthians today, we see a little bit of our own circumstances.
In fact, if you see all three of this morning’s readings from the vantage point of the Christian communities we are called to be, they all shed light on our circumstances as communities of faith, communities of Christian faith, communities of a particular kind of Christian faith called the Episcopal church.
We can even be more specific than that. One of these readings gives us a view of what our own circumstances are; one of them gives us a view of who it is we are called to reach out to; and one of them gives us a reminder of what the outcome is likely to be.
It’s Saint Paul’s own words that tell us our predicament. Because—let’s face it—we are more than a little ambitious ourselves. We are not without a least a little bit of ego. This may be a good thing to remember as our church gathers in Austin, Texas for the seventy-ninth edition of what we grandly call the General Convention.
Saint Paul is a man who wants to set the world on fire with the message burning inside him about the salvation made possible through the work of the cross. He believes to the core of his being that by accepting the freely offered gift of faith in Christ, we can gain for ourselves the gift of eternal life.
And more than anything else he wants to convince absolutely every next person he meets that this is true. He wants everyone to come along with him, to share this joy, to join this happy throng he is trying to build.
But something is getting in his way. Something about Paul makes Paul think he is not all that he wishes he was, not as effective, not as compelling, not as winning as he thinks he should be. This obstacle, whatever it is, is deeply personal, and deeply painful. It is a thorn in his flesh.
There are library bookshelves lined with books that speculate on just what this might have meant. Some people think it was Paul’s wrestling with doubt or disbelief. Some think it was the way he described the opponents who rose up in the churches he had founded.
Some think it was his way of saying he wrestled with depression, or bad eyesight, or chronic pain. Some think it was his way of speaking of some kind of profound temptation he wrestled with. Some even think it was Paul’s way of saying that he was gay.
We’ll never know the answer. What’s important for us to see is that Paul had to give up his preferred option, which was to be perfect. He had to give up the notion that he would turn out to be absolutely and completely perfect for the task of sharing the Christian faith and bringing others to believe.
To say it in other words, Paul had to give up the idea that he could share anything worth sharing about God without having to rely on anyone but himself. To put it in our own terms, Paul had to give up on the idea of being Joel Osteen.
Of course, if he had been perfect—if he had turned out to be the person he wanted to be to do the work he was called to do—he would have been a very poor evangelist indeed. Because an evangelist who shows no need whatsoever of God is a very poor messenger.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that we have this sense of ourselves, too—at least a little bit. We are now sixty or seventy years after the high-water mark of the mainline Protestant church in America. Maybe our thorn in the flesh is our sense of our decline, our deep longing for things the way they used to be when we were popular and it seemed easy to encourage people to come through our doors. Maybe it’s a lingering doubt that somehow hitches a ride along with that decline. It is not clear how effective we can be in bringing anyone else to faith if we have lost faith in ourselves.
But God says to us that this is exactly where God wants us. When we thought all was well, when we were sure the path ahead of us was ever onward and upward, we rather imagined that we perhaps were no longer in any real need of God. We should have no doubt of that now.
It is the lesson from Ezekiel that gives us a view of who we are called to reach out to. You might have thought that Ezekiel was describing the people of Israel of his day, people evicted from their homeland and living in exile in Babylon. And if you read the text very narrowly, that is true.
But when God describes to Ezekiel the sort of people he will be sharing his message with—well, they sound pretty familiar, no? They rebel against God, if indeed they have any thought of God at all. When it comes to being open to conversation about questions of faith, they are, well, stubborn. Their minds are largely made up, and their opinions are set—even if they’ve never once in their life been a part of a church.
This is a very present reality for us. For those of us up north in Newtonville, we are suddenly a faith community four hundred yards from what will soon be something like three hundred new homes. They are the people we are being called to—the imperfect, less-than-ideal messengers that we are.
And our job as a community-—despite our imperfections—is to leave them in no doubt that there is a pastoral, prophetic presence among them—people who are, when it comes to God, by and large somewhere between disinterested and rebellious.
To help us manage our expectations of how this will go, to give us a sense of what happens when we work to be prophets in our own town, we have the gospel reading this morning.
Jesus has come to his own home in the midst of his ministry, having created a reputation for himself by his teaching and his healing.
When he comes home, he speaks in the synagogue where he was brought up. And the people around him are... well, they’re not impressed. They’ve known him too long to be impressed. They are sort of used to having him around. He’s nothing that special.
The text tells us that “he could do no work of power there,” and it also tells us that “he was amazed at their unbelief.” We are meant to understand that these two things are connected.
Nothing has changed about Jesus; nothing has changed about the authority of his teaching or the transparency of his life, through which everyone can plainly see God’s will at work through him.
The only thing that is different is the inability of the people who think they know him to imagine that there is something more to him than they know.
And that may well be what we have to look forward to. We have been in this city, in all our cities and towns, for a long time. Generations of people have passed through our doors. We are known here.
Nothing has changed about the truth of the message we have to offer. Nothing has changed about the accuracy of what our scriptures teach about the human condition, and nothing has changed about the grace that God offers to everyone through the work and witness of the community of faith. Nothing.
What has changed is the willingness of those we share our hometown to imagine that any of this makes a profound difference in their lives. What has changed is that people in our hometown think they know all there is to know about us, that there is nothing new about us that might make a difference to them.
Paul was frustrated with his limitations and his inability to be fully the person he wanted to be for the Gospel. Jesus had no limitations—and yet right in his own hometown, he found himself challenged and dismissed.
So what do you suppose our chances are?
You might think all this adds up to a pretty dour job. But I think what feels like a moment of weakness and difficulty on our part holds within it the promise that we are exactly the kind of people, exactly the kind of communities, that God recruits for high purposes.
The lesson of Paul’s weakness for us is pretty clear; it makes him, and it makes us, aware of our reliance on God’s grace for doing what God calls us to do.
When we thought we were on top of the world, we didn’t really regard ourselves—and frankly, we didn’t really act in the world—as though we had any great need for anything beyond ourselves. We built grand castles and great institutions because that is what humans do to proclaim the superiority of their ideas. But as one of the people I most admire often says, it is not clear that any of that had much to do with the man on the donkey.
To the people who are building the castles today—the tech entrepreneurs, the concentrators of wealth, the celebrity-makers and the culture-shapers—to those builders, we seem practically irrelevant. Maybe useful as window dressing at royal weddings, but not really to be taken seriously.
The very hard and very real truths about God and about human nature that we have to offer, this treasure that has been entrusted to us, is cast aside as uninteresting or unworthy to build the future with.
But just remember this last idea about how God chooses to work, not through strength, not through the people on top, but through weakness, the people the yearbooks named Least Likely To Succeed: The stone that the builders rejected becomes the chief cornerstone.
Don’t worry about feeling weaker or less perfect than we wish we were. Don’t worry about feeling rejected by the people to whom we are being sent.
Once we stop worrying about appearing to be completely self-sufficient, once we get over our Yankee inhibitions about asking anyone—especially God—for help, we will be better, more effective messengers, more open to God’s dreams, and more equipped to move into the future, and less burdened by the false hope of perfection. Amen.