Noted author and researcher Brené Brown has a lot to say about vulnerability, weakness, and strength. In her now famous TED talk from 2014, she lays out what she had discovered in her research around shame and guilt, and more importantly the power of vulnerability. The first time I watched this video, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the first time I remember hearing anyone speak in favor of being vulnerable, of showing your weaknesses. I connected immediately with what she said and have since listened and read much of her work and think that she delivers a powerful word when it comes to trying to figure out how to navigate this world. Our strength, she says, is so often found in our weaknesses.
While I may have learned this four years ago from Brené Brown, we get that message from our Epistle lesson today. Our passage from 2 Corinthians is such a weird little passage. Paul beings with the 1st century equivalent of saying, “I have this friend who…”, when everybody at the time knows he’s talking about himself, and the thing that Paul is describing is this odd out-of-body spiritual, ecstatic experience. And while this might make us a bit uncomfortable, in the day and time that Paul was writing, that was your ability to proclaim something into the spiritual lives of the people, and while you may not require a similar account of me being caught up into the third heaven, into Paradise, but there’s a reason I have degrees from Abilene Christian and Virginia Seminary on my office walls. This passage is a part of a larger defense from Saint Paul about his apostolic authority.
The Corinthian church has accused Paul of not having authority or of having authority in the right way, and Paul here describes this experience with what we might call a humble brag. But then Paul goes on, and Paul talks about the thorn in the flesh; he talks about how it is not his faith or devotion in Christ that makes his life easy, but it is his own sufferings and weaknesses that testify to the goodness of God.
Now, I’ve heard this passage used in some terrible ways, much like many of Paul’s writings. I’ve heard it used to further subjugate women in abusive relationships, relaying to them that Christ is working through their ‘weakness’ and I’ve heard this text used to exploit differently-abled people, so that they begin to believe that their sole created value is for their need for Christ’s strength. But these are blasphemy, because here’s the thing about Paul. And I think that Paul’s writings have to be redeemed, he had to be redeemed for me, perhaps he has to be redeemed for you, too. The thing about Paul’s writings, is that it doesn’t matter if Paul is used from looming pulpits or packed press rooms, taking Paul out of context is to neglect what Saint Paul was about.
Because Paul was always about context. Paul writes to these early Christian communities and his letters have survived are a part of our Bible still today. But it’s important to remember something about our sacred text: the Bible is not a singular book that sits upon our shelves, it is a whole library. There are different genres and styles, and the Epistles, like the one we hear from today, do not contain blanket rules for Christian communities for the rest of time, but they are written for a specific people by a specific person in a particular time and contain truths greater than their literal words.
We see an example of this clearly in our passage today, when Paul positions himself as a fool in our text. Because the language of someone calling themselves a fool was much more common in use during Paul’s time, and it had a nuance that we can easily miss.
We lose something in our English translations, because Greek has multiple words that we translate as fool. In 1st Corinthians, Paul uses the word moros, which is the opposite of sophia, or wisdom and it gets translated to fool, as in silly or unwise. But in our passage from 2nd Corinthians today, the word translated to fool does not indicate a lack of wisdom, but it is aprosyne, the opposite of sophrosyne, or moderation. When Paul is claiming to be a fool here it is not a lack of wisdom, but it is him indicating to the people in this community that he has no moderation when it comes to following Christ. Paul is not a fool; Paul is caught up into a powerful passion for the way of love shown by Christ. He is entirely swept up into the power and appeal of Christ, and this way of love is not one that he can enter into lightly and when we take a word from Saint Paul, we realize that it’s impossible to be an apathetic Christian.
Those of us who have joined in this story when we had that water poured over our heads or were immersed in that pool, we were not welcomed that day into a life of power and prestige. We were welcomed into a life shaped by the Christ who was born of a weary, exiled teenager, who took up residence in a foreign land. This baptized life is one shaped by the one who preached to turn the other cheek, but also over-turned tables. Our baptized life is a foolish one that is marked by the incompressible ability and willingness to let our lives be oriented not toward success and wealth, but toward love and care for all of God’s creation, often at great cost.
So how do we live into this passion? How do we become a fool for Christ as Paul has laid out an example for us? I think one answer might be in verse 9: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me”. Being caught up into a passionate life of faith is not about constantly claiming your status as Christian, being caught up into a passionate life of faith is not about proclaiming your power, but your weakness. It is about proclaiming God’s power within the places in which we most struggle. Strength in weakness is not a logical conclusion, but as Christians we follow the one who died and has risen, and it is grace that shows its strength through our challenges and weaknesses.
Going out into this world, pray. Pray through your weaknesses; pray through the tender moments and spots where you fear that God’s grace will not be sufficient. Pray as you try to lean not only on your strength, but also on your weaknesses, remembering that God created and loves you. And as you pray, look for God’s grace; the ridiculously lovely thing about God’s grace is that it is literally everywhere. Look for God’s grace when you feel shame and fear around your weakness; look for God’s grace when you’re sure that the only way forward is ‘might makes right’ rather than simple vulnerability. Look for God’s grace when all you can see is darkness around you and know that God is moving in this world and through our lives in powerful and unexpected ways, and that we get to be a part of it.
And as you pray and as you look for God’s grace: get excited! Let yourself get caught up into the wonderful, beautiful, complex gift that it is to be a follower of Christ. While this Christian walk is not an easy one, by the grace of God, we do not walk it alone. Share the Good News of God in Christ with everyone you meet by extending to them the grace and joy that you have found, even in your weaknesses, and remember that when weak, then you are strong.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on July 8, 2018 for Proper 9B on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.