Perfectly Weak

11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. 32 In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands. 12:1 It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10

I’ve often used a story in my sermons to illustrate the point that Paul makes here in this passage, and at the risk of being repetitive, I share it again because I don’t have a better one.

Years ago, when I first started ministry, I was working towards ordination and serving two very small churches in central Virginia. One church had less than a hundred members, with about 30-40 attending any given Sunday. The other church, however, had really fallen on hard times. The church roll was about thirty or forty, but I still remember my first Sunday when there were three people at the service.

We did our best to worship God, of course. We didn’t even have a piano player to help with the hymns, so one of the ladies of the church put a compact disc in portable system, and we sang along. As an aside, I loved serving this church, and over the years it would grow far beyond this number. Nevertheless, I cannot say enough about the kindness and faithfulness of this small group who were committed to gather in the name of Jesus and hear the Gospel.

Anyway, that particular Sunday was a bit of an anomaly. The next week, we had about 8 folks present for worship, representing the “regular” crowd. One of the ladies there, I would come to learn, had received another cancer diagnosis. About 10 years previously, she had successfully waged a campaign against breast cancer, and had been in remission for years. However, it was back now, and it had metastasized. It was in her bones , and the doctors gave her about 12 months to live.

That said, she lived about 18 months, and she fought valiantly. I co-officiated her funeral. In that short time, I got to know her and her husband better. I prayed with her. I was given the privilege to minister to this faithful woman, and so I am committed to telling her story.

Beyond her kindness and love for God and God’s people, the one thing I remember most about her was the way she gave of herself to us. One of the big reasons we didn’t have a piano player was that we lacked the budget at the time. Yet, as attendance grew over the next few months, it became apparent we needed someone to play. It turns out she played, and she loved to do it. The problem was that her cancer made most movements excruciating. Walking became increasingly painful. Moving her hands was torture.

I still remember the Sunday she came to me and told me she wanted to play the piano for us during worship. I was a little shocked because she was increasingly frail. Nevertheless, she insisted on playing, and play she did. I think her first song was, “How Great Thou Art.”

Over the next twelve months, she grew weaker and weaker. There were some Sundays when she wasn’t in attendance because she couldn’t get herself out of bed. But on the mornings she was there, she played. As she continued to decline, she also missed more and more notes. Amazing Grace became a mix of its traditional melody and flats that were meant to be sharps. She would come up after service and apologize for doing poorly. I would look at her, and I had to fight back tears as I told her it was lovely, and I really appreciated all she was doing for us.

You see, despite the lack of technical mastery due to her cancer, I and everyone else in that sanctuary knew what her music cost her. That woman gave us the gift of herself, and as a result, the music she played was more beautiful than any symphonic orchestra, the world over. It was beautiful because it was fueled and shaped by self-giving love. What sounded like weakness and foolishness to the uninformed listener was a song of triumph by which she declared her cancer and her impending death did not get the last word, her love for Jesus and for us did.

Here we circle back to Paul. We are already aware of the conversation Paul has been having with the community and those challenging his credentials. They claim to be wise, polished, and accomplished, and they denigrate Paul on the basis of his appearance and oratory skill. He isn’t the proper type. He’s not Jewish enough. He’s too Jewish. The litany of deficiencies piled up and piled onto Paul’s back.

In this passage, Paul deftly meets their objections by lifting up his credentials, and the great insights gifted him in the Spirit (and yes, Paul is coyly referring to himself here). If they think they have a grasp on insight and hidden knowledge, Paul tells them he’s seen and heard things too great to be repeated. Yet, despite his true apostolicity, and the authority he wields, given him by Christ, he is still a frail man. He is weak. He is not the image of polish and shine that the world, or this community thinks looks like success.

Yet, Paul tells them, God’s power is perfected in weakness. God’s power, as he goes on in his first letter to Corinth, chapter 1, looks like foolishness to a world that is perishing. It looks at the cross of Jesus and sees weakness and defeat. Yet, in that perceived weakness, God is putting his love on display in the most powerful way, and crushing the powers as he does it. What looks like a defeat on the cross is but the first step on the way to death itself being defeated, and new creation breaking into the world.

And if this is true, if we truly believe that this is how God works, then this is how we must understand power itself. What parades as control, or having things together, or having and wielding power is but a paltry reflection of true power. True power is cruciform. True strength is self-giving. God’s grace is the power by which the worlds themselves were brought into being, and it is that grace that lowers itself and suffers all things to give us life.

This is what I saw in that woman playing the piano despite her pain and frailty. She had figured out the secret. We all spend our lives clinging to what we have, and when a health crisis comes, we pour ourselves in maintaining our health and trying to cheat death. This woman, though she fought the good fight, knew that true life and power came by giving herself away. In Christ, she is both present, and her love lives on in me and those blessed enough to have been given a share of her gift those Sunday mornings.

This is what it looks like for us to have the power of Christ dwell in us: not even death can rob us of life.

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