We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, then when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority -- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. - 2 Corinthians 13:9-11
Weaknesses. Wow. We all have flaws. The world has weaknesses. People are too weak to eat, or too vulnerable to sin to avoid addictions and other self-destructive behavior. Too weak to do this. Too weak to do that. Sometimes people are so small in their self-estimation that someone who is less fragile than they end up preying on them. Sometimes we get our priