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A Fool for Christ

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This is one of those sermons I’ve just got no idea about…

SJE sermon series: 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10,  26 August 2012

This is our second last installment in our series through Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, and David will wrap up the series next week. What we are hearing this week is Paul’s use of irony and the startling conclusion – it is in weakness that the Christian finds true, mountain-moving strength and courage – to continue to unbind the hold that the false or pseudo-apostles have on the church. Don talked about these pseudo-apostles last week in terms of a parasite – a creature that needs another to survive, but ultimately destroys the host. Paul continues his attack on the pseudo-apostles, by demonstrating his willingness to be a fool for Christ.

Proverbs 26:4-5 gives us this wisdom: we should not answer a fool in a way that reinforces his folly, but rather we should answer according to his foolishness so he can see that he is not wise. This is what Paul is undertaking.

The context into which Paul speaks is really not that different from our present context, at least in terms of our fascination with the strong, the successful, the wealthy. Have you seen the recent movie the Avengers? It is an entertaining super-hero story, another exploration of the mythology around power and might. In the best scene of the movie the evil demi-god proclaims, ‘Enough! You are all beneath me. I am a god you dull creature, and I will not be bullied…’ and the Incredible Hulk picks him up, repeatedly slams him into the floor and then drops him, muttering, ‘Puny god’. This is the sort of mythology which fits so nicely with the way of the world, and as much as we proclaim that might does not make right, the reality of the way of the world is that often power does win the day. This is the same sort of context that Paul is facing in Corinth.

We’ve talked about the Greek context of Paul’s ministry, but it is worth re-stating because it does emphasize for us again how similar our present context is to what Paul was facing, and why his words carry such import for we Christians here today. Humility was not a virtue in the Greek mind – humility was considered to be equivalent to servility, that is, humility went along with low station in life. A person who aspired to be a religious leader was expected to be charismatic, physically perfect, spiritually gifted, magical, given to ecstatic mystical experiences, and the list goes on. The expectation was that such a person was to be super-human, a religious super hero, we might say. This is so close to what we see today in the ranks of popular religious leaders…and the medium, that is the person, is placed in a position of far more importance than the message. So Paul’s critics cut into his message, by arguing that Paul is not the sort of person to be a real religious leader.

In Corinth, the particularly revolting aspect of Paul’s ministry was his stubborn fixation on the cross, the crucifixion of Christ, as the key to the faith and to true strength. This was a difficult message for a people steeped in the mythology of the heroic leader, who like a Greek hero survives incredible trials to rise triumphant again and again. Into that very super-hero focused culture, Paul proclaims the way of Christ, the super-hero who won by dying to save his people. The Greeks shake their heads, for the way of salvation is foolishness to those who are wise in the ways of the world.

That attitude literally drips from our culture, perhaps more visibly in the context of the United States and their fierce focus on liberty at all costs, but it is present in Alberta as well, an independence that says I can do this all on my whiles and strength, and have need of nothing other than my mind, my labour. I see this play out repeatedly in Workers’ Compensation appeals: the young worker who leaves grade school for the riches of the oil patch, some who earn six figures by working 80 hour weeks, 6 weeks in 2 weeks out. Then they have a devastating injury that leaves them unable to work, and they come asking how is it fair now, as I can’t live on my benefits? It is easy to live a joyous life when the money flows, less certain when you can no longer lift the wrench and are now in a minimum wage job. Where do you turn when the life you knew ends?

Yann Martel, in his book the Life of Pi asks the same question of Christ from a Hindu perspective (Chapter 17):

This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him – what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better.

This apparent weakness of the Christian God has been a source of ridicule for those to whom the weakness of Christ is foolishness. This is exactly what foolishness to the wise means this is exactly what Paul is attacking, because at its heart that thought is completely contrary to the Gospel of Christ.

We see this contrast between the strength of the world and the strength of Christ in the Garden, as he is seized and one of the disciples lifts a sword and cuts off an ear, Jesus tells him to put the sword down, “Don’t you realize that I am able right now to call to my Father, and twelve companies—more, if I want them—of fighting angels would be here, battle-ready? But if I did that, how would the Scriptures come true that say this is the way it has to be?” (Matthew 26:53-54) Jesus rejects the way of the world, the way of might and power, for he knows that it would be a short-lived victory, and he has something much grander in mind – the reconciliation of the entire creation throughout time with the Father. For that to happen, all he has to do is display ultimate weakness in the face of evil.

