“The 'Weakness' of Love”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
7th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 9B)
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Lately, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching the Harry Potter series. As a child and teenager, I read these books as they were released in the 1990s and 2000s, and I watched every movie in theaters. It was an important story for me growing up because I was about the same age as Harry and his friends as the books and movies came out, so I felt like I was growing up with these characters.
There is a character from the second story who might give us some insight into our reading from 2 Corinthians 12. Gilderoy Lockhart is introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999) and is portrayed in the 2002 film by Kenneth Branagh. He is a professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, who brags that he has been on countless magical adventures and bested many dark wizards and wild beasts. He constantly reminds people of his fame, popularity, and good looks; just the epitome of “self-absorbed.” Not only that, but, we learn by the end of the book and movie that he is a fraud. He has made all these stories up in order to impress others, sell books, and become famous. Professor Lockhart’s arrogance and pride become even more distasteful when we learn the truth about his character later in the story. Thankfully, he loses his job at the end of that story and does not return in the remainder of the series.
The boastful and deceitful Professor Gilderoy Lockhart might help us understand the people Paul writes against in 2 Corinthians 12. St. Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian Church, a church he helped to found, years later, when other missionaries have come by with a different sort of Christian message. These rival missionaries are all about power, health, and wealth. They are overly-pious and moralistic, criticizing everyone for not being as holy as they are, and they boast that their lives are better in Christ because they are stronger in faith. Paul describes these guys in detail in 2 Corinthians 11; in 11:5 he even mockingly calls them “super-apostles.”
Like Gilderoy Lockhart, these “super-apostles” boast in their own strength. They are proud about how great they are because they are holy and therefore better than other people. There are still Christians (and non-Christians) like this today. Our culture is obsessed with celebrities, who are usually prideful, arrogant, and self-aggrandizing. According to St. Paul, of that’s the place you come from when you approach the Gospel, Christianity isn’t going to make a lot of sense.
Our whole religion hinges on self-sacrifice, the ultimate act of humility. We worship a God who gave up the privileges of divinity to become a poor human being from a lowly, colonized people; this Incarnate Deity then chose to preach peace and love so fiercely and unwaveringly that Jesus was willing to die a gruesome death on the Cross if it meant the healing and restoration of the world that God loved.
The Lord Jesus told Paul, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).
The key phrase is: “Power is made perfect in weakness.” In Greek philosophy, “weakness” could mean a number of things, but here I think it meant not being independent, self-contained, or whole. Weakness is dependence on others to live a full and happy life.
For St. Paul, weakness is a virtue. Weakness is the opposite of “look at me and how good I am.” It’s the recognition that none of us are truly independent. Weakness is the ability to admit that you can’t thrive (or even survive) alone. We all need God and, by God’s grace, we all need one another. None of us can be truly blessed in isolation. We always need community. Jesus’ grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
If we step back and look at the bigger picture of Gospel, the “weakness” of the Christian is her love for others (Frederickson). This “weakness” transforms the individual. She cannot live on an island. She cannot be apathetic to the cries of others. She cannot ignore pain or suffering in those around her. The Christian must love because she has been loved so fully by God.
Likewise in the Gospel of Mark (6:7-13), Jesus’ disciples must accept earthly weakness in order to gain spiritual strength. They take few supplies and become dependent on the hospitality of others as they share Good News of God’s Rule and Reign. They have to find God’s strength in the “weakness” of love for others.
To those who boast and brag about their accomplishments, this seems like nonsense. To most of the world, independence and power are unquestionably good. “Nice guys finish last.” In order to climb the ladder you might need to step on the little guy. To stand up alone, to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps is a sign of strength and even morality. And at its most extreme, strength takes the form of boasting about one’s own accomplishments, real or unreal. Like Lockhart, we can be tempted to put on a front about how great we are and how well we’re doing.
But these common ways of imagining success and strength are anti-Christian. They don’t look like Jesus because they are selfish. In weakness, Jesus shows us the most powerful force in the universe: love. We too can enjoy the power of God by embracing the weakness of love. Christians don’t need to boast in their own strength, skills, intellect, and honor. They don’t need to perpetuate the lie that a strong man can “do it all by himself.”
Instead, like Paul, we can boast that we are weak. We can boast that we are dependent on each other. Because I’m happy to be called “weak” if weakness means loyalty to what is right and fair. We are “weak” if weakness means that we will helps others before we help ourselves. We are “weak” if weakness means that we love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good.
So let’s boast of our weakness because Jesus’ grace is sufficient for us. Let’s be proud of our love for the great and the small. Let’s be content weaknesses of the sake of Christ; for whenever we are weak, we are strong (2 Cor 12:10 paraphrased). Amen.
Frederickson, David E. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.” Working Preacher. Published 2 July 2018. Accessed 7 July 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3696.
Kloves, Steve (screenplay). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Chris Columbus. 2002; Burbank, California: Warner Bros.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.