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Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

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 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This is one of the most profound revelations of the Christian faith, and it is worth exploring together.

 

Back in 2020, when the boarding school where I worked was opening during the Covid pandemic, we made many poor decisions that were the best that we could manage at the time. One of them was canceling our traditional Saturday classes and requiring all 400 students to participate in required, student-led, “alternative programming” on Saturday mornings. This was destined to failure, and it threw our student leaders into the deep end of the pool with little training or preparation to swim in it.

 

I have a vivid memory of one of our senior leaders standing on a table, stamping his foot, and screaming at his peers, “You all need to listen to me!”  This student was eager to be a leader, but his model for leadership was command-and-control. He wanted to issue commands and be obeyed. Of course, leading 100 disgruntled, adolescent boys in a required activity on a Saturday morning at 8am is not conducive to compliance.

 

During our review of the program, I invited this student to read the same portion of Paul’s letter that we heard this morning, and we discussed what “power made perfect in weakness” might look like in that context. Upon some reflection, this remarkable student was able to see that he was alienating his peers by ordering them around, and we agreed that he would try a different approach. Instead of issuing orders, this student reengaged his peers and asked for help. He admitted that he had struggled previously, acknowledge that nobody really wanted to be doing this required programming, and he asked them to help him make the program “less bad” than it would be otherwise.

 

I could not have scripted a better life lesson. His peers responded with a noticeably improved attitude. As a result, the student learned a powerful lesson in what it means to lead through weakness by acknowledging his dependence on his peers. Amazingly, in a Providential moment, this student texted me this week without realizing that our assigned lesson this Sunday was the same passage that we read together four years ago.  

 

Consider for a moment what happens in a marriage when one spouse refuses to admit that they have made a mistake. Instead of owning the mistake, admitting error, and asking for forgiveness, that partner seeks to justify themselves with the airing of prior grievances. Has the marriage strengthened or weakened?  (Can you tell that I might be speaking from some personal experience?!?)

 

We might also consider what happens when a colleague achieves results through command-and-control tactics and unrelenting criticism of underachievers. What do we think the quality of that colleague’s relationships might be? Alternatively, what happens when a colleague listens carefully to their peers, makes concessions when they need help, and is open to considerations beyond “the bottom line”? Is this colleague more or less likely to be fulfilled in their relationships and life?

 

If we exchange the words “spouse” and “colleague” for parent or friend or employer in these scenarios, the through-line comes into focus. The truth that power is made perfect in weakness is hiding in plain sight all around us. If we look with eyes to see, it is clear that relationships take life when we admit our limitations and acknowledge our need for help. You may notice that we begin our service of Morning Prayer with the confession of sin. Not unlike a 12-step meeting with Alcoholics Anonymous, in which participants introduce themselves by stating, “Hello my name is ________, and I am an alcoholic.” We begin our worship together by saying, “Hello my name is Tyler, and I am a sinner. I am broken. I need help.” Ultimately, that is why we are here, because we know that we need each other, because some part of us knows that we need God.

 

It is more nourishing to our relationships when we share our weakness and difficulties than when we pursue the illusion of success and perfection. We are desperate for the life that true relationships provide us. And yet, we are terrified of losing control; we are terrified of the suffering that love demands. When we accept “the thorn in our flesh,” as God tells Paul he must, we enter the truth of human brokenness, suffering, struggle, and deep poverty of spirit. This is where true power resides because it is where God resides. This is how we become Christ to one another.

 

There is another layer of complexity to this, which is the concurrent reality that command-and-control tactics and fear-based dominion DO have the power to produce results in the short term, even as those results undermine our most important relationships. There is a famous anecdote about Joseph Stalin, the former leader of the Soviet Union. At the peak of his power, when the Church opposed Joseph’s aggression, he said on multiple occasions, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got.” Of course, Joseph was speaking in the terms of power as he understood it. Divisions, in Joseph’s world, referred to divisions of tanks and troops. For Joseph, who had been weened at the breast of domination and control, the notion that a spiritual leader without any weapons might pose a threat to him was laughable. Joseph became one of the most "powerful" humans in the world, controlling an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could destroy the world. He exiled or murdered anyone who opposed him.

 

And yet, we should ask ourselves: Where is Joseph today?  Where is his Soviet Union?  Joseph’s use of extraordinary violence to secure power worked, but only temporarily. I am reminded of Percy Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias, which recounts the experience of a traveler moving through the ruins of an ancient civilization who encounters a destroyed statue of its former ruler, whose shattered legs perch on top of a pedestal. Shelley writes:

 

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decays

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, Ataxerxes and the Persians, Alexander and the Greeks, Ghengis and the Mongols, Julius and the Romans, Napolean and the French, George and the English…every one of them preceded Joseph and the Soviets and every one of them ended in the same way. Human power is just that…human. We are finite, mortal beings, and no matter how powerful we become in the terms of our world, we will die, and our worldly power returns to its origin of dust. As Shelley writes so poignantly, “round the decays of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

Although I am grateful that this did not happen, there was a possibility that the students would choose to humiliate their peer leader when he made himself vulnerable rather than respond with empathy. If weakness were not a real risk, it would not be weakness. In our day-to-day lives, we will often see and enjoy the fruit of life that God gives us when we walk in the way of Christ; however, at other times, when we are confronted with an adversary like Joseph Stalin, in order to see the perfect power of weakness in Christ, we must lift our eyes beyond the short-term horizon of our own lives.

 

Love, the perfect manifestation of power made perfect in weakness, was revealed to us when Jesus gave up control of his life for us, when he submits to terrible suffering for us. For any one of us who has experienced this love, for any one of us who has experienced even a drop of this kind of love, we know that it is not a fluttering, transitory feeling. Unlike the power of empire, for the perfect power of love in Christ: death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limitations of our sight. Perfect power is eternal, which is not something the temporary powers of this world will ever comprehend. Every one of us has a thorn in our flesh, a brokenness. Sometimes it is physical. Sometimes it is mental or spiritual. These thorns are a reminder that we are broken. As such, they are a means of remembering that God’s grace is sufficient for us, because power – true power – is made perfect in weakness. May all of us remember this, and give our lives over to it. Amen.

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