Strengthening Grace

Sunday, July 7 2024
Becoming in Christ
Psalm 48:9-13 & 2 Corinthians 12:6-10
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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I once worked with a head of staff who never, ever seemed to stumble over his words or make any mistakes of any kind. But there was one Sunday where this Senior pastor actually mixed up his words. The other Assoicate Pastor on staff leaned over and whispered: “So there it is. Proof that our boss actually isn’t perfect!” That small incident gave my colleague reassurance that our head of staff was actually more human than he appeared.  

Seldom does a strong leader show, much less admit, weakness – because most are like this senior pastor. It’s quite the opposite actually. We’ve heard in the headlines recently of pastors who have fallen from grace, along with other leaders of their church, because those pastors so relished their image of being influential and powerful that they abused their power, leaving victims along the way. 

Paul gives us a different picture of a strong leader. In our passage this morning he admits weakness and how through his own weakness, the strength of Jesus Christ is more easily seen. He says that a messenger of Satan gave him a “thorn.” What that thorn is we’re not sure. It could also be that those who wanted to discredit Paul as a leader and spiritual guide may have focused on Paul’s weakness in order to lessen his influence on the Corinthian church.

We are not told what Paul’s “thorn” is, exactly. Most Biblical scholars think it was something physical. I like the theory that Paul had bad eyesight because wouldn’t it be ironic that one of the earliest missionaries with a great vision for how the good news could be spread had bad eyesight? Whatever this “thorn” was, it was not so bad that it prevented Paul from traveling. While we can speculate all day what this “thorn” actually was, what is clear is that it caused Paul some hardship.

It’s also important to note that this passage has been misinterpreted, resulting in bad and even dangerous theology. That being said I’d like to state what is not happening here. It was some messenger of Satan, not God, who gave Paul his “thorn.” Now some have interpreted this passage as Jesus causing suffering in our lives so that we would rely on him more. Someone on Facebook wrote “God makes us grow by causing suffering.” God does not cause suffering. We inflict more than enough suffering on ourselves without any help from God or Satan. God doesn’t cause suffering, but transforms it. 

Though God does not cause all things to happen, he works good in all things for those who love God. Paul says this later in his letter to the church in Rome. Whatever the “thorn” in his flesh was, it was a nuisance and a hindrance. So much so that he prayed three times for God to take it away. But God didn’t. But by God’s grace God still brought good from Paul’s hard situation.

What Paul points out is that we see Christ’s strength, especially in weakness. We must first admit there is weakness before receiving God’s strength. This is why God tells Paul that God’s grace is sufficient enough for him.

Today we are commissioning our youth mission team that is headed to Belize on Wednesday morning. I’m grateful that I get to accompany them. So do some other adults who have been leaders on this trip in the past. One of them is Randy Abraham. I deeply appreciate Randy’s willingness to share his own story of addiction (I got permission from him to share this) with those who are currently struggling or who have been affected by a loved one struggling with addiction. 

When I was in Belize two years ago with our youth, I experienced the tradition of someone from our team sharing their testimony or faith journey with some of the youth of Belize at their weekly youth group gathering. That year Randy shared his story of how he struggled with addiction and how he almost lost everything, including his family. Randy shared that while he didn’t realize it at the time, looking back on his journey he realized how God, through events and people willing to walk alongside Randy, was guiding him toward health and sobriety. Just the other day Randy shared with me that when he shared his story with the youth of Belize, he was struck by how their reactions were similar to those who hear his story back here at home. The Belizian youth nodded in agreement with all that Randy shared about the pain and guilt that addiction causes. In the same way people nod their heads at the same points here at home. It’s a testament that pain caused by addiction is a universal language. But in that moment what became clear is that the language of God’s grace is also a universal one. God’s grace was shown to Randy, when he finally admitted he needed help. God’s grace was shown in Randy’s willingness to admit to God and to others that he needed help. He couldn’t do this alone. God’s grace was shown in Randy’s willingness to bravely share his story so that others who are not as far along in their journey can find hope for themselves and those they love who are also struggling with addiction. This is a picture of how God works good for those who know God. Of how God’s grace is sufficient in our times of weakness.

Such a view of weakness is antithetical to how we view weakness today. But the good news of Jesus Christ is antithetical to most, if not all, of our views of what we deem as valuable and strong.

Part of Becoming in Christ is embodying the good news of Jesus Christ even if it’s the opposite of what our communities, our country, and the world view as strong and powerful. It is in admitting our weakness that we come to know for ourselves the power of God shown through the transformative grace of Jesus Christ, who was executed as an official act of the powers that be because he was a threat to the status quo. Just as he did back then, Jesus transforms the weak as examples of transformed and humbled people who are better at loving God, themselves, and others. People who relying on God’s grace are used by God to care and serve all for the common good. I can’t think of a better picture of what it means to become more of the people God has called us to be. Those who admit their weakness and are strengthened by God’s grace. For when we admit our weakness we become closer to Jesus Christ and closer to the people he has created us to be.