Proper 9, Year B, Church of the Holy Cross, Murfreesboro, July 7, 2024

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’”(2 Cor. 12:9).

Years ago I came to a bad patch in my ministry as a priest, and experienced a crisis of confidence that left me wondering what God was up to, in the life of the congregation I served and in my own vocation. We had charted a course together for a number of years and now we struggled as a congregation to arrive at the destination. It seemed like we had gotten most of the way but were having a hard time crossing the finish line.

My bishop told me that it seemed to him that we were experiencing “a corporate anxiety attack” in which disaster seemed to loom ahead just at the moment of greatest promise; an anxiety that threatened our ability to move forward. We were undercutting our own work because we feared the future! I began to doubt my own wisdom and my own leadership, which of course I should have been doubting all along; needless to say I was also discounting the power of God. It was not exactly “the dark night of the soul” but it was bad enough.

Well, you can imagine what happened. At about the point I despaired things began to improve. It was a “Jesus, take the wheel!” moment: not because I had learned to rely on the grace of God and surrendered the wheel, but because I had bailed entirely out of the cockpit. My anxiety had gotten the better of me and I had run for cover spiritually. It turned out that I was part and parcel of “the corporate anxiety attack”: it was as much my problem as the congregation’s. I thought it was their issue alone but it wasn’t. All in all, it was a “learning experience,” as people commonly say, one which we (thank God) survived.

Our epistle reading today, from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, tells a different story but one which has a common theme: the grace of God conveyed precisely through human weakness. In this letter, Paul is dealing with a congregation he knows well, but which in his absence has raised up new leaders or “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) as he calls them, who emphasized the power of their spiritual gifts. Paul, in comparison, seemed power-less and unable to lead: possessed of no commanding presence as a pastor or a preacher (2 Cor. 10:10), as he says. Subject in his absence to the biting criticism of the super-apostles, St. Paul wrote this letter to the Church in Corinth in response.

Of course, in the letter Paul does his fair share of insisting on his own gifts as an apostle. He has endured his own share of hardships (2 Cor. 11:23); he has ministered to them free of charge without calling upon their support (2 Cor. 11:9). He has gifts of knowledge, as he says in another place (2 Cor. 11:6), and spiritual experiences second to none, as he says in our reading. The man caught up to the third heaven of spiritual ecstasy is likely Paul himself. But, as he says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30), which brings us to the heart of our reading today.

So that Paul would not be too puffed up, God gave him, as he says, “a thorn… in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). We don’t know what St. Paul is talking about here; maybe an ailment that testified to his physical weakness, or maybe something else entirely. Whatever it was, whatever this thorn in the flesh might be, it taught Paul, and it teaches us, that God’s power is manifested through our human weakness. Not in spite of our own inadequacy, or our failure to measure up, but through our weakness. Our own weakness and foolishness is part of the program! “For whenever I am weak,” St. Paul writes, “then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

When our own inadequacy is clearly seen, becoming manifest to others and to ourselves, the power of God appears. It’s not that God simply supplies what we lack, helping us cross the finish line after we’ve gotten most of the way ourselves, but that our own weakness and foolishness is intrinsic to our salvation. Whatever motive power we have at all is entirely God’s gift. We need saving, after all, not just help in saving ourselves. Grace is God’s power and presence in our lives, given as a free gift to those who cannot save themselves.

Central to our liturgy today is the re-affirmation of our baptismal vows: that baptism by which God gave us grace for the living of the Christian life. Built into the program is the promise that when we fall into sin we will repent and return to the Lord. Our acknowledgment of our powerlessness and our foolishness is intrinsic to the promise. God is working through our weakness, not in spite of it, just as he was for Paul.

Here in the letter, St. Paul has tapped into the power of the Cross, the very means of our salvation. We follow the God who manifested his own power and love most clearly in the passion and death of Jesus Christ his only Son, and his resurrection from the dead. Jesus himself became weak for our sakes so that we might be filled with the power of God. “May I never boast of anything,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). God’s gift to us: turning our weakness into his strength, through the One who is risen from the dead.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee