The Scandal of Weak Leadership: A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10

herculesSt Hercules Presbyterian Church in Lake Paringa is looking for a new minister. The ad reads:

Minister Required:

  • For a growing, charismatic church with a congregation of diverse backgrounds.
  • Must have strong leadership qualities and the ability to cast vision.
  • Must be an excellent preacher.
  • Needs to demonstrate appropriate spiritual gifts.
  • The ability to interact with influential figures in our local community is a definite advantage.
  • Attractive remuneration package with bonuses available when the church grows (which, of course, it will just as brother Ebenezer received the vision).

This is the sort of ad that I can imagine the church in Corinth writing. How disappointed they must have been when they got Paul! He was not the eloquent speaker for which they had hoped. Instead of providing the ‘strong’ leadership they wanted, he treated them with gentleness. And while he was prepared to teach about spiritual gifts, he hardly ever talked about his own ‘spiritual’ experiences, even less gloat about them. And rather than mixing with the influential, he insulted them. Even worse – he would not take their money!

Instead of getting Arnold Schwarzenegger or Napoleon or Takaroa, in Paul the Corinthians were given a weak, sick, persecuted, afflicted and bruised human being. And then to add insult to injury, Paul had the audacity to tell them that his weakness was actually proof that he was genuine!

What we have come to call 2 Corinthians constitutes Paul’s defence of his apostleship. All through this letter, Paul insists that the appropriate model for Christian ministry is one where divine power is demonstrated in the presence of weakness. He begins in Chapter 1 praising ‘the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction’ (1:3-4). In Chapter 2, he pictures himself as one led in a procession of death for Christ’s sake – not as the great victor of heroic Greek epics, but as the defeated captive of the exploits of worldly power and ambition. And he makes it clear that his presence in such a procession is not due to his own achievement, nor to God’s failure to care for him, but rather is due to God’s victory. And twice in the space of just a few verses (2:17-3:6) Paul tells us that he labors as he does because of his relationship with Christ, and because the focus of Christian ministry is to bear witness to one who was – as Paul tells us later on – ‘crucified in weakness, but who lives as a result of God’s power’ (13:4).

The fact that ministry can only be conducted in God’s power is reiterated again in Chapter 4. Indeed that’s precisely why, Paul says, we should not loose heart (4:1). He is even more explicit in vv. 7-11. Reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us – trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us – he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us.

So welcome to Christian ministry. Welcome to the life of the baptised, to the way of God’s reconciling the world to himself in Christ.

shard_potteryThroughout this letter, Paul is up against the criticisms and accusations of those ‘pseudo-apostles’ who consider him weak and inferior. But instead of succumbing to boasting of his family connections and academic qualifications and spiritual experiences, Paul is embarrassed to talk about them. Instead of hiding those things in his life which would make him appear weak and vulnerable, he glories in them, no matter how much it makes him feel ‘a fool’ and ‘out of his mind’ to do so. Instead of putting together a hero’s résumé to impress the great minds of his age, Paul recites the persecutions he has endured, the dangers from which he has only narrowly escaped, and the crippling sense of responsibility that pressurises him every day. ‘Troubles, deprivations and anxieties – that has been my lot’, says Paul. ‘And how do I cope with all that? Do I emerge like some old President, dopey but glowing with self-confidence at the end of each test? No way!’: ‘Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?’ (11:29). ‘In fact, if you really want to know what sort of apostle I am’, Paul says, ‘I am the sort who when the going gets really tough, bails out. In fact, I’ve always been like it. One of the first things I did after I was baptised was to run away’: ‘In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands’. (11:32-33).

And as for that mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’, who knows? The commentators have a field day here: Paul had a theological opponent; Paul had an unbelieving wife; Paul had poor eyesight; Paul had homosexual urges; Paul had malaria – all of which are possibilities, but must remain speculations. Whatever it was, and however much Paul at times wished it removed, it served as a constant reminder to him that the integrity and effectiveness of his ministry would rest not on his worthiness or credentials but on God’s grace. And even though we can’t know what the thorn was, Paul at least tells us why it was given to him and he asserts God’s promise to him that no hindrance would be suffered in his ministry as a result of it:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (12:7-9a)

‘… power is made perfect in weakness’. That’s how v. 9 is usually translated. But the verb used here (teleitai) could equally be translated as ‘brought to an end, finished, done with’. In other words, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for power is brought to an end in weakness’. Indeed, the context indicates that Paul’s intention was not primarily to comfort people who were weak and suffering, but rather to challenge those obsessed with a particular brand of power. At heart, what Paul bears witness to is the revelation of God’s way with us as the way of paradox – of that recurring Word which warns against overly-optimistic reliance upon techniques or technicians which can intensify or alter creation’s true way of being, as if creation could fulfill and complete itself apart from the action of the initiative-taking God.

