Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




 “Strength and Weakness”

Sunday, June 15, 2008



II Corinthians 12: 1-10


Rev. Dean Snyder


We spend our lives getting good at what we want to be good at or getting good at what we believe we are called or destined to do and be. We study. We practice. We test ourselves in the arena of life. We obsess. We see how far we can go, how high we can fly, how hard we can push ourselves.


It may be in the arena of work, or love, or physicality, or spirituality, or knowledge, or wealth, or service, or avocation, or safety, or whatever we decide to invest ourselves in most fully.


We strengthen our bodies or we sharpen our minds or we soften our hearts. We become proficient; we become accomplished; eventually we become expert. Still we work and stretch and test ourselves. We are determined to become all that we can be.


We build our strength. We become strong.  


But then inevitably – I am pretty sure it is inevitable if we live more than a few years – inevitably life begins to monkey with us. The strength we have devoted our life to building begins to betray us. Our strength becomes our weakness, and we can become strong again only by becoming weak.


This was true in the life of the Apostle Paul. No person ever worked harder at developing his strength. At an early age, he became a student of Gamaliel, the leading rabbi of his time. Only the very brightest and hardest working got to study at the school of Rabbi Gamaliel. Gamaliel students worked longer shifts and studied harder than residents in hospitals do today.


After his studies, Paul rose quickly in the ranks of pharisaic Judaism, being assigned at a young age to be a protector of the faith, hunting down and eradicating heretics. It is how he was exposed to Christianity.


After his conversation, Paul continued to demand of himself total devotion – himself and others. He became a great innovator and builder and leader…a gifted speaker and a fierce and sharp debater and unprecedented strategist of church growth.


On three missionary journeys under the most difficult circumstances – facing the opposition of the elements, the opposition of the enemies of Christianity, and the opposition of the Empire, Paul made Christianity a global religion by the force of his will. He drove himself fiercely – himself and others.


He demanded of himself total devotion. He committed himself to be all things to all people. (1Corinthians 9:22) He was under a compulsion to preach. (I Corinthians 9:16) He was committed to being the greatest, so committed to this was he that he even called himself as the greatest of sinners.


Isn’t it ironic that the teacher given credit for the concept of salvation by grace rather than by works was so driven?


But at a certain point in his life Paul hit a wall. Or maybe it wasn’t a wall. Maybe it was more gradual. Maybe it was a steep hill. But he hit something. Something happened.


His body, which he had driven, began to fail him. His students – those he had mentored in ministry – John, Mark, and Barnabas had deserted him. Most of all his churches, the ones he had founded, had been won over by a new group of apostles – super-apostles Paul sarcastically called them. (II Corinthians 12: 11) They were teaching a form of Christianity Paul distained.


Something happen to Paul.


We are in a series of sermons right now on jetsam and flotsam on the sea of life. I got the idea from James Tinnemeyer. Jetsam is the stuff that, when a storm is coming, you throw overboard so that your ship will be less likely to capsize and sink. Flotsam is the stuff that is left floating after a shipwreck that you can cling to in order to stay afloat until you can make your way to shore.   


Have I mentioned that the jetsam we need to throw overboard to survive the storm is often the stuff that is hardest for us to let go of?


Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk compares our human journey toward God to the 19th century polar expeditions in which explorers tried to reach the poles. The most important expedition, she says, was the Franklin expedition of 1845. “The expedition itself accomplished nothing and all its members died,” she writes, “but…the mystery of its whereabouts attracted so much publicity in Europe and the United States that 30 ships set out to find traces of the ships and men.”[i] The crews of these 30 ships, in the process of searching for the Franklin expedition, mapped the Arctic.   


Search parties recovered the remains of the Franklin party for 20 years. They found groups of men who had tried to make it to safety. One clump of frozen bodies, which showed signs of cannibalism, apparently had carried with them on their journey toward safety place-settings of sterling flatware engraved with their initials and family crests and a backgammon board. Weighed down by all this, they never made it to safety.


Another search party found two skeletons from the Franklin expedition years later in a boat on a sledge. The two men had hauled the boat 65 miles trying to make it across the ice to the ocean. With the two skeletons were found some chocolate, some guns, some tea, and a great deal of table silver. They were too weighed down to make it.


The jetsam we need to throw overboard to survive the storm is often the very stuff we’d rather die than let go of.


