Mark 6:1-13

2 Corinthians 2:1-10

Two of my friends are on separate trips to Italy, and I’ve been looking at the photos they post on Facebook (apparently it’s much more fun to see people’s vacation pictures when they’re not narrating them for you). They post photos of beautiful old religious sites: humble baptistries, magnificent cathedrals and basilicas, and the marvelous artwork that goes along with them. Some of the photos are of the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which is not quite as ostentatious as some other locations, but it’s still pretty grand. Now, St. Francis’ vision of the Good News led him to a life of strict humility and poverty, so I wonder just how he would have felt about having a magnificent church built in his honor.

He would have understood the need, I’m sure, whatever he thought of our actually putting up a building. As creatures of this human world, we’re not comfortable with the kind of voluntary poverty and powerlessness Francis identified as central to the Christian life. We can’t automatically make sense of a God who expresses power through a life that leads ultimately to death and only then to resurrection. We’d much rather see God glorified, see the magnificence of God demonstrated through a display of what we would recognize as power. This is what has led us, from the first times our ancestors recognized Divinity, to imagine God like a powerful human, only more so. We do this because that’s how we imagine power.

It’s the way we think about power that makes us uncomfortable with the reassurance Paul gets in the reading from 2 Corinthians today. He recounts that he has asked God to remove the affliction he suffers, the “thorn in the flesh,” but God has declined three times. God says, “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” Isn’t that answer a little unsatisfying? It troubled our Bible study group on Tuesday, because it sounds like God is exploiting human suffering so as to look even stronger in contrast, and we’re not down with exploitation. Even for God’s glory, it upsets our sense of justice to see a person suffer for someone else’s benefit. Especially when that Someone Else is infinitely more powerful than the one who bears the burden.

That’s not the right way to think about Paul’s affliction and God’s answer. We’re sympathetic to Paul’s suffering, of course, and rightfully so, but Paul has found a nice theological way to make sense of it. He uses his own pain as a way to remain grounded and appropriately compassionate to those who don’t have the spiritual vision he does. This isn’t to glorify suffering, but neither is it to judge the way someone else makes sense of their own path through life.

Our discomfort with the situation comes from the idea that God would do this, impose this weakness, just to demonstrate power through it. That discomfort comes from our human picture of power, the experience we have of strong people and groups controlling the weak for their own benefit. If that’s what power is, we’re not sure we want a cosmic being possessed of far more of it than we can fathom. Since before Paul’s time we’ve been searching for ways to put limits on that kind of power -the kind we assume power means – because it desperately needs those limits.

When we think about power in those human terms, our sense of justice rebels. We react in the way one just thinker reacted 233 years ago, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, objecting to the abuse of power for its own sake. The same picture of power is in play when a group got together a few years later to write the Constitution. What makes that foundational document remarkable is that it calls on the government to put careful limits on its own power. Those limits appeared necessary because of the long history of abuse of power in human life. Both of those documents are concerned about human power, coercive power over others, and they tried (with some limited degree of success) to make rules for the fair use of that power.

Maybe we shouldn’t use that word, “power,” when it comes to God. Humans tend to turn power into coercion, the kind of power that gets things done by saying “my way or the highway.” When our ideals are in question, human power tends to say, “I’m right, and I’m going to make you agree with me whether you like it or not.” Then, humans tend to expect the same kind of power from God. Human power wants God to change the world and make everything better, the way Paul wanted his affliction removed or the hecklers wanted Jesus to save himself from the cross. Human power expects God to spread our interests and our sense of how the world should operate, like Christian imperialists from Constantine to Left Behind.

That’s not the way God’s power works. It’s powerless by human standards. God’s power shows itself in giving strength to the weak, speaking out for those without voices to speak for themselves, living out the justice and peace of God’s realm. That power – God’s power – does feel like weakness in the world’s terms, because it gives itself away. God’s power gave its life away in healing, feeding, and teaching, and it gave itself up to death on that account. That sure looks like weakness in the world’s terms. But that’s where God’s power really got busy, raising the One who lived like that up from the dead on the third day. That’s God’s power.

God’s power shows up when we surrender our own agenda and give ourselves constructively to serving others. It shows up in the space between us, when we both put our hands and minds to the same ministry. It shows up when the world can’t see it, where all the world sees is weakness and struggle. It shows up when we let go of ourselves and allow newly creative ways of being to flourish around us. God’s power shows up incarnate, wrapped up in flesh that will fail the way flesh always does, only to be reborn as flesh infused with God’s power always is. It’s there in our failures, in our afflictions, in our deepest weaknesses, that the mysterious strength of God is most truly with us. Thanks be to such a wonderfully powerful God.