This is the way of the world in collision with the way of God. Paul’s message: your money, your hyper-spirituality, your holier-than-others faith, your ethnically pure heritage, your public popularity, none of it cuts any slack when the time of testing comes. For true strength from God only comes in total weakness.

This is a hyper-challenging thought for us, as it was for the church at Corinth, for when we call on God to intervene what we really want is Jack Bauer or Chuck Norris, that is omnipotence in the way of the world who either with superior cunning and intellect or with a faster draw with his Glock, will come and destroy our enemies in a suitably just and entertaining way. To this Paul says, since you like listening to fools, let me speak to you as a fool. Any bold claim anyone else can make I can make too, states Paul, and them immediately says, “I am talking like a madman”.

If you were shopping for an apostle, by the measure of the world, this would not be a positive sales pitch. It’s a little bit like a marriage counsellor telling you that his four failed marriages has made him an expert in marriage counselling; or an engineer showing you photos of all her bridges that had fallen down as proof that she could build one that would remain standing. And yet, this inverted wisdom is the way of the Lord, as it turns over what the world holds to be true.

Paul’s approach takes the entire Greek approach and turns it on its head: rather than a list of his great successes, he lists all of his trials and failures. Paul summarizes, I am not sufficient for all the challenges of my ministry, I am no stronger than anyone else, I am no freer of sin than anyone else, I make mistakes. My first major act after becoming an apostle was to run away. My only witness is that I have an ever deepening sense of personal inadequacy.

Now, I will tell you from a personal point that this resonates with me on many different levels. My experience in the military was that promotion and greater responsibility brought with it not honour, glory and more power, but rather a greater servanthood to those in my care. My experience in ministry is that I am constantly reminded how inadequate I am when confronted with the call of Christ. I’m humbled by the opportunity to preach, and every time I sit down to compose I realize that I have nothing to say, but only that which God gives me. This has been the pattern of my walk with Christ, and the more I walk, the more I realize that it is God that lifts me up. Like Paul, I count any merit the world gives me as naught, for the honour of serving Christ makes all the laurels of the world appear as dust. Back to Paul…

After listing all of his numerous tribulations and trials, including the great burden of caring for the church, Paul turns to boast of his weakness. Now this is truly amazing. Paul is flipping around the image of the pseudo-apostle as superman, by emphasizing how weak he is. Rather than a biblical Jack Bauer who brings the might of God to bear on the unrighteous, or a Hindu deity who unleashes cosmic powers, we have more an image of the suffering servant, that is, the image of Christ. It is an image of far more use to us than Jack Bauer, for it is an image that reflects the reality of this world far more clearly…it is an image that holds our hand in a hospital bed far more effectively that an apostolic super-hero.

Paul undoes all the mirrors and smoke of the world, and instead defines his ministry in weakness. This weakness is characterised by the ‘thorn in his flesh’ which is nowhere described, except that Paul had asked God three times that it be taken away and was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul tells us the thorn was there to prevent him from becoming conceited…perhaps from becoming one of the super-apostles that he is presently describing. We can derive some powerful truths from Paul’s words.

First, that this mighty apostle Paul, when he talks about his spiritual experiences, looks back to a distant event some 14 years earlier. Paul is not living a life that is filled with hourly mystical encounters with the Lord, and this reality is the truth for all Christians. Even the greatest saints, those given to great intimate encounters with God, wrote about the years of the slogging in prayer and labours without that divine touch. Paul’s ministry is defined by his physical limitations, and his weakness, and what he has learned is that this is the most powerful place to minister from, and the reason he boasts of his weaknesses, because that is where the power of Christ is most clearly manifested.

Second, Paul helps us to understand the path of trials and tribulations. I really understand Paul’s words on a personal level, and though I don’t like to talk about myself, a brief word. It is highly likely that I would not be standing here today preaching if not for a rather minor MVA that ended my military career with a medical release. It was a rather successful career, and the day I was told I was medically unsuited for further service was the same day my career manager phoned to tell me I was going to be promoted and offered a scholarship for another graduate degree. That MVA left me with permanent nerve damage and chronic pain – a literal ‘thorn in my side’, and is one reason I’m not in full-time parish ministry. I’ve also heard that response to prayer, “My grace is sufficient.” So I boast of my weakness, because but for that thorn, I would not be here today (but probably back in Cold Lake for another 10 years!). It also keeps me from getting too conceited, as it is a constant reminder of my frailty and my need to rely fully on the strength of God.

