A sermon preached on July 8, 2012 based upon 2Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 5:1-6.
There are some mighty puzzling things going on in these scriptures, beginning with the story about Jesus coming to his hometown of Nazareth.
In the five chapters leading up to this story Mark has described Jesus doing some pretty amazing, powerful things. He heals countless people. In a boat at night in the midst of a terrifying storm he commands the winds and waves to be still, and they obey him. In the passage immediately before our this morning’s passage, Jesus has just commanded a little girl who has died to come back to life, and sure enough she does, to everybody’s great amazement.
It seems as though there are no limits to what this Jesus is capable of doing, and now he comes home, to the place where he grew up, the place where, presumably he is most loved, most known – the place where you would expect Jesus to do even more wonderful things.
But instead, Mark tells us, he could do no miracles there.
It appears there are definite limits after all to what Jesus is capable of doing. The collective unbelief of the community – their unwillingness to participate in what he wants to do among them – seems to render Jesus powerless.
The hometown people mock Jesus, seeing him as nothing more than a show-off, somebody full of himself who thinks he’s better than the people with whom he grew up. The impression you get is that it really hurts Jesus.
Strange. One so powerful, so vulnerable.
It seems less strange, perhaps, as we read the rest of the Gospel.
At a certain point Jesus determines to leave the northern country of Galilee where his powers have been so much in evidence, and go to the power center of Israel – the city of Jerusalem. As he leaves Galilee behind, his miracles become less common, and upon entering Jerusalem, the power so in evidence before that before now seems strangely absent. The people in charge – the Romans and the Jewish religious authorities – are similarly aggressive in their unbelief of Jesus to that of the folks back in Nazareth, and standing before them he seems no match to their power to silence all opposition.
In the Garden of Gethsemane he even prays to his Father in heaven – the source of his extraordinary powers back in Galilee – asking that the powers of death and destruction not take him down. He does so three separate times, but the power to deliver him is not given to him. He is arrested, mocked, beaten, and then nailed to the cross. Hanging there, he appears like nothing more than the poster child of weakness and powerlessness.
How can one so powerful be so powerless? How can the suffering servant also be the triumphant Lord?
It’s a puzzle. Another word might be paradox.
I see a similar puzzle expressed in our epistle lesson.
This is the great Apostle Paul speaking here. He is the man who, next to Jesus did more than anybody to shape Christianity. Paul is personally responsible for spreading the Gospel beyond the Jewish world out into the Gentile world, starting numerous churches throughout the ancient, Mediterranean world. The book of Acts presents Paul as a powerful worker of miracles, not unlike those performed by his Lord, Jesus.
He is, in other words, an exceedingly powerful man. But here we glimpse another side of Paul. There are problems back in the Corinthian Church, which once upon a time Paul began. He has heard from a distance by letter that divisions have occurred. In his absence, some preachers have arrived in Corinth claiming the status of apostles, and in various ways they have called into question the authority of Paul.
These “super-apostles” are pretty impressive. Apparently they are more gifted speakers than Paul, and better looking too. Where Paul could be a little grating at times, they seem to have winning personalities. These super-apostles also claim to possess extraordinary revelations given to them by God that have essentially lifted them to a higher plain of existence from the rest of mere mortals, and in particular, of that of Paul.
So the overall impression made by these super-apostles in the minds of the Corinthian Christians is to render Paul as passé — as clearly inferior to their new and improved version of Christianity. Their message amounts to, “We’re the cool kids. Paul is a loser. Hang with us, and we’ll show you how to be cool kids like us.”
In response to these attacks, Paul shows himself to be quite human. He gets defensive and does some boasting of his own, and then repeatedly apologizes for what a fool he knows he’s being in getting caught up in such boasting.
It hasn’t been Paul’s style to put his own religious experience at the center of his preaching the way the super-apostles do, but in this morning’s passage he awkwardly begins to talk about an experience he had 14 years earlier in which he was transported up into “paradise” – what he calls “the third heaven”, the realm of God, and saw things that can’t be repeated, or expressed – a Near Death kind of thing. He is so embarrassed by his own boasting that he talks about the experience indirectly, in the third person.
“Yeah, I’ve experienced some pretty amazing things too,” Paul seems to be saying. “But none of this was something I myself accomplished. To focus on such things would be to suggest otherwise, putting myself at the center of the message, where only Christ belongs.”
From there Paul begins talking openly about his weakness, almost celebrating his frailties. He talks about something he calls a “thorn in the flesh”, some unexplained physical affliction that Paul prayed three times — like Jesus before him in the Garden of Gethsemane — to be delivered from, without success.
