A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Pentecost +3 – Weakness

Pentecost +3
Rev. Doug Floyd
2 Corinthians 4:13-18

Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” – ISAIAH 57:15

We live in a world where people are striving for success. I looked up book titles on success. Here are some of the ones I saw:

Joy of Success – 10 Essential Skills for Getting the Success You Want
Five Doors of Success
The New Psychology of Success
12 Universal Laws of success
7 Spiritual Laws of Success

I also browsed Youtube.

How to Raise Your Vibration to Attract the Financial Flow, Freedom, and Abundance
How to Brainwash Yourself for Success
The Mindset of High Achievers

All these titles would have probably been a hit in ancient Corinth. This was a status driven culture with plenty of new wealth. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he is dealing with people who are turning their spiritual experiences in status symbols and are now competing with one another. We also see hints of brokenness in the lives of the people. There is sexual immorality, gluttony and even drunkenness. This makes me think of one more book on success.

Years ago, Clay Christiansen wrote a book on success. He was a professor at Harvard Business School. He had been a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford. He talks about attending reunions with fellow Harvard Business School grads. Initially some were running Fortune 500 companies. They were leaders in their various fields. These were the fortunate few who had the training and the access to the highest levels of our culture.

Gradually fewer people attended reunions. Christiansen discovered divorces, broken families, children who would no longer talk to their parents, and even some graduates ended up in prison.

Christiansen began talking to his students about what success looks like. He eventually wrote into a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” For him measures of success include spiritual life, family life, and moral life. He challenges many of the conventional success metrics.

This makes me think of something James Houston, the founder of Regent College in Vancouver, once said. He suggested that what we call success may just be strengths that have developed while compensating for some inner brokenness. Many successful people are still like wounded children.

He talked about one of the most successful lawyers in Vancouver whose life just shattered. He was good at law, but he was a broken man.

The Apostle Paul writes 2 Corinthians to broken people. Some people who are caught up in the success drive may not even be able to hear Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians. I think that was true in Paul’s day and it is still true today. He emphasizes words like weakness, despair, suffering, affliction and weakness.

It’s hard to believe the people at Corinth could hear him because they were so driven to success. I think Paul speaks to the heart of the people, emphasizing the deep bond between him and this community and the Lord. Those who have ears will hear.

As a short preface to today’s reading, Paul opens 2 Corinthians with a blessing from the Father. He sometimes uses opening words to highlight what will become a focus in the letter. Paul writes,

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 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.[1]

He makes clear that God refers to our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he adapts a Jewish benediction. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…” Paul is saying the Father is the source of all mercies. We desperately need His mercy and comfort. When someone shows us mercy or comfort, it is still the grace of God that touches us in that act.

Paul opens this letter reminding the Corinthians that he has been comforted in his own affliction, and he knows the Corinthians need this mercy and comfort as well. Paul can extend this blessing because he knows affliction firsthand, and he knows the comfort of the Father firsthand.

Paul realizes that suffering can be a way of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Paul has been beaten for the faith, imprisoned for the faith, and yet the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has been present to him in those dark times. Paul goes on to say that in some of these difficult situations he was burdened beyond his strength and despaired of life itself.

Have you experienced those places of darkness and suffering where God seems so far off? Like the cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 88,

14 O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. [2]

Jesus entered this very place of darkness and grief on the cross. In his death, he enters communion with a world that is sinking in despair. Just as the Spirit of Resurrection calls Christ to life, so he will not abandon us to the grave. Paul writes,

“…we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” [3]

Never take lightly the prayers of God’s people for those in the depths of suffering.

In today’s passage from 2 Corinthians 4, Paul emphasizes that God not only sustains us in our weakness, but he leads us into communion with Christ and oddly enough, communion with one another. He pairs a series of ideas together:

Affliction and Glory
Death and Life
Wasting Away and Being Renewed
Transience and Eternal

We hold these contrasting ideas together in the place of suffering and death. We don’t lose heart during suffering and weakness because we know that God is trustworthy. Drawing from the creation story, Paul talks about how God can bring glory in the darkest places. He writes, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[4]

He goes on to list some of the troubles:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So, death is at work in us, but life in you. [5]

Even as he has despaired to death, he knows that the life of Christ is working in the communities that Paul has bound his life to. We Protestants don’t always think deeply about how we are bound together with one another and how God’s grace may be working in us to bring life and strength to others through us. By His gift of grace, we are participating in the death and life of Christ.

In this communion of suffering and comfort, death and life, we are entering into the weight of glory. It is a joyful thing to follow Christ in this way of the cross, this way of resurrection. This looks nothing like the success of the world. It gives us no status or bragging rights before a world driven by accomplishments. But it does immerse us into the love of God in Christ and teaches that Christ went to the cross for the joy before. We follow Christ in weakness and frailty and the way of the cross for the joy set before us.  

 Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

ISAIAH 57:15


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 1:1–4.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 88:14–18.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 1:9–11.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:6.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:8–12.

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