Living with a teenager (James) who loves Marvel, I’ve seen my fair share of superhero films and superhero’s over the last few years…it’s the most popular genre of film in the world right now and every month it seems a new superhero is unleashed to the world, and a new hole is burnt in my pocket. As James and I fly over the Manchester skyscrapers, land on the roof of the Printworks cinema in Manchester to watch Avengers: Endgame, we effortlessly slide down the building in our capes and masks, and are greeted with the eruption of spontaneous applause from our fans for our ongoing efforts to save the world! Then James awakes as I tell him its time to get up for college, or maybe it’s the other way around!
The point of a superhero is that they are not human, or not only human! They are more than human, indeed superhuman. They have super powers and divine-like looks and abilities that set them apart from the rest of us. But although superheroes are known for their powers and abilities, many have their hidden weaknesses too and not all hero’s fit the bill, alias Jonny English. Sometimes it takes the unlikely hero to save the day.
As I was thinking about the constant production of superheroes, and seemingly our need for them, I found myself reading a story in the Bible about a New Testament church, the Corinthians, who were looking for a superhero to be their church leader. Instead they are given St. Paul who they considered was not good enough, or strong enough, or brave enough, or wise enough, or extraordinary enough to be their super apostle. They thought his preaching average, his life experience weak, his teaching confusing, his message unacceptable; his personal character flawed, and wanted to be led by someone who had a more impressive CV than him.
As a result of their attitude, Paul decided to write to defend his authority to be an apostle and in 2 Corinthians 12 v 1-10 we find Paul making a passionate defence of his ministry. He may not be superman- but he possesses a record he could boast about. But that is not the point! In fact boasting in human achievements is not what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is not about how powerful or good or dynamic a person is. The secret of Christian living for Paul is not to be found in human strength, but divine grace. In a moving personal speech which reveals the heart of Paul he introduces them to the Gospel of weakness, a Gospel he has learned to accept himself.
Paul tells his opponents at the beginning of this passage that he should not really continue boasting in his qualifications to be an apostle. After all he has already given in the previous section an impressive list of personal qualifications. He is a descendant of Abraham and has served and worked as hard as any one else in the church. For his faith in Jesus he has been in prison several times, he has been persecuted; he has been close to death several times, including being one lash away from death on five separate occasions through flogging. He has been beaten with rods three times, shipwrecked three times, faced constant danger, travelled hundreds of miles, has suffered sleepless nights, hunger, thirst and the list goes on and on. But his greatest human achievement is now stated in the opening of this chapter. He says to his opponents, “and if you were impressed by all that, then listen to this!” And in the first five verses of the passage he tells them of an experience he has had that is so great and amazing, so impressive, that will even have the Corinthians say he is a superhero. To sum it up he speaks of an occasion fourteen years previously when God gave him a special vision that surpassed the greatest dream possible. It was such an overwhelming experience that he did not even know if it was a dream or if it really happened. He says he was caught up into paradise, the third heaven, the place Jews associated with God's very own dwelling, where God revealed to him the most amazing mysteries possible- they were so amazing that he could not even speak of them.
If there was any doubt that he was qualified to be an apostle then this experience should even silence his critics. But instead of Paul gloating and showing how super spiritual he was, Paul surprises his opponents, and us, by saying that none of this really matters at all. Although Paul could boast more than most people, another thing happened in his life that he is willing to share with them that matters even more. He could have only told them about his marvellous experiences, but he risks sharing something with them about his own life that he hopes will help them see that boasting in strengths is not as important as boasting in weaknesses. He tells them that with the privilege of sharing in amazing visions came the price of sharing in suffering. God permitted a messenger of Satan to send him a “thorn in his flesh” (a sting that remained in his life) but used it to teach him a lesson. Whatever this thorn is we do not know- it may have been a physical illness, or a spiritual form of opposition but whatever it was it tormented Paul so much that he pleaded with God to take it away on three separate occasions. But God’s answer to Paul was very different from what Paul hoped to hear, for God was teaching Paul a lesson he had to learn. God said to Paul, “I am not going to take away this weakness in your life, but I am going to promise you that I will give you my grace and strength to work in your weakness." This is the Gospel of weakness that Paul had to learn.
And what is even greater is discovering for ourselves that God’s power works best through our weaknesses. It is as we learn to name, and to own, and to face our weaknesses that God’s work through us is seen most. God is proved most in our lives when we are able to give him our inadequacies, our fears, our insecurities, our sins, our weaknesses and ask Him to do something with them and through them. Paul tells the Corinthians, and tells us, don’t boast in the catalogue of any achievements you might have, but rather boast in the fact that God can use your weakness and your limitations just as much. The Gospel is not about our power, or success, or ability- it is about the amazing grace of God that takes our weaknesses and turns them into opportunities to teach us about His grace and strength.
Paul’s strengths are remarkable, but what is even more remarkable is God’s strength in his weakness. The true success of our ministries and our Christian life is seen most, not when we’re doing well, but when we are out of our depth, when we are feeling inadequate, when we have to face our own weaknesses and limitations and yet trust in God’s strength to bring us through. Like many superheroes we too wear masks (indeed they are compulsory right now in most places because of Covid 19!) We frequently cover up what we are really like. We hide our fears, inadequacies, failures, embarrassments and sins. But the only way to freedom and release, and to be used effectively by God, is to take off the mask and allow God to minister His grace into the depths of our soul. The way to be strong is not to hide our weaknesses but to own them. You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.
The Gospel of weaknesses runs against much of what we hear in the world and sadly even in the church. Like Paul we may find that for some reason, permitted by God, we will have "thorns" in our lives that are used by God to bring us to a place where we call out to God for His mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. And like Paul, we may find too there are times when God decides for His own glory, that He will not remove our hardships, weaknesses, our disabilities and our inadequacies because He wants us to learn that His power is proved most when we need Him most. We need to cultivate church communities where people can stop trying to live like super men and super women but are encouraged, through safe spaces, to deal with their inadequacies, defeats and problems in a loving, empowering and helpful way. For it is in the hard place that God’s grace and power comes through most.
“My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in your weakness.
So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me.”