The super-apostles were making claims of mystical experiences and miraculous powers greater than Paul’s. They were teaching a different gospel, a gospel of success rather than of grace. Paul’s churches had become smitten by these new exciting flashy apostles with their exotic teachings. They made Paul look like a worn-out old man by comparison. They’d turned their back on Paul’s teachings and embraced this newer flashier more exciting gospel.  


The super-apostles made fun of Paul. Paul had developed an illness of some kind…a thorn in the flesh, he called it. Scholars have debated what his thorn in the flesh could have been. We don’t know. Some biblical scholars believe it may have been migraines. We really don’t know.


The super-apostles made fun of Paul. If he was a great apostle, how could it be that he was sick so much? If God was blessing Paul, why these migraines?


Paul tried to overcome his thorn in the flesh. Three times he prayed to the
Lord to take it away. He appealed to the Lord. He prayed and fasted. He tried to make the headaches go away by his sheer willpower. But the Lord said no. The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12: 9)


So the Apostle Paul had to throw overboard his will to work harder than everybody else, his determination to accomplish more, his strength.


The jetsam we need to throw overboard to survive the storm is often the very stuff we’d rather die than let go of.


What Paul had to throw overboard, most of all, was control. Abandoned by those whom he had trained in ministry and ordained, abandoned by his churches who had been wooed by flashier preachers, sick and physically drained, Paul had to give up control. His only way to be strong was to trust that Christ would work through his weakness and failings at the very time that it appeared that all he had accomplished through his strength and hard work had been for naught. 


It was not perhaps until this point in his ministry that Paul really understood his own teaching about salvation by grace. We who preach and teach often preach and teach what we have not yet come to understand – really – in our own lives. We have an idea of it but then at some point we really learn it, like Paul really learned the meaning of grace when his body wouldn’t get healed and his friends and his churches had forsaken him.  


What Paul wanted to do was to tell stories of his own mystical experiences, like the super-apostles did. You can see him longing to compete with the super-apostles if you read II Corinthians. What he wanted was for the migraines to stop so he could go to Corinth again and straighten things out there…get people back in line. What he wanted was Barnabas back at his side.


But instead he had to throw all that overboard. He had to trust in Christ. He had to cling to Christ alone in order to be strong again in a new way. I suspect it was the hardest thing he ever did.


Annie Dillard says that the Franklin expedition – Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men – set out to find the Arctic pole in two three-masked barges. Each barge had an auxiliary steam engine and a 12-day supply of coal for the proposed two or three year voyage. Instead of taking extra coal each ship had a 1,200-volume library, a hand organ, china place settings for the officers, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling flat silverware. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Arctic, only the uniforms of Her Royal Majesty’s Navy.


The flatware was what they found years later next to the frozen skeletons.


The expeditions that eventually succeeded in reaching the pole and retuning alive relied on native techniques taught them by the Inuits, Annie Dillard says. They traveled by dog sled. They ate seal and walrus meat, wore walrus skins, and fed sled dogs to sled dogs on schedule.


What is it that we would rather die than throw overboard? Our silver flatware? Our cut glass goblets? Our library? Our hand organ?


Our self-sufficiency? Our pride? Our intellectual sophistication? Our image? Our self-control? Our success? Our power? Our leisure? Our theology? Our morality? Our creed?


But there is no way to reach the Pole unless we are willing to travel like Inuits and eat walrus meat.


The hardest thing the Apostle Paul had to do in his life, I am convinced, was to become weak, vulnerable, to trust Christ. He finally had to live what he had preached, as we should all expect to have to do.


Because no matter what we say in our hymns and creeds, we really most of us trust our own strength…the strength of our bodies…the strength of our minds…the strength of our wills…the strength of our determination.


We turn to our strength for salvation. But it will never save us. It will always fail us sooner or later. If we cling to it we will die. And part of us would rather die than leave the flatware behind.


But Christ invites us to surrender our strength and hold unto him. It is the hardest thing we will ever do. And it is our only hope.


The only consolation is this. No one today knows the names of the flashy super-apostles. We have not the slightest idea who they were. The book Paul wrote after II Corinthians, the book of Romans, the book he wrote after he’d come to the end of his own strength, has shaped Christianity more than any other. It was the book that gave Augustine his theology, that stimulated Luther to begin the Protestant reformation, that John Wesley was listening to when his heart was strangely warmed. It was a book written from weakness and surrender. It was a book that threw overboard all the jetsam of achievement and strength – a book that clung to Christ alone. 








[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper and Row), 24-27.