Now, Paul is talking about something that is of crucial importance to us as people of faith, and that is courage. This is not the courage of the world, that allows Jack Bauer to fight and win, but rather the courage of the suffering servant. It is what keeps us, as people of faith, going when thing go completely to crap. It is also completely contrary to the wisdom of this world, “which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs” in the words of Bishop John Paul. Paul’s courage is the courage that allows people of faith to endure great trials, sometimes for years or decades, and to still say, along with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) It is the courage that defeats fear.

I spoke with a woman last week from a parish I used to serve, and she related to me how she had survived a brush with cancer. As we’ve heard many times, she related how the strength of community was what allowed her to get through it. The other thing we know, is that if she hadn’t got through it, that same strength of community would have carried her into glory with equal grace and success. How is it you face these things in your life? The sudden death of a parent? Watching a sibling or a child slowly destroy themselves through addiction? Watching this broken world, with shootings and dying and explosions and injustice everywhere we look…and not giving in to despair and grief? How do you do it?

A young woman named Kristen Anderson decided one night when she was 17 that she no longer wanted to live, after the death of three friends, her grandmother and her rape at the hand of a friend. She lay down on the railway tracks to await a train. The train comes and she loses both of her legs, as 33 freight cars run over her at 50 miles per hour and loses about 80% of her blood volume. Through a series of miracles, Kristen survives the injury and recovers. As she documents her recovery, she describes the journey from despair into the love of Christ which transforms her life. She now runs a ministry of support for those wrestling with depression and suicide, just one example of the courage to endure that comes from the love of Christ.  (http://www.reachingyouministries.com/About_Us.html)

The alternate, the way of the world, is really one built on a foundation of lies. Suffering in any form is avoided, even to the point of seeking assisted suicide in order to avoid pain of being a burden. Some state they are more fearful of suffering than of death. This is not the time for the discussion, but I will say that the great moral debate of our time is not same-sex blessings, but rather euthanasia and the question if we truly have a personal ‘right to die’. What would Paul say about such a thing? Without the idea of the suffering servant, you have to live in the way of the world, which is living in the midst of a lie…or if you like, a created mythology that convinces you that all will be well, until the world falls apart around you.

Paul tells us that the source of his courage is in the weakness of his humanity; for it is there that the true power of Christ is made manifest. This is real courage, which arises not from certain knowledge of your own righteousness, or your own might, or the certainty of victory or a return to health, but from knowing that in suffering and endurance of that suffering Christ’s power is made perfect in us. Courage allows us to stop relying on our own strength, our own intellect, and particularly when things get challenging it is that courage that allows us to rely fully on Christ. Courage, arising from Christ, is nothing more than love of the truth in place of all else, formed on the sure knowledge that it is God who has defeated death, it is God who has defeated evil. Our Christian courage comes down to a proclamation of one central truth: it is in dying that we will find real life; it is the carrying of our cross that we will find real power. Let us each take up our cross, as we live in the courage born of Christ. Amen.

Source documents:

Proverbs 26
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Do not answer a fool according to his foolishness SUCH THAT you also be like him. RATHER, answer the fool according to his foolishness SUCH THAT he doesn’t view himself as a chacham.” http://www.mesora.org/schneeweiss/ArgueFool.htm

A story about the death of Zaidee Jensen: “He is also blind,” said her uncle Frank Potter, who considers her the bravest person he knows.

“If you can imagine a toddler and a 5-year-old who can see perfectly well and you can’t, can you imagine the bravery that requires.”

Yet she thrived, taking them to day care every day while going to work, always riding the LRT. http://www.630ched.com/news/edmonton/story.aspx?ID=1762640

“This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him – what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god – and in a hot place, at that – with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?
Love, said Father Martin.” The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, from Chapter 17
From: http://www.msgr.ca/msgr-7/christ_on_trial%2011%20Martel.htm

Article on courage and Paul (“Power Made Perfect in Weakness”):

Comments on Nietzsche (“The weakness in virtue, the virtue in weakness”):

Liturgy as Lament:

Kristen Jane Anderson, Life, In Spite of Me: Extraordinary Hope after a Fatal Choice, Multnomah Books, Colorado, 2010.

Certain portions based on Roy Clement’s book, The Strength of Weakness, Baker Books, 1995 (and thanks to Fr Don for providing a copy of this excellent reflection on 2 Corinthians, it has taught me much)


Written by sameo416

August 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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