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Strength in weakness (Horizons 9)

Lesson Nine, 2 Corinthians 12:1-13:13

A competitive married couple constantly fought about their families. Each constantly reminded the other about how rich, how important, and how influential her or his family was. Finally the husband got fed up, and said, “OK, I have to admit it. Your in-laws are much better than mine!”

From children on the playground comparing who has the best Pokémon cards or athletes doing a victory dance in the end zone, human beings seek to come out on top. Time publishes the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Forbes publishes the list of the 100 wealthiest people in the U.S. Americans are proud that we are the greatest military power on earth. Human beings love to rank each other and establish a hierarchy of power, grading people on their business acumen, wealth, acting awards, beauty, education or athletic prowess.

In the Corinthian community of faith, there was a lot of one-upmanship going on. Outsiders had come into the Corinthian community and pointed out that Paul was not much on looks. And as to being a charismatic speaker, well, no one could accuse him of that. We can only guess that the outsiders are saying, “Hey, we’ve got better credentials.” Paul, with a bit of sarcasm, calls them the “super” apostles.

In Paul’s mind, these super apostles are more flash than fire, more glitz than substance. These super apostles, according to Paul, are watering down the scandal of following a crucified, servant Lord.

A crucified, servant Lord is as much of an offense to us as it was in the first century. We follow a crucified Lord in whom the full power of

God’s love is revealed in Jesus’ self-sacrificing weakness. Jesus does what the world would say is weak. Jesus doesn’t take down his enemies. Instead, Jesus breaks bread with those who will betray and deny him. Jesus forgives those who crucify him. Jesus teaches that when someone has done evil to us, we are to do good to the one who has wronged us.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about “a thorn in the flesh” that has kept him from being too elated. We don’t know what kind of malady the “thorn” is. Paul has prayed three times that God would remove the thorn. God answered, “My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness” (12:8-9, The Message).

How can God’s power be revealed and known through our weakness?

There are times when we are at our lowest that we experience the power of God the most. An illness, the death of a parent or a broken relationship can crack open the shell of our self-sufficiency to let God in. Years ago, one woman was at the end of her rope. Her husband had been unfaithful and reconciliation was not possible. In the darkness late at night, she told God, “I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t handle any more.” She experienced a wave of peace washing over her.

We live in a world of 24/7 news. Lots of people want to tell us what to think and what to do. The force, quality and repetition of message are viewed as taking a strong stand. Yet, it is the “weak” stance of listening well that can bring resolution out of conflict, healing, hope and new possibilities. Listening well means putting aside one’s own agenda and seeking what God would have us do.

In a time of declining church attendance, some churches are experiencing new vitality. Surprisingly, a focus on prayer is the common denominator in churches that are flourishing. In her book “Unbinding the Gospel,” Martha Grace Reese, after years of research into thriving and failing churches, says, “I am clear that the only way to do ministry successfully, to lead a church or to live a life in today’s United States is to pray deeply. We must hand ourselves over to God in clear-headed, accountable, non-naive prayer. We need to rely as much on God for pragmatic guidance as we can stand. Without God vividly in the mix, we drift, life declines.”

Like churches, we tend to resist a deep commitment to prayer because it can feel like we are not doing enough. When Martha Grace Reese has acted as a consultant to churches, both ministers and congregations have resisted committing time to prayer. “We want an action plan!” As one regional minister said, “We’ve tried everything else; we might as well try prayer. What have we got to lose?” Prayer can feel weak, but it is the avenue through which God can make us strong.

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.