Strength in weakness.
A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
August 20, 2023 at Holy Communion
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
“You declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
In the opening scene of the 1986 movie The Mission, a priest is tied to a cross by a group of Indigenous South Americans, and set afloat in a river, which carries him over a waterfall of almost inconceivable height, and to his death. In the next scene, and in response to the martyrdom of the first, another priest strips himself to his shirt and satchel, and climbs, hand over foot, up the near-vertical precipice of wet rock beside the waterfall. Reaching the top, he finds a place in the jungle, sits on a rock, opens his bag, unwraps an oboe, and begins to play. He has no weapon. He does not hide himself from the people who killed his fellow-priest. So they decide to trust him. The priest becomes a member of their community, teaches them the gospel, and shares his gift for music.
This is is a story of strength shown through weakness.
Today, we have prayed, “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” We carelessly assume that God’s mercy and pity are a given. “God has to show mercy and pity,” we reason, “because if he didn’t show mercy and pity, he wouldn’t be God.” Fair enough. But have we ever considered that God has, you might say, “self-interested reasons” for showing mercy and pity? God forgives because nothing displays his power like the mercy which lifts up the lowly. God seeks glory: the glory which is his alone when he justifies those who throw themselves entirely on his mercy.
St Paul considers himself to have been justified by God’s mercy, and knows that God has done this for his own glory. In the Epistle for this morning, we hear about St Paul, who considers himself “not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). When Saint Paul comes around, it is such a staggering change of attitude that at first the church doesn’t believe that his faith is genuine (Acts 9:26). Paul knows how unlikely his conversion is, which is why he can only say that it is “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
God was not obliged to use St Paul, to turn him around and show him mercy. God took hold of Paul to show what he could do. God showed his power by humbling a proud man, and, as Paul himself says, by leading him around the world “in triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:12)—that is, God dragged Paul around the world like a slave captured in war by a conquering general: that’s what a “triumph” was in the Roman world. God put Paul through beatings, prisons, stonings, shipwrecks, and mobs, through it all building the church and calling many to salvation, all to display how God’s “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). St Paul understood the lesson. He says, “I take pleasure in my infirmities, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I have heard it said that the best summary of the message of the Bible is not John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” but a verse from Proverbs 3 (v 34) quoted in both 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
The Pharisee in our Gospel reading does not know this. He thinks that God is interested, in the last account, with righteousness rather than humility. He’s not exactly wrong—holiness of life is a treasure, and, in fact, something the scriptures demand of us. But he forgets that God’s whole purpose with him is not to take pleasure in his moral strength, is to be glorified in his life. But the Pharisee has spent so much energy glorifying himself, crediting his righteousness to his own hard work, that there is no space left for God to show his power in human weakness. The Pharisee does not ask God for anything; he is, in fact, godless. The tax collector’s humility opens a space for God to show the immensity of divine mercy, but the Pharisee is closed.
To illustrate what this could mean for us, let me tell you about something I did wrong this week. On Tuesday afternoon we went up into the city to celebrate Katy’s birthday, attending a service and having dinner with some friends. Knowing that we would be present, the priest leading the service asked me to do some simple singing from a familiar resource because their wouldn’t be a choir. I thought to myself that wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to pull out something more advanced that I could share. Well, we were running behind, I didn’t have time to practice it, I tried to do it cold, and it flopped; it would have been far better to humbly accept the first suggestion of what I should sing, the easier piece.
I was, of course, embarrassed. But since we were there to worship, I prayed, and acknowledged before God what had happened: I had decided to show off; I had put my desire to “do something cool” ahead of the congregation’s needs. I asked for God’s forgiveness and for the wisdom not to make the same mistake again. This is where something remarkable happened. There flooded into me such a powerful feeling of the beauty of humility, of God’s presence consoling me in my error and showing me a better way, that the service was more meaningful to me than most I have ever attended.
We spend our lives avoiding failure, avoiding acknowledgement of our failures, and avoiding others noticing our failures. We pretend to be strong. If this is how we live, God’s power as the justifier of the humble will never be shown in our lives; we have closed the door to mercy and pity. We will never glorify God by our lives; we will never know the beauty of meekness, or the power of weakness.