In July 1974, I was visiting Pluscarden Abbey, and the readings were those of today. The monk who was celebrating preached on the line in the 2nd reading, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “when I am weak, then I am strong”. He underlined those words, and applied them 1) to St Paul himself who wrote them, 2) to Christ and 3) to the Church and each member of the Church. It’s a homily I have never forgotten 47 years on.
If only we weren’t so semi-familiar with a reading like this, if only we could hear it for the first time. It’s astonishing. It’s a revelation. It’s a victory.
St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians was the fruit of two rough years, probably the roughest years of his life, the years 55 to 56 AD. And in today’s short passage Paul sums up what he had learned. He talks of a thorn in the flesh, he then relates the personal message he had received from the Lord: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”, and he ends: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Ever since St Paul had encountered the risen Christ some twenty years before outside Damascus his life had hardly been dull. But in the two years before he wrote 2 Corinthians, he had been through the mill in a new way. He had felt, he says, condemned to death and “burdened beyond [his] strength”. He had “despaired of life” (2 Cor 1:8). He had faced opposition from different quarters, raging mobs, judicial processes, public flogging and probably a lengthy spell in prison. His mission had been thwarted at every turn. He had endured hunger and sleepless nights. His energy was gone; he was a dispirited man. He talks of his constant anxiety for the Christian communities he cared for and – the unkindest cut of all – he realised that the Christian community of Corinth, to which he had given his whole self, had turned against him, written him off and gone elsewhere for inspiration. He was not a genuine apostle, they said. That must have hurt more than anything. His beloved Corinthians had, as it were, gone off with another man.
All this he calls an experience of “weakness”, meaning not just physical or psychological frailty, but everything wrong.
And to cap it all – back to our reading – he finds himself given a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to rough [him] up”- that’s what he says. What was this? There have been conjectures without number, from recurring bouts of malarial fever to sexual temptation to particularly vicious enemies. The truth is we don’t know and don’t need to. It’s enough to know there was this negative force, that prayer didn’t take it away and that, like his other experiences, it led Paul still deeper into this mystery of “weakness”. But it’s precisely here a door began to open. Paul says this affliction was “given” him; he sees that in some mysterious way it was part of God’s providence for him. And into it the Lord spoke. The Lord used words which stayed with Paul and carried him through: “my grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness”. This changed everything. His opponents in Corinth loved boasting of their spiritual qualifications; Christianity meant success. St Paul now saw it otherwise. He spikes their guns by boasting of his weaknesses, his difficulties, his problems. They let Christ in. They let “the power of Christ rest on [him]” – stay with, dwell with. It’s the word St John will use when he says that the Word became flesh and “dwelt among us”. It’s a word that for a Jew evoked the presence of God in the Temple, and the pillar of cloud and column of fire that guided the Israelites through the desert. Paul had broken through to a new sense of Christ’s closeness. Through his weakness, he was sharing the “weakness” of the crucified Christ, by experiencing the power of Christ, he was tasting the resurrection. He was entering the Paschal mystery. Now he was a true apostle. Now he was a living icon of the suffering and glorified Christ. God had made him the real thing. “He is a man into whom the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord has burned like a brand” (Tom Wright). This is what these two years have done to him. And so he can coin the immortal line: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect / has its full effect in weakness.” So said Christ, talking specifically to a bruised and battered Paul, restoring him with a word. But by writing it down in his letter and in spelling out its meaning, he was sharing it with everyone. He was giving it to the Church, to the future. And so still this Sunday, throughout the Roman rite, it is being heard. “My grace is enough for you”. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
So the monk was right. These phrases hold for us. They hold for the Church which, now as always, is struggling with many weaknesses, within and without. Through all these things, through our own two years of this pandemic, we are invited to take the same journey as St Paul and break through into deeper trust. And then when, in time, we enter the valley of the shadow of death – the great experience of our weakness – it will be the same. His grace will be enough. The power of Christ will rest upon us.
“My grace is enough for you, for my strength is perfected in weakness.” This was St Paul’s great discovery, shared with us and waiting for us to discover too.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)