Sundays – First Service 8:45a | Formation Hour 10:10a | Second Service 11:15a

The following is a sermon by the Rev. John Roop

July 8th, 2018; 7th Sunday of Pentecost

Apostles Anglican Church

When I Am Weak

(Ezek 2:1-7 / Ps 123 / 2 Cor 12:2-10 / Mk 6:1-6)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Word of God is an intrusive word. It pokes and prods. It exhorts and reproves. It meddles in our affairs and it interrogates our lives. It gets personal, as do the following questions inspired by today’s Epistle. No show of hands is required, no nodding or smiling: just a show of hearts, an opening up of your own heart to yourself, to the Word, and to the one who spoke it.

Have you ever felt unloved or underloved?

Have you ever felt devalued or undervalued?

Have you ever given your whole self to a dream, to a cause, to a task only to find your actions questioned and your motives suspect?

Have you ever had to defend yourself or justify yourself to those who should have known you and trusted you and taken your side?

Have you ever been hurt by a friend, by a mentor, by the church?

Have you ever been disappointed in God: by his absence or by his bewildering presence, by his apparent indifference to your plight or your prayers, by his lack of direction or his insistence that you walk a path in faith alone, which sometimes seems like darkness and doubt?

The reason that no show of hands was required is simply this: if you have lived any length of time and if you have learned to be honest with yourself, then the answer to these questions is yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is the human condition, isn’t it—the fallen human condition, granted, but the human condition in which we find ourselves nonetheless: you and me and all of us together.

We might imagine that this is not so for the saints—that their hearts and minds and spirits are so pure and so expansive that they always rise above such feelings. But we would be wrong, I think. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The saints are so sensitive that they feel the fallen human condition more—not less—intensely than the rest of us. That is certainly the case with St. Paul, not least in his troubled relationship with the church in Corinth.

After a largely unsuccessful engagement with Greek philosophers in Athens during his second missionary journey:

…Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because [the emperor] Claudius had commanded all Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

   When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus (1 Cor 18:1-6, ESV throughout).

Here, in Corinth, you have the A-team of missionaries: Paul, Silas, Timothy, Aquila, and Priscilla; sometime later Apollos would also settle in Corinth, adding his apologetic eloquence to the mix. Even so, Paul had little success with the Jewish community, and so he turned his efforts toward the Gentiles. There he made inroads and almost certainly experienced opposition.

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 18:9-11).

A year and six months: this is the mark of Paul’s dedication and devotion to this church. Paul, who seemingly could not stay still, who was always on the move for the Gospel, settled down for a year and six months in this great city. Only in Ephesus did he remain longer. Imagine the relationships forged as this Christian community formed and grew in number and in Spirit—founding pastor and founding members joined together in bonds of love and mission greater perhaps than any of them had known. I imagine those were intense and heady days.

And what was Paul like among them? He reminds them of those days in the letter we know as 1 Corinthians:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

Paul had just come from Athens, remember, where he had heard lofty speech and wisdom. He had even tried his own hand at it, quoting philosophers and poets on Mars’ Hill. But, when he used this lofty speech and wisdom to introduce Jesus—his death and resurrection—the philosophers mocked. And that was enough for Paul: no more of man’s wisdom, no more rhetorical eloquence—from now on just Jesus and him crucified, just weakness and fear and trembling, just the power and wisdom of God. And that was enough, and more than enough.

Like any new church in the flush of success, there were growing pains in Corinth: clashes of cultures, moral and ethical dilemmas, doctrinal confusion. As long as Paul was with them, he could keep these in check, straighten them out. But when he left, it was a different story, as his subsequent correspondence with the church reveals. We need not rehearse all the problems; you know them and, if not, you need only read 1 Corinthians. They are splashed there on every page. The problems were exacerbated by the arrival—in Paul’s absence—of some who presented themselves as Super Apostles: men of great eloquence and charisma, men of lofty speech and apparent wisdom, men who would today be Madison Avenue icons or powerful politicians or megachurch pastors with golden bathroom fixtures and private jets. They were almost certainly eminently presentable, the kind of men you would be proud to introduce as your pastor: hair combed and oiled, beards neatly trimmed, clothes new and pressed, with exactly the right words for any occasion—and a new and different gospel, one more…well, more proper and presentable than a message about a crucified messiah. And, they seduced the Corinthian Christians away from the truth and away from Paul.

From his new assignment in Ephesus, Paul heard the rumors and reports of the troubles in Corinth. Correspondence traveled slowly back and forth between church and apostle—no emails, no texts—and confusion grew, and frustration and exasperation and hard feelings.

Have you ever felt unloved or underloved?

