Reflection: July 8

Published on Jul 9th, 2018 by Webminister | 0

        At Janet’s recent 60thbirthday gathering in Nanaimo with my family, I had a couple of conversations with my nephew.  He’s in his-mid-20s, newly engaged, on top of the world, and very certain of his own ideas and opinions.  He would wax poetic about anything and everything, and when caught out, laugh at himself.  It was quite humorous to just watch him interact with Iain, our son, who himself can be a bit of a know-it-all.  When commenting on it afterwards, I was reminded that I was a bit like that myself in my 20’s.  “No,” I said, “not me.  I was humble and quiet.”

         Well, in truth, I was shy when it came to being in crowds or with people I didn’t know well.  But with my own family and my close friends, I confess I came across as a bit of a know-it-all.  I outgrew that pretty quickly after marriage and parenthood.  Marriage and parenthood teach you humility whether you want it or not.  Just watch the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen movie Parenthood to see what I mean.

         Paul was a bit of a know-it-all, too.  Paul is one of those characters you either love or hate, but more generally, is quite misunderstood.  He is an enigma, typical of many biblical characters.  Paul comes across as confident, acerbic sometimes, witty, smart, intolerant.  He is portrayed in Acts as changing his name from Saul to Paul and as the great leader of the early church. What we actually know of him from his own letters (written long before Acts) is that he was small of stature, had some kind of physical infirmity, was smart, sharp and witty, couldn’t speak in public worth a darn, affirmed women (he didn’t write the anti-women parts of his letters), and had a certain humility.  See what I mean?  An enigma!

         Part of what makes the Corinthian correspondence interesting is that it pits Paul against what he called super-apostles.  He accused them of being violent, manipulative, and power-hungry.  One of the more humorous aspects of this letter—although probably not intended by Paul—was that he gets into a boasting match with the people he accuses of boasting.  But the difference is that Paul boasts of his own weakness.  “Who boasts in their own weakness?!” we might wonder.

         David Fredrickson, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes in this week’s edition of workingpreacher.org.  He says that there are two ways to understand weakness: one is our usual understanding of weakness as an inability to do something.  However, Fredrickson offers a different interpretation that I found compelling.

         The Greek word for “weakness” is astheneia.  The root, sthen, means “holding together or cohesion.”  Fredrickson says, “To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you.  Astheneia, on the other hand, means coming undone.  It frequently refers to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define…”[1]

         Fredrickson says that weakness in this way is the weakness of mortality, locked in mystery.  Or it may be the weakness we experience when we contemplate intimacy; we can’t find the words to express what we feel or what intimacy means.  We are undone because we can’t stave off mortality and intimacy opens us up to be hurt by others.  So, when Paul boasts of his weakness, he boasts of coming undone in the mystery of mortality and intimacy and what can’t be explained.

         In our passage this morning, Paul affirms that God says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  As Fredrickson says, “a new definition of “power” is in formation, one that prefers to believe that there is strength in falling apart [in the mystery of not knowing—my words]….  Or to say it in a way I can almost understand: power is made perfect in loving.”

         In all his letters, Paul was firm that grace is all about love.  Paul was consistent that the ultimate power, which cracks us open and makes us come undone, is the power of love.  Jesus came undone at the crucifixion, but love triumphed in the mystery of new life after the cross.  Again and again, think of your heroes of faith: Oscan Romero, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Rigoberto Menchu, Jean Vanier, Brother David Steindle-Rast, the Dali Lama, Pope Francis, and on and on: their weakness was the coming undone that is love.  They sacrificed their lives because of the power of love and we still speak of love and that sacrifice today.

What do we remember of those who perpetuate fear and hate?  Whatever house-made-of-cards regimes they fashioned came tumbling down.  Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State in Bill Clinton’s US administration, has a new book out, Fascism: A WarningThe Guardian online news reports that it is about the rise of fascism in today’s world and how many, like Venezuela’s Chavez, turned from leftist politics to fascism. Authoritarianism doesn’t work; it never will because it doesn’t support the human spirit.  That’s what we don’t get as a human species.  Power over—whether that’s economic power, sexual power, racial power, or any kind of dominance—never wins.  Weakness in the form of love is what ultimately gives life.

         The good news for us Christians in today’s world, and our challenge and gift to the world, is that the power of love, which is made known in our vulnerability, which we affirm in Jesus of Nazareth who gave of his life because he embodied God’s love, is the power that can create a new community of hope, justice, and grace.

         As people of faith we live this good news, this weakness that is a not-knowing, that is about the mystery of love.  That’s what we’re about in trying new things for our future—sharing love in a way that enlivens and strengthens our community and our society.  We risk failure, but when we join with others who live in the power of coming-undone-that-is-love, the world is made stronger and there is hope for life on earth!

         Amen.

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[1]David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3696.

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