Text: 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 English Standard Version) These are some of St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in this, his second epistle to them. They help us to understand our text today, but they are quite a change from his opening words in his first letter – which we’ll hear again in July – where he said, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23) By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul pairs these two together: the weakness of Christ’s cross and the comfort of the forgiveness of sins.
Paul spoke this way because, in his absence tending other congregations, some others came to the Corinthians claiming to speak for Christ. They came bearing letters of recommendation and demanded obedience. They were eloquent and wise, and the Corinthians readily received them – even though these taught that the Corinthians should submit again to the works of the Law. These others taught that forgiveness is given to those who merit it and that God’s power is made known chiefly in human power and strength – which these others exhibited and Paul didn’t. In our text today, St. Paul matches their boasting, but only to turn the Corinthians back toward Christ. His power to save was made perfect in the weakness of the cross and His grace is sufficient for us in our weaknesses, too.
This is a divide between the true teaching of God’s Word and what dwells in our hearts by nature. We’ve spoken before about what are called the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. The Theology of Glory is the faith of the Old Adam. It holds that God’s grace and mercy is demonstrated among us in feats of power and strength. We’ve encountered before the idea, common among American Christians, that those who truly love God are blessed now with wealth, position, and good health. Those who lack these things, according to the Theology of Glory, must not be true Christians; or else, they don’t work hard enough. The Theology of Glory says that those who are pleasing to God can expect glory for themselves now, in this life. The Theology of the Cross, however, sets our eyes on the cross of Christ.
The Theology of the Cross holds, rightly, that God’s power – meaning, His power to save – is not demonstrated among us in our power, strength, or glory, but in the weakness of Christ. Human power always seeks to build itself up, to gain more, exercise more, but divine power goes in the opposite direction. We confess every week that Christ – with whom God the Father is well-pleased – was not content to dwell in His eternal splendor. Instead, He set it aside and willingly humbled Himself for us. He became in every way as we are – except without sin – He became as weak as we are. He experienced life in every way that we do – filled with anxieties, cares, and worries. Then, He submitted Himself to the ultimate weakness – the shame of death on a cross. In this way, His Word to St. Paul was true: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Jesus meant, His power to save and grant forgiveness was made perfect and complete in the weakness of His cross. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus won comfort for all who are in any trouble.
Trouble is something that St. Paul was familiar with. We heard his list being recounted for us in the text: imprisonments, beatings, “[being] often near death,” 5 times receiving the “forty lashes less one,” 3 times being beaten by the Romans with rods; he was stoned, shipwrecked and adrift at sea, and in constant danger. The point of his list is to compare to those others who had come to the Corinthians. They claimed that their wisdom and way with words was proof they were sent from God. If that is true, Paul would say, then what’s the deal? The truth is, as our Lord said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19) Just as Paul said in the beginning, as Christ shared in our sufferings, so we share in His.
Paul didn’t share his list of troubles because he delighted in them – far from it. In fact, we heard about his “thorn in the flesh,” how he pleaded with the Lord three times for it to be removed. It was not, however, the Lord’s will for him. Instead, Paul would continue to share in Christ’s suffering so that, in the life to come, he might share in Christ’s glory. In the meantime, in the now, Christ would strengthen Paul to endure all things with His grace. Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Although He would not remove from Paul all earthly suffering, He would sustain him in the midst of it. And the Lord did. Paul was strengthened in the confidence that, because Christ lived, he would also. Paul knew what we often hear at funerals, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18) This is to say, because we have the forgiveness of sins through faith in the weakness of Christ’s cross, suffering and death will not defeat Paul. Rather, death itself will be swallowed up in life.
In his sermon on the Sunday after Easter, Martin Luther reflected on the disciples who had locked themselves away after the crucifixion for fear of the Jews – how the Lord appeared to them and made them unafraid. Luther commented, “Christ [gives] peace in a different way than the world has and gives, namely, by soothing the heart, making it content, and inwardly taking away the fear and fright, even though outwardly hostility and misfortune remain…In this fear and anxiety the Lord comes, soothes their hearts, and sets them at peace—not by taking away the danger, but by [making] their hearts being unafraid.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 77, pg. 127) In essence, God’s power isn’t demonstrated chiefly in feats of glory, but in sustaining and comforting those who are weak. Our Lord’s mother sang in the Magnificat that the Lord brings down the mighty, but raises the lowly. And, that is a word that describes us.
Here we are. We are few in number, oftentimes short on funds. Although our sanctuaries are beautiful, they are not fancy in the way that some are. Although we can keep a tune, few of us will be winning contests. Some of us, myself included, are relatively young; but most of us aren’t. And with age often comes illness, weakness. We all feel the pressure of life in this world, the uncertainty of both future and present. At times, maybe even now, we are afraid, we are beat down. But, as Paul said elsewhere, we are “struck down, but not destroyed,” (2 Cor. 4:9) because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. Even though we are feeble and weak as the world would measure it, there is within us a strength beyond all telling. There dwells within us, the life and grace of Christ.
In our Baptism, we were united to Christ; we became one with Him, both in His suffering and in His life. Although He does not always remove external suffering and misfortune from us, He does take it out of our hearts. When we are faced with suffering, we can be confident that it is but for a moment; the Lord’s favor lasts for a lifetime. Moreover, the sufferings we endure prepare us for the eternal joy to come. It is through this message that the Lord sustains us. He has accomplished for us all that is necessary. By faith in Him we have the forgiveness of sins and, strengthened by His grace, we will overcome all things: be it the coronavirus, financial uncertainty, membership ebbs and flows. In the midst of our weakness, even, He sets us a table and His cup of forgiveness overflows for us.
The Lord doesn’t exercise His power primarily by feats of human strength and power, but by sustaining those who are weary. Such has He done for us all our lives up to this point, and so will He always do in the days to come; for, as He has said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”