Christians can be so amusing to watch, except of course when we’re engaged in crusades and inquisitions. Nothing funny about that. But when it’s the small-scale, everyday jostling for recognition and influence we can look pretty comical. That’s all because what we SAY we believe isn’t just difficult—it’s impossible. Or at least that’s how it looks.
In a market driven, self-seeking world like ours, it’s tough enough to believe that there’s a God who expects us to care for others as much as for ourselves. It’s even tougher to believe in a God who promises to bring justice and peace to a world where war and oppression are daily media events. It’s asking a great deal to ask us to believe all that. Those are difficult things to believe.
But we’re not content to believe in difficult things. We’re stuck with believing impossible things. At the very heart of our faith is this bit of nonsense about a God who wins us back by letting us do our worst. Our liturgies tell us that on the cross of Jesus God’s power wasn’t defeated. It didn’t even suffer a temporary setback. No … God’s power, we’re told, was “made perfect” there.
Decades before anyone dreamed he would be the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote that “Christianity is born out of struggle because it is born from men and women faced with the paradox [the seeming nonsense] of God’s purpose made flesh in a dead and condemned man.” That, he said, remains “the final control and measure and IRRITANT” of everything we say and do.*
So when St. Paul struggles to make sense of his mixture of success and failure, God’s word that brings him to his senses is simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s the final control and measure of Paul’s faith: power perfected in weakness. And it’s also definitely an irritant, because it doesn’t leave us with any blueprints to tell us how it’s supposed to work. In fact there can’t be any blueprints. How do you draw a blueprint of “power perfected in weakness”? It’s not just difficult to draw—it’s impossible.
That’s where Christians can start to look so amusing, because we keep trying to come up with the blueprints anyway. Or call them formulas or recipes or scripts. We keep trying to come up with some foolproof checklist that assures us we’re being faithful to the outrageous life of our crucified God. But none of that ever quite works. We have this talent for taking signs of self-giving and turning them into peculiar status symbols. And we start playing games, with ourselves and one another, about what we REALLY think of ourselves.
Have you ever caught people trying to act humble when it’s clear they’re pretty impressed with themselves? They use all kinds of self-effacing expressions, all the while dropping in a few key phrases or stories to let you know they’ve been places and done things. I used to see that happen all the time when I was a lowly student at THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO where I earned my DOCTORATE. But I just didn’t have time for that sort of thing, and I’ve always tried to play down my IMPECCABLE CREDENTIALS from such an ELITE institution. And anyway, people who’ve gone to the really good schools never use the title “Dr.” It’s just too pedestrian. So I don’t use it, just as I never bother to wear my PHI BETA KAPPA key.
Now to be fair, here’s a different example from my Baptist days: I visited a country church in the deep south (for a southerner, “deep south” means “south of where I came from”), and the pastor, Brother Johnny, started things off by assuring us that they weren’t anything like those high church types at First Baptist Church in the county seat. They were just plain country people who loved the Lord. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more satisfied look of superiority than the one his face wore. You can’t win this “humbler than thou” game just by replacing brick with cut-rate, wood-like paneling or replacing tile with indoor/outdoor carpet or replacing vestments with flashy suits from the sale rack at J. C. Penny. And by the way, the name of that church was Corinth Baptist Church. (Why would anybody want to name their church after the most conflicted church in the New Testament?)
Which brings us back to this week’s lesson. It catches St. Paul right in the middle of playing his own version of “humbler than thou” with his detractors in the original church at Corinth. And he’s not winning, not by any measure. He’s been saying over and over, “It’s just not like me to brag; I know it’s silly—BUT…” Sometimes he brags about his strengths; sometimes he brags about his weaknesses. And in the part we heard today he acts like it’s somebody else he’s bragging about, but we know it’s all about him.
I’m only paraphrasing a little bit here: “I know of somebody,” he says, “who was snatched up into the third heaven, into Paradise itself, and who heard things that can’t be repeated. Him I can brag about, but I won’t brag about me. Of course if I DID brag about me, it would all be true, but I won’t do that, because I want to be taken at face value, ‘even considering the exceptional character of [my] revelations’.” Really now, can he BE more transparent?
It’s easy to make people look silly when they try to play “humbler than thou.” After all, it’s a game you’ve already lost the moment you try to play it. Even so, we who call ourselves Christians may be the most likely to play it of anybody, because we’re stuck with this outrageous celebration of power perfected in weakness.
That’s why God has to remind Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And so it is. But we’ve misunderstood what grace means if we think it’s going to make us or Paul stop playing those games.
Grace is the delight God takes in us simply for being the comical creatures that each of us is. It’s the anguished delight God takes in us even when we’re not at all comical but downright vicious. It’s God’s immeasurable desire and ability to take whatever we’ve made of ourselves and make each of us indispensable to the celebration of life together that’s already begun to arrive in these very games we keep playing. And we begin to glimpse God’s delight in us whenever it dawns on us that we’re still playing games.
That’s why one of the most powerful means of grace is our coming together. It’s that irritating, knowing smile in another person’s face that takes us out of ourselves and makes us able to laugh and move on. It’s that sobering look of concern and acceptance that makes us able to confess how far we are from where we need to be, and move on. It’s that look of delight and interest we see that lets us know there’s something unique and indispensable about each of us, and move on. Move on, that is, to God’s celebration of life together with us.
Power perfected in weakness can’t be captured in a blueprint or a formula or a catchy phrase. But it can be glimpsed in our need to be together, to be not just a gathering but a community. It can be glimpsed when we relive God’s coming to us and letting us do our worst only to find God still wanting us to join the celebration. That’s the greatest power God has. It’s the greatest power God gives—in broken bread and poured-out wine, and in the face of the person next to you.
*Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, 2nd Ed. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 1990), p. 3.