I Corinthians 1:18-31
It was said of St Francis of Assisi that “the crucifix was his Bible.” I suppose that what was meant by this was not that Francis did not read or highly regard Holy Scripture (there is plenty of evidence to the contrary), but that, for him, the message of the Bible was expressed most clearly and forcefully in the figure of Christ on the Cross.
Here was evidence of how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Here was the sign of how far that Love was willing to go, offering its own life for the sake of sinners, giving itself completely for the redemption of humankind.
And here too was the essence of Christ’s call to those who would follow him: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me,” Jesus said, “cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27). And again, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 14:24). For his disciples as well as for the Master himself, the secret of fruitfulness was in laying down their lives for others. This was the new vision and new way of life to which the gospel was summoning us.
All this Francis saw clearly in the figure of Christ upon the Cross.
If the Cross of Christ was important to the message and mission of St Francis, it was just as central to the message and mission of St Paul. In fact, the message of Christ crucified was the very heart of the gospel he preached:
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor 2:1,2).
This message, he knew, would not be eagerly accepted, either by Jews or by Gentiles – but he would not compromise it; this was his message regardless of whether it was understood or believed by those to whom he preached.
“We proclaim Christ crucified,” he declared, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:23). For who among the Jews imagined a Messiah who would suffer a common criminal’s death at the hands of Roman guards? And who among the Gentiles envisioned a divine man nailed to a cross in weakness and defeat? Who would ever dream that this Jesus of Nazareth – mocked, beaten, spat upon and hanging from a cross – would be the hope of the world?
St Paul contends that only those who have been given grace by God to see and to understand can fully comprehend the mystery of Christ crucified. Only they can see how the power of God has transformed the weakness and apparent defeat of the Cross into victory and hope for the believer. For them, the crucified One has become “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:24).
For St Paul the image of Christ crucified was more than just a message to be preached; it was an image that shaped and influenced his entire life and ministry. For it was clear to Paul that God was still taking what was weak and bringing out of it power; God was still using what was apparently foolish to confound the wise.
“When I came to you,” he admits to the church at Corinth, “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom… I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (I Cor 2:1, 3-5).
It was in his weakness that Paul found the power of God most at work within him.
St Paul saw the strength of God at work not only in his own life, but also in the weakness of the Corinthian church.
“Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,” he reminds them, “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor 1:26-27).
God had not discounted them because of their weakness; but had instead chosen them to demonstrate his power in and through their weakness. God’s strength was, in fact, being made perfect through their weakness.
The 19th century Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writes of a visit she made to a school for developmentally disabled children. There she saw a group of children being led through a series of exercises using weights. She noticed how difficult it was for most of the children to manage their movements, and saw that for the most part, they were out of step with the music and the teacher’s directions; “all was out of harmony,” she reported. “One little girl, however,.…made perfect movements. Not a jar or a break disturbed the harmony of her exercises. And the reason was not that she had more strength than the others, but that she had no strength at all. She could not so much as close her hands on the dumbbells, nor lift her arms, and the master had to stand behind her, and do it all. She yielded up her members as instruments to him, and his ‘strength was made perfect’ in her weakness. He knew how to go through those exercises, for he himself had planned them; and therefore when he did it, it was done right. She did nothing but yield herself up utterly into his hands, and he did it all. The yielding was her part; the responsibility was all his. It was not her skill that was needed to make harmonious movements, but only his. The question was not of her capacity, but of his. Her utter weakness was her greatest strength.”
“To me,” she concludes, “this is a very striking picture of our Christian life, and it is no wonder therefore that Paul could say, ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’” (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, p.191).
Our weakness does not have to be a barrier or an obstacle to God; instead, it can be the very thing that allows God to work most effectively through us. The key is that we must recognize and accept our inadequacy to do the work of God in our own strength and by our own cleverness and power, and yield ourselves wholly to God, looking for God’s greater strength to do in us what we cannot do ourselves.
I sometimes tell the story of a postulant who came to our community for a time, but left after only a few months of living with us. When the Novice Guardian asked him why he wished to leave, he related that he had come to the monastery to live among a group of men from whom he could learn and pattern his own life, but that he had “found no holy men here,” and therefore thought it best to depart and look elsewhere. Now I do not know what his criteria for “holy men” was, but I for one didn’t wonder that he should say such a thing because it takes only a little time of living in a community to discover the weaknesses and failings of each and every member. It does not take long to see that even monks sometimes become frustrated and angry; that they get discouraged and sad; that they can at times be self-centered and insensitive to one another’s needs; that they make mistakes. We have our weaknesses and failings, and in community life they do not remain hidden for long. But such revelations need not discourage us. Instead, our weaknesses and failures and sins should all the more turn us towards God, whose work it is in the first place and who is our hope and our strength.
We cannot live this monastic calling in our own strength. Nor can you live your Christian vocation in your own strength. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus reminded his followers (Jn 15:5). “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4). Unless we abide in him, unless we draw our strength from him, unless we are given up to him, we will accomplish little of eternal value and lasting worth. Without God’s strength at work within us, we will never become what God intends us to be. But in God, even our weakness is turned to strength, even our failings are turned to victory, even our helplessness is turned to power.
Father Benson, our founder, often reminded the members of our community in those early days that the work they did belonged completely to God:
“No skill of [ours] can fashion any work,” he said, “so that God shall come and approve of it and finish it. [God] begins and [God] finishes the work; and so [God] begins every work in the greatest possible form of weakness. Therefore in all divine works, instead of being discouraged because things seem to be weak, we are to recognize this weakness as an almost necessary form of cooperation [with God]. God delights to begin a work when [our] weakness is specially manifest, in order that it may be perfectly manifest that all the work is [God’s]. God delights to show his favor just when [we] can do nothing else than feel [our] inadequacy” (The Religious Vocation, p. 89).
There are times when we become keenly aware of our weaknesses and inadequacies, our failures and sins. If we use them to remind us of our spiritual poverty, to remember our need for God, these occasions become for us opportunities for renewing our trust in God. They can be moments of grace that contribute mightily to our spiritual growth. In our Rule of Life, we say, “The knowledge and acceptance of our fragility preserves us from complacency and illusion, continually throwing us back on the mercy and compassion of God” (The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 8: “Engaging with Poverty,” p.17).
It is really in our weakness and dependency on God that the way will open for us to live in union with Christ, and so experience his strength being made perfect in our weakness. Strengthened by his life and power at work within us, we learn to say with St Paul, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
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