Power Made Perfect in Weakness: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year B

July 8, 2012

 The Gospel of Mark is downright strange. I don’t know how anyone could read, or listen to it being read, and not have some of those moments where you just stop and say, “What? Did I hear that right?” There was one of those moments in last week’s gospel, when a woman was healed simply by touching Jesus’ garment, and Jesus felt the power going out from him. There are several such moments in today’s gospel. First, there’s the changing response of Jesus’ hometown to his visit to them. They were astounded at his teaching then they took offense. After all, they knew who he was. They knew his mother; they knew his brothers and sisters. They knew he was a carpenter (Though no mention of his father).

The second puzzling thing is what happens next. Mark says that Jesus could do know “works of power” there. Parenthetically, he adds, well, he did heal some sick people. It’s really quite curious if you think about it. Mark is saying that Jesus could not do the sorts of healings and exorcisms he did elsewhere, because the people in his hometown didn’t respect him.

Last week, I pointed out that the miracles about which we read were open to interpretation or dispute—nobody saw what happened to the woman who suffered from hemorrhages; the little girl whom Jesus raised from the dead might have been sleeping anyways. This week, there’s no disputing Jesus’ miracles or works of power. The problem is that the people from his hometown rejected him anyway and that rejection seems to have limited his own power.

There is a deep tension in Mark’s gospel between the power that Jesus demonstrates from time to time, the power to calm a storm, heal the sick, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. Very often, immediately after Jesus performs a miracle, he warns people not to tell anyone about what he has done. Other times, Jesus’ power is misunderstood. In this case, the villagers of Jesus’ hometown know of his power, but seem to reject it. There’s a sense in which this story points forward to Jesus’ crucifixion, for it highlights the difference between the sort of Messiah Jesus is, and the sort of Messiah the people of his day were looking for. They wanted someone who would lead them in a revolt against their Roman occupiers. Instead, Jesus died on the cross.

This is a central theme of Mark’s gospel—that Jesus the Messiah, comes to us in ways that we don’t expect or understand and that our assumptions about who he is prevent us from seeing him clearly and having faith.

St. Paul speaks of a similar dynamic in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.

Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.

This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.

He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.

Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.

We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.

So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.

We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”

But there’s more. It is not enough for us to receive that word of grace and comfort, to know that Christ has shared in our humanity and our suffering. Our gospel reading continues, even though Jesus was rejected by his own people, his hometown, Mark has him do something quite remarkable in the aftermath of that rejection. Jesus keeps going, continues his travels through the countryside and his ministry. And he commissions his disciples and sends them out to extend the work of the reign of God, to heal the sick and cast out demons.

The Eucharistic prayer we’ve been using this season after Pentecost includes these words, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We come here, to this place, to this table, for nourishment and healing, but it should energize us to go forth from this place, to help usher in God’s reign.

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