I Corinthians 1:18-25
Eighteen months ago, during my sabbatical, I spent a week in southwest France at Lourdes. I’d wanted to go to Lourdes for many years, to see what it is like and to try to understand why so many people have found it a place of healing and hope. I could talk for hours about my experiences there, but there was one thing that moved me more than anything else. It was the sight of hundreds of men and women in wheelchairs, being pushed with such respect, kindness and tenderness by mostly young men and women, some students, from all around the world. What was so clear, and really wonderful, was that here at Lourdes, those who were weak, sick, broken, disabled, were honored and really given pride of place. In most places in our society today, where power and wealth and success are trumpeted, the sick, the broken, the weak, the disabled, are so often marginalized and even hidden away. But not at Lourdes.
It made me think back to my late teens when I was considering Christianity. What most attracted me to the Christian faith was that it could embrace and make sense of suffering, sickness, failure and weakness. Humanism really couldn’t explain it at all – they rather got in the way.
Worshipping with men and women in wheelchairs, laughing and joking with them over a glass of Guiness, listening to their stories of faith and trust, and frankly getting in touch with my own weakness and need for healing was, I think, at the heart of the extraordinarily Suffering sense of holiness I felt there. It was unforgettable.
What was I surprised by this? I shouldn’t have been, because I’ve read St. Paul. He would have known exactly what I experienced, that palpable sense of holiness came from my proximity to what he called the power of the Cross.
In our reading today, from his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Indeed, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
Of all the dialectic in Paul’s writings, there is perhaps nothing so paradoxical and challenging as his conviction that in weakness lies strength. “I will boast of my weaknesses,” he says, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in my. I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities for the sake of Christ: for whenever I am weak then I am strong.”
And this from a man who first had an impeccable academic degree – trained under the renowned Gamaliel – and secondly had all the right connections: of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, and a Pharisee, and a Roman citizen!
Yet this whole secure social and intellectual background was thrown into turmoil with his extraordinary encounter with Jesus Christ. “Because of Christ,” he writes to the Philippians, “I have come to consider all these advantages that I had as disadvantages.”
I am always struck by the poignancy of Paul, just after his dramatic conversion, the powerful man being led as a blind man to Damascus: weak, blind, needing to be led by hand by another – a metaphor for what his life would now be – a life handed over to God, to be led by Christ – so that he could say to the Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Of course, Paul is reflecting a paradigm of weakness which runs right through the Old Testament: God deliberately choosing the “anawim of God,” the poor of God – the weak, those without power but who trusted in God – to be the agents of our salvation. And this reaches its climax in the mother of Jesus. “For he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
So what had Paul discovered which so totally changed his life? What was this “power of the Cross”?
One of the great Welsh poets of the 20th century was R. S. Thomas. He wrote a poem about the medieval scientist Roger Bacon, perhaps the first empirical scientist. The poem describes his experiments with test tubes and chemicals, trying to gain knowledge and truth. But then this amazing line: “he saw the hole in Christ’s side, that is, the wound of knowledge, and thrust his hand in and believed.”
The “wound of knowledge”: a striking image. It is, I think, what I as a teenager, was just beginning to be drawn to: the Christian understanding of the world which could embrace and make sense of failure, brokenness and weakness. In some way I began to understand the Christian saw woundedness not as an embarrassing aspect of its ideology, but as I came to understand later, as the very locus of our salvation: “Through his wounds we are healed.” Jesus saved the world. By his wounds we are healed. It is not through our strengths, but through sour weakness that we are saved, when we come to the Cross with our sins and allow Jesus to forgive us. When we come to the Cross in our weakness and woundedness and allow Jesus to bind us up and heal us. It is then that we come to know God: through the “wound of knowledge.”
It is at that moment when we first know our need for God, when we no longer trust in our own strength and power, when we acknowledge our weakness, and our need for God’s strength. It is only then that God can enter into and work in our lives. For some people it takes a whole lifetime, or a terrible experience of loss, to understand this. I know people who have had to reach ‘rock bottom’ in their lives before they had the humility to reach out their hands and say, “Lord, I need you.”
Like the powerful CEO I first met as he lay in hospital after a massive stroke. “I used to be in control of everything and everyone in my life. Now I lie here, helpless, while a young nurse washes me and feeds me.” But through that experience of loss and powerlessness, out of his very weakness, he experienced the love and power of God. A year later, I had the joy of seeing him baptized and confirmed. “For my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In our conversations, we brothers often ask why God has called us into a life, a vocation, which so often searingly exposes our own weaknesses and limitations. I recognize, although not always willingly, that it is for my own conversion.
If you are like us, you may well recognize that Christ breaks through to you, not in those places where you are strong, where your skills are well-honed and developed, but precisely in those areas in your life where you know failure or weakness. For it is there that you come close to the power of the Cross. It is precisely there that God is waiting to meet you, longing to offer you forgiveness, strength and renewal, to live and work not in your own strength, but in the strength of Christ. “I will boast of my weaknesses,” says Paul, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
So maybe, during these next few weeks of Lent, you might, in your prayers, draw on and enter into the language of weakness. Looking back over your life, remember again those times when you knew Christ’s strength and sustenance when you were feeling weak or discouraged.
How might Christ be inviting you now to experience once again the power of the Cross in your life? Where do you need forgiveness? Where do you need healing? Right now.
Come to Christ just as you are, in your need. Come to Communion to receive the Body of Christ. Put your hand out to him in your need. “For I will boast of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For whatever I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen.
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