Have you ever felt devalued or undervalued?

Have you ever given your whole self to a dream, to a cause, to a task only to find your actions questioned and your motives suspect?

Paul did at Corinth, at the church he founded while working with his own hands to provide his own needs, at the church where he gave himself—all he had to offer—for a year and a half. And now this: imposters come in and steal their hearts away from Paul and away from his Gospel.

To make matters even more painful, the troubles in Corinth seem to be a personal rejection of Paul himself. Compared to the super apostles, Paul just doesn’t stack up: slick televangelist against street preacher—no real contest. They come with beautiful packaging and smooth words, with the appearance of poise and power. And Paul?

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (2 Cor 4:7-12).

Nothing slick here, nothing Madison Avenue: afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, beaten down, living in the midst of imminent death—determined to know, and to preach in word and deed nothing but Jesus and him crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24). Let the super apostles have their lofty words and wisdom; give me Jesus and the wisdom and power of his cross.

Have you ever had to defend yourself or justify yourself to those who should have known you and trusted you and taken your side?

Paul did, to the very church he founded in Corinth. These super apostles boast of their pedigree and their power? Then, let me compare myself to them.

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant (2 Cor 11:22-29)?

Yes, Paul, granted you have suffered much. But that is the problem, isn’t it? If you are truly an apostle, if your Gospel is truly approved by God, why would he treat you in such a way? Would he not rather crown your efforts with prosperity and success like we see in the super apostles? Would God not give you power instead of weakness, wisdom instead of foolishness? Are you really an apostle approved by God? And so Paul is forced to continue:

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man 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. And I know that thi man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may thin more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:1-10).

Paul will not yield an inch; if anything, he doubles down on his message of the cross. The true Christian life is not one heralded success after another, it is not moving outwardly from strength to strength or visibly from glory to glory. The true Christian life is cruciform: it is affliction, perplexity, persecution, unanswered prayer, and weakness, for in all these things the wisdom and power of God is made manifest. In all these things the cross of Christ is proclaimed. In all these things the false power and false wisdom of the world are unmasked as fraudulent, false gospels and those who proclaim them as charlatans. The Corinthians prefer the super apostles to Paul because they prefer the life of the super apostles to the life of the cross—for themselves. And Paul will have none of it. The Eucharist we share, like the cross of Christ, is the pattern for those who follow Christ. As with the bread, we too are taken, blessed, broken, and given for the life of the world. Taken, blessed, broken, and given: unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, our Lord tells us. And so Paul can say to the Corinthians:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

God does not need our strength, such as we may think we have. But he can and does use our weakness to reveal the surpassing power of the cross, if we yield it to him in faith and hope.

Some of us here at Apostles are more aware than ever of facing the consequences of the fall: advancing age with its infirmities and pains and indignities, failing health in body and mind, the passing of friends and family, changes in lifestyle, loss of independence—and the depressing list goes on. Some of us here at Apostles are more aware than ever of the challenges of the ordinary dailiness of life: raising and worrying about children, meeting the relentless demands of a job or a home, caring for aging parents, surviving the increasingly prevalent exhaustion of our age. Our calling is to embrace all these as the cross of Christ, so that his power may be manifest in our weakness. About all this, Paul says:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 or 4:16-18).

Are we weak? Yes, thanks be to God, for our weakness makes room for the power of the cross. Are we perplexed? Yes, thanks be to God, for our confusion makes room for the wisdom of the cross. Are we struggling with unanswered prayer? Yes, thanks be to God, because his grace is sufficient for us and his power is made perfect in weakness. Can we at last remove the false, Facebook masks that market our lives as one grand vacation after another, one royal banquet after another, one promotion after another, one success after another, and finally admit with Paul that sometimes we feel confused and underloved and underappreciated and frightened and beaten down and just plain weary? And can we then take the next step with Paul and say, “Thanks be to God? I will boast of these things that show my weakness, for they are working in me a hidden weight of glory that far surpasses their momentary affliction, for when I am weak, I am strong. In my weakness the power of the cross is made manifest for all the watching world to see.” The Gospel is not about human prosperity. It is not about health, wealth, and success. It is not about human wisdom and power. The Gospel is about the cross of Christ, about the overwhelming, victorious love and power of God shining forth in the moment of absolute human weakness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is what turned a persecutor of the Church into an apostle. This is what turned a prominent Pharisee into a fool for Christ. This is the answer to every false apostle and false gospel in whatever form they appear. This is the very wisdom and power of God. For Christ Jesus was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God, so that we, too, who are weak in him, may likewise live in the power of God (cf 2 Cor 13:4).

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor 13:14). Amen.