In Weakness and in Strength

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Amazing grace. How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost. But now, I’m found. Was blind, but now, I see.

How many times have we sung this song? If I had to guess, I would say hundreds, if not thousands. But when we sing it, do we listen to the words? Do we understand the meaning those words are trying to convey?

Written by John Newton in the 18th century, Amazing Grace appears in more than 1,200 hymnals. By comparison, “Silent Night” appears in 536 hymnals, and the great Charles Wesley hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” is found in more than 1,500. The difference is that “Amazing Grace” has transcended the hymnal, and the 1971 version by Judy Collins made the top 10 charts. No other hymn can make that claim.

“Amazing Grace” is the song most people turn to to find comfort and strength when they are at their lowest. People of all faiths know at least the first verse, and so it is often sung at ecumenical gatherings. One lasting image from September 11 is the firefighters, police, EMTs, and all the rest joining hands and hearts at ground zero and singing “Amazing Grace” together.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

This morning, we heard a portion of Paul’s letter to his Church in Corinth. The Church is divided. The people are in open rebellion against his leadership. Others have come claiming to be “super-apostles” and teaching against what Paul taught them. They have come to town, boasting of a higher apostolic authority than Paul and accusing Paul of being weak, “untrained in speech,” a slanderer, and an imposter.

Paul has a public relations problem and needs to find a solution. Paul speaks of a “revelation” he has had but cannot find the words to describe it. How can you describe the indescribable?

When Mr. Spock tries to save the Enterprise in the 1982 movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, he dies doing his duty. He is placed in a capsule and shot onto a planet. In essence, they bury him. However, in the next movie, that planet becomes the site of the Genesis experiment, and the planet and Mr. Spock are regenerated. He is brought back to life and rejoins the crew.

Later in the movie, Doctor McCoy approaches Spock and wishes to engage him in a discussion of the afterlife. After all, he has truly gone where no one had before and returned. Spock tells McCoy that having such a conversation with a common phrase of reference would be impossible. In other words, McCoy would have to die and come back to understand what Spock experienced. Paul is having the same issue. How can Paul speak about what he has seen when no one else can?

Now, I have my issues with Paul, but his humility is not one of those issues. Paul is always hesitant to talk about himself after he tells his audience why they should listen to him. He tells his story not from a position of boasting but rather from a place of grace. Paul has experienced what only a few have: spiritual ecstasy, and he is hesitant to speak about it. His reward is that he is made fun of and called a liar.

Paul tells his Church that he will only boast “in his weakness.” To an American ear, this is hard to hear. We are constantly told that we must be strong. We are the greatest nation on earth. From the time they were little boys, we were told not to show emotion; emotion is weakness, and men must be strong. Any sign of caring for others is weakness or, better yet, “woke.” We must crush our enemies at all costs.

Then along comes Paul, who says, not so fast; it is not our strength that we should celebrate but our weakness. Paul had turned the whole thing on its head! I mean, how strong can a faith be where the leader of that faith willingly dies and the ultimate prize, if there is one, is death?

What is grace?

John Wesley defines grace as God’s undeserving gift, God’s free, underserved favor bestowed upon humanity. During creation, God spoke everything into existence. God separated the light from the darkness, land and water, sea and sky, all with a word. God created every plant and animal with his voice, but when it came to humanity, God paused. God stooped down, gathered the dust of what was just created, and formed humanity. With God’s own hands, humankind was created.

But God did not stop there. God breathed God’s breath, the breath of life, into the nostrils of this new creation. Some believe this to be the soul of humanity and that one is not truly alive until one takes one’s first breath. But either way, God put God’s very breath into humankind. God created humanity with God’s own hands in God’s image. The gift of life is grace.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline defines grace as “the underserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”

Grace pervades all of creation. Grace is God’s presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform human hearts, communities, and creation. Wherever God is present, grace is present.

It was grace that brought creation into being. It is grace that bestows upon humanity God’s divine image. Grace redeems us through Jesus Christ and continually transforms the whole of creation. Continually transforms the whole of creation. Continually transforms. Transformation. It is grace, God’s sufficient and redeeming grace, that will transform the world and begin with our own transformation.

Paul speaks of a “thorn in his flesh.” There has been much speculation as to what this thorn is. Is it physical, spiritual, or mental? Paul does not say what it is, but it is enough of a problem that he mentions it, and it transforms him and his ministry. In many ways, this is Paul’s weakness.

Whatever it is, Paul calls it a “messenger of Satan,” and he believes that it has been sent to him to torment him and to keep him humble. Paul says he has prayed three times for God to remove this thorn, but God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

I do not hold to the image of a being called Satan. Is there evil in the world? Yes, there is. Are there evil people in the world? Well, that is a little more complex. Everyone is born with a clean slate, a “Tabula rasa,” and we learn everything.

At our core, humanity is good. After each “day” of creation, God stepped back and said, it is good. Humanity was included in that. What corrupts humanity is what we learn. We are not born to hate, to discriminate, to make fun of, and all the rest. All of that comes from fear and lack of understanding. So, no, there are no evil people, but there are evil actions.

The first thing evil does is divide. Evil creates an environment of distrust, which causes derision to take hold. Evil must have an enemy, something to focus on, so evil creates an enemy, usually a scapegoat to use as a way in. It might be a person; it might be an issue, but whatever it is, it will exploit it to the point of division. I might add that the problem does not have to be a big issue; sometimes, the minor issue causes the most significant division.

This is the place Paul has found himself, in the middle of a divided community. But notice that Paul comes in not as a lion but as a gentle shepherd. He does not boast of his strength but rather the opposite. Paul speaks of his weakness, and, reading between the lines a little, Paul takes the blame. Paul is the leader, and ultimately, the leader is the one responsible.

So, what does Paul do to get them back on track? Paul teaches them about humility, not humiliation but humility. Paul reminds them that they are all created in the divine image and that, at our core, we are good. No one is beyond redemption. If they have breath, they are capable of change.

Paul calls them to pray—for each other and for him—but notice how Paul speaks of prayer. Paul prays that God’s will be done. Paul is echoing the words Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion. In the end, Jesus submitted his will to God and prayed that God’s will be done. There is power in surrender.

When we surrender our will, when we realize we don’t know what’s best in every situation, we make room for God’s grace to move in and through our lives. For us to be “conformed to the image of God’s son,” we must surrender our will so that God’s purpose for us may be fulfilled.

Surrender is not easy, and surrender is not weakness but strength.

But surrender does not mean we give up; it means the opposite: we work and work hard. We pray, and we get to work. Evil is well established and well organized, but it can be defeated, not on our own but by God. The light will prevail in the darkness.

We can never lose hope. God’s grace gives us hope. So far, we have survived 100% of our worst days, and we are still here. Jesus never promised it would be easy; he said it would be hard, but the promise is that we will never walk through it alone.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun. Then when we first begun.


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