Paul’s words invite us to consider a different form of human life and service than that which is often trumpeted by so-called leadership gurus. For when we stand in God’s service, we must be able sometimes, and perhaps for long periods, to be still, to wait, to keep silent, to suffer. This, too, is power. Indeed, it is the power of God, the power of Jesus Christ, the power of the Lamb as well as the Lion, of the cross as well as the resurrection, of humiliation as well as exaltation, of death as well as life. As one theologian put it, the power which comes from God is

the capacity to be high or low, rich or poor, wise or foolish. It is the capacity for success or failure, for moving with the current or against it, for standing in the ranks or for solitariness. For some it will almost always be only the one, for others only the other, but usually it will be both for all of us in rapid alternation. In each case, however, it will be true capacity, the good gift of God, ascribed to each as needed in His service. God demands one service to be rendered in the light, another which can be performed only in shadow … Either way, it is grace, being for each of us exactly that which God causes to be allotted to us.[1]

Indeed, here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

chain2Father Mike Buckley once wrote a letter to ordinands who were preparing for ordination. In it he asked them this question: ‘Are you weak enough to be a priest?’ Buckley was taking a shot at the way society commonly evaluates people by listing their strengths. If someone is a capable speaker with an agile mind, we think they’ll make a good lawyer or a persuasive politician. If someone has good judgement, a scientific bent and manual dexterity we decree they’d make a splendid surgeon. And the tendency, Buckley says, for those of us in the church is to transfer this method of evaluation, to line up all the pluses to say that such and such a person would make a good minister.

Buckley says that such a transfer is disastrous because a more crucial question is ‘Is this person weak enough to be a priest?’ That’s a key question that needs to be asked by students training for pastoral ministry. It’s also a question that parish councils need to ask when they are meeting with a prospective minister. Is this person deficient enough that they have not been able to ward off suffering, that they have lived with a certain amount of failure, because it is in this deficiency, in this weakness, in this tasting of temptation, that they become qualified like that great high priest to sympathise with others in their weakness.

So Henri Nouwen reminds us, and with this I finish, that:

The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross … Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest … To come to Christ is to come to the crucified and risen One. The life-giving apostle embodies in himself the crucifixion of Jesus in the sufferings and struggles he endures as he is faithful and obedient to his Lord. So Paul preaches the crucified and risen Jesus, and he embodies the dying of Jesus in his struggles to further point to the Savior. His message is about the cross and his life is cruciform, shaped to look like the cross … I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence.[2]


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (trans. A.T. Mackay, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 396-7.

[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 62-3, 70, 73.

9 comments

  1. This is a great piece of preached reflection, Jason. And on one of the great text-books on pastoral ministry. Thanks for it.

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  2. Nice sermon Jason. Did you preach it in Dunedin? Is the advertisement real? I presume it is a parody, but these days you never know!

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  3. Roger, Jim and Bruce, thanks for your encouraging comments.

    Bruce, it was preached at Knox Chapel yesterday to kick off the Summer block courses. The ad is made up but could be, as you say, quite real.

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  4. Jason,

    I can’t tell you how much this post means to me. That’s all I can really say publicly, but thank you for putting Paul’s ministry into perspective. I have been greatly encouraged by reading this.

    dg

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  5. Hi, I’m researching 2 Cor 11:29, where Paul says he inwardly burns. All the commentaries and translations I’ve found so far seem to indicate that Paul was not indicating his own temptation, but rather indignation or identification with the the sin of others.

    However, to me, it seems that he’s saying, “So many others are tempted and succomb to temptation. Don’t you know that I go through the same temptations?” The implication is that he resists these temptations, but they are an added hardship to him. I’m also thinking of 1 Cor 7, where Paul says it’s better for people to get married than to burn with lust. It’s the same Greek word for burn, and I’m thinking that Paul uses that word (pyroo) consistently to indicate inner struggle with temptation, perhaps sexual temptation.

    What are your thoughts?

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  6. “Welcome to the life of the baptised.” Indeed, and amen. We need more voices iterating this message.

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