Each year, the Evangelical Church of Germany (the umbrella organization for the official Protestant Church) issues a Bible text for the first of January as a kind of theme for the year. There is a lot of preaching about it at the services associated with Silvester(1st Jan). So, as we were there then, we heard the sermons. This year’s resolution is from 2 Corinthians 12:9 and is “My power (strength?) is powerful in the weak”. The context of this half-text is that Paul is in fact very angry with the Corinthians. They have been comparing him unfavourably with other ‘apostles’ and he is forced, against his will into making a defence. For Paul, the worst thing a person can do is to ‘boast’. God’s love is so much more overwhelming than anything we can have on our own, that the only thing that is really worth talking of is God’s love to us. But in the face of the stern criticism from the Corinthians, Paul does go into boasting about his visions and revelations which he considers a big ‘plus’ for him. But then he says ‘But in order to stop me from getting too proud about these happenings, God gave me a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (a kind of equalizing ‘opposite’). Paul says ‘I asked God three times to rid me of it, but then God says ‘No my grace is sufficient for you, for my power (strength) is powerful in the weak” )(This is Luther’s translation into German. We who know it in English, would know better ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’. So then Paul says ‘So if I am going to be forced to boast about anything, then let me boast about all my weaknesses. ‘ In this part and in the section that follows he is really ‘cutting loose’ on them, and being sarcastic too. He says to them ‘If I come a third time and find your behavior has not reformed I will have no mercy!’ But he goes on to say ‘Christ was crucified in weakness, so that he now lives, like us, who are ‘in Christ’, in the power of God.’ This is what makes Paul content with his sufferings and weakness, because it is a demonstration that he is relying not on himself, but on God.
This is what he says in the first letter to the Corinthians too. There he does not use clever arguments, or philosophy to convince the Corinthians, but he says ‘We knew nothing except Christ crucified.’ He does claim a wisdom, and he does claim a demonstration of the power of God through the outpouring of the Spirit (whatever that was). But we know that Paul thinks that the power of the Spirit is best demonstrated in Love (see 1 Corinthians 13!).
So the contrast that Paul is making here is designed to protect the power of God. He, along with Karl Barth when asked to sum up his theology, might well have said ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to Him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me! Yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!
This thing that Paul wants to say is the same thing that Jesus says when he says ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’ and ‘Suffer the little Children to come to me for of such is the Kingdom of God.’ Rich people can defend themselves to a degree from the storms of life with money. But then they come to rely on the money as their defence, and then fail to recognize the true source of power and authority: God.
I have been putting this theme together with our own situation here. What is true is that the waiting for the Visa, and the loss of Robyn’s job offer have been processes that have sapped our sense of self confidence. We have felt weak. The weaker and more robbed of self esteem we have felt, the harder it has been to find the strength to act in ways that would be ‘normal’ for ‘normal’ self confident people.
This is what brain-washers and now other prison authorities do to ‘break’ the people whom they want to get information from. They isolate the prisoners from other people, so all that they have is their own inner dialogue. For ordinary folk, much of this is self accusatory talk. They humiliate them (as we saw in those pictures from Abu Graib). Gradually, a persons sense of ‘self’ is so eroded, that they cannot think straight. I heard when I was away about a group of people who were engaged in resistance to the Nazi regime. The story went that ‘although they were offering resistance to Hitler, the Nazi infiltrators were so good at planting the seeds of doubt, that the group devoured itself and destroyed itself, and its capacity to resist.’ This has happened to me a couple of times in my life.
What is needed is an alternative source of information: an alternative voice to those that are robbing us of self confidence, and the truth of our situation. This is, I think, what St. Paul is getting at. He wants to pile up the knowledge of his weaknesses in a great heap, and face them, and without shame (because he has already been crucified with Christ) say ‘Yes! You are right! Here is X, Y and Z that is true about me! All that you say may be true about me! BUT, ‘Jesus loves me this I know’. Paul’s own words are ‘God’s love has flooded our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’
For us this has meant allowing others to be generous when we have been in need. We have received gifts of money to tide us over. We have had plenty of help when it comes to speaking French with the authorities and accompanying us to various Offices de la Population.
These alternative voices have come to us from the Body of Christ of which we are members. In this case, God’s strength has been made perfect in weakness because we as weaker members of the Body at this stage, have been allowed to let the stronger members help us. It is these concrete forms of assistance that have been evidence, on the ground, that ‘Jesus loves us’, not just because the Bible tells us so, but because other people who are members of the body of Christ have also shown us so.
I stand in awe at St. Paul’s capacity to resist the voices of inner gnawing away at his sense of being loved, through his not being ashamed of his weaknesses, including his illness. I admire his capacity to really show that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and so really is ‘dead to the World’ that he might ‘live to God’. This for me is an aspiration which is sometimes only imperfectly realized. But the Resolution for the Year of the Church in Germany can well be mine. I think though that I will change it into the words of the song. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me!