In response to his prayers the only message he got from the Lord was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So he’ll boast in his weakness, Paul says. Weakness is precisely what the super-apostles had not been talking about.
This puzzle running through our scripture lessons this morning arises from the basic fact that we human beings are ourselves puzzling creatures.
We’re animals, just like other animals, driven by the same sorts of biological instincts, and yet, we’re more than animals, made by our God to be “little lower than the angels,” as it says in Psalm 8.
We are killer apes, but also made in the image and likeness of God, called to be co-creators with God.
We’re sinners, but we’re also saints. Both.
The puzzle is expressed in the story in Genesis of the creation of the first human being in which God begins by taking a handful of dust – that same, ordinary stuff that mud and dirt comes from. This is the primary substance out of which we are created. From dust we have come and to dust we will return. That’s all we are. Dust in the wind. And yet into this every so ordinary dust God breathes divine breath. The spark of God.
And that’s who we are – this strange combination of dust and divine breath.
We are weak – weaker than we care to admit, but we are also powerful, connected to the power to move mountains.
We are limited; we are limitless.
We are slobs who pass gas and make messes wherever we go; we are also capable of extraordinary creativity and beauty, who sometimes catch glimpses of eternal glory.
Both sides of the puzzle are essential to understanding who we are, though we are tempted to deny one or the other because they seem to be so in contradiction of each other. And when we do, problems arise.
If we deny our weakness, our frailty, our dust nature, we imagine ourselves to be gods, and with such flights of hubris we soon find ourselves crashing to earth.
But if all we know is our dust nature, our frailty, we sell ourselves short, oblivious to the extraordinary power that can work through us, and the amazing possibilities of a life surrendered to God.
The people in Jesus’ hometown weren’t comfortable with the puzzle, this paradox. On the one hand, they figured that if they knew something of the frailty and weakness of Jesus – how he wet his pants when he was kid, or cried the time he got lost out in the dark, or how sometimes he flunked tests in school and would get so frustrated — then knowing such stories ruled out the possibility that he could also be someone through whom God could do exceedingly wonderful and powerful things.
They couldn’t tolerate the paradox. It was either one thing, or the other. Either Jesus was powerful or Jesus was weak, but he couldn’t be both.
They couldn’t honor the power of Jesus, and they also were unwilling to admit their weakness; specifically, that what they didn’t know so outweighed what they did know, and that they could be in such great need of something that Jesus had to share with them. They wanted to think of themselves as powerful, not as needy. And as such they blocked the power that Jesus wanted to share with them.
A similar thing was going on with the super-apostles. They wanted to see themselves as strong and powerful. But in their arrogance they were forgetting the real source of their power. They weren’t pointing people to that source either, they were just pointing to themselves. They certainly weren’t witnessing to a God revealed most clearly in a savior suffering death on a cross.
We don’t like paradoxes. But if we can hold this paradox together in our life, we may find that we are opened up to supernatural powers we couldn’t have imagined.
I read a strange, historical story in a book called, Healing Words by Dr. Larry Dosey.
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer who followed the wake of Columbus to the New World during the first half of the sixteenth century. He was shipwrecked off what is now the coast of Texas, and he and two of his companions managed to wash up on shore. Afraid of hostile natives, they dug a pit, where they spent several cold winter nights sleeping naked.
Having been confronted with the depths of their frailty, they underwent an amazing transformation. They emerged from the pit with the power to heal. Making their way in a southwestward direction, word spread through the native populations regarding the gifts they possessed. The sick would be brought to them that de Vaca and his friends might lay their hands upon them and heal them, and in doing so they were able to travel unharmed.
Eventually they made their way back to Mexico City, the seat of Spanish civilization at the time in the New World. Back “safe and sound” in the place that represented in their minds invulnerability and a better informed world view, they lost their power to heal. No longer weak and vulnerable, they found themselves cut off from the mysterious power that been given to them in their sojourn.
Paul said, “When I am weak, then am I strong.”
In the second half of our Gospel reading, Jesus sends his disciples out two by two into the world. He intentionally sends them out with practically no provisions whatsoever so that they will travel in a state of vulnerability in which they would be forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers. He sends them out to proclaim the Gospel with the power to heal the sick. Again, weakness and power go hand in hand in a way we don’t often imagine possible.
What about us? Can we embrace both the weakness and the access to extraordinary power that go hand in hand in life?