Through weakness we are strong
A few years back, I lost a dear friend. She had been a youth leader in one of my early ministries. Not long after the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer. Her fight to stay alive was brief and her early death neither fair nor right.
As I sat in the funeral service, my daughter Ali sat next to me, her arm linked through mine. I felt deeply for the husband sitting in the front row and the two small children beside him. I felt angry that such an injustice could be allowed. More than anything, I felt sad and eventually the tears came. As they did, I felt Ali press in closer. I looked down to see her staring up at me, eyes wide with a mixture of concern and disbelief. After a few startled moments, she buried her face in my arm. Later that day, as we stood together at the graveside apart from the crowd, she said, ‘Dad, you sacred me. I’ve never seen you cry before. You’ve always been so strong.’
It is a fact that mixing images of strength with tears is as culturally challenging as blending oil and water. Like Ali, we have learned to see the two as contradictory. As a young man growing up in a family of men, I certainly learnt early on that my own bent to tears was a hindrance to the prized development of strength. In the journey from weakness to strength, from boyhood to manhood, tears were a backward step.
In this season of Lent, we are exploring the paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching in his journey to crucifixion. According to my dictionary, a paradox is ‘a statement or proposition that leads to a conclusion that appears to be absurd, senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.’ There are many of them in the gospel story: in losing life we find it; in fasting we feast; in foolishness we are wise; in poverty we are rich; in humility we are exalted; in dying we live. Absurd, senseless and contradictory statements every one of them, yet infused with such truth, Jesus says, that in surrendering to them our lives are transformed.
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is no different; full of absurd contradictions. Here is Jesus alone with his disciples, pressing them to know what the people make of him: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, an ancient prophet,’ they say, passing on what they have heard among the crowds. ‘And what about you,’ Jesus prods, ‘Who do you think I am?’ It’s Peter who answers: ‘The Messiah of God!’ he declares. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter’s faith is rewarded with one of the great affirmations of scripture, ‘Blessed are you Peter. Upon you and your faith I will build my church.’ But not here. In Luke’s account, Jesus’ response is ‘Ssshhhh! Be quiet; tell no one.’
While Matthew is keen to trumpet the Divine calling of Jesus from the rooftops, Luke’s purpose is entirely different. Luke wants to remind his readers of the extraordinary cost at which that calling comes. Peter is right to identify Jesus as the ‘Messiah.’ That he is, but Peter has no clue as to what this vocation means. Like all Jews, the disciples lived in expectation of the coming Messiah, the one who will free the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. They imagined a great conqueror riding in with his army, swords in hand, to smite the oppressor and lead the people to a new age of victory and liberation. For the Jews, there was no more potent image than that of Messiah, the embodiment of strength and power without equal; an image in which they invested their hopes and longings for the future.
Ssshhh! Jesus says. He doesn’t deny his identify, refute it or walk away from it. Messiah indeed, but understand this, he says in the words to follow, the Son of Man must now suffer, be rejected and die. Resurrection will come, victory will be ours, but only through the cross. Victory through defeat; triumph through tragedy, strength through weakness. It is absurd; it is senseless; it is contradictory, it goes against everything that Peter and his like have come to believe, and yet it is truth.
If Peter is not knocked off his feet already, then what follows is even more challenging. “If you want to be my follower, then understand this,’ Jesus says, ‘to do so you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.’ If the blow to the collective Jewish ego was not hard enough, this more personal thud to the stomach comes with a debilitating force. This paradox is not only mine, Jesus says, it is yours as well. Only through weakness is there strength to last; only through defeat is there any victory that really counts.
It is heavy stuff, these words of Jesus. Like all the paradoxes we deal with in this season of Lent, this one is both convicting and compelling. The challenge, of course, is in how we live it. How many times have your heard these words of Jesus? How many sermons have stirred your commitment and unsettled your heart? But it’s the living of it that is so wretchedly difficult. For to live it we have to make it concrete. We have to move from the shelf of grand and pious propositions to the one labeled ‘things to do today.’ If real and lasting strength is only found in vulnerability and weakness, if discipleship is only lived in self-denial and sacrifice, then what difference will that make tomorrow.
I can only tell you what difference it will make for me tomorrow.
It means I will need to resist the temptation to hide behind titles and positions, Messiah or otherwise. In her own gentle way, my wife has reminded me in my few moments of grand achievement: ‘You know, Simon, being admired is easy. It’s being known that takes courage.’ It’s true: titles and positions provide nice pedestals on which to sit and enjoy the admiration of the crowd, but it’s only in the vulnerability of relationship, getting down off the pillar and getting dirt under our nails that we have a lasting impact on the lives of others. The Messiah is not the Messiah through title but through suffering. Coming out from behind our titles and credentials is compromising and messy and prone to misunderstanding, but it’s what makes a real difference. For only through weakness is there strength.
It means embracing the struggles of tomorrow as part and parcel of the journey. Not everything is a problem to be solved, a mountain to be scaled or a challenge to overcome. Indeed, tomorrow’s humility is found in accepting that there are challenges I will never overcome, as much a part of my own humanity as they are of others. This business of taking up my cross is not a once-only proposition but a daily embracing of my weaknesses, limitations and brokenness and in allowing them to be gathered up in what I offer to God and to you each day. For only through weakness is there strength.
It means the purpose of today is not personal happiness but the giving of myself for the sake of others. Despite what all the self-help books say, the ultimate aim of a Jesus follower is not the realization of my true self, the transcending of my limitations, or to soar on the winds of self-actualization. My ultimate aim is to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and love my neighbour as I love myself. As Christians, we are defined and saved through self-giving not self-fulfillment. For only through weakness is there strength.
It means being free to weep with those who weep, to struggle alongside those who struggle, to stand resolutely with those who are diminished or defeated by life. Being associated with success and celebrity is one of the great temptations of life and no less so for people of faith. Following Jesus tomorrow means I cannot favour those who look good or make me look good. My calling is to heal as much as to be healed, to hold as much as to be held. And in so doing I offer myself, my own story, my own struggles, my own vulnerability to those who need it most, for only in weakness is there strength.
In this Lenten season, we follow Jesus all the way to the cross. The story of Jesus is one of extraordinary vulnerability. The Messiah? Yes, come to bring release to the captives, sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. But an armoured knight riding on a white horse? No. Instead, a suffering, bleeding servant, rejected, defeated, crucified and buried. Resurrection will come. Death will give way to life, but only through the valleys of self-giving and surrender, for only in weakness are we strong. In this confounding paradox is the wisdom of God. What’s more, in it is the call of God to you and to me: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. May we find the courage to do so.
A Morning Prayer for Lent
Lord Jesus Christ
I commit today
to following you.
Grant me strength
to deny all that is self-seeking,
to take up your burdens
of love and justice,
and to walk every step
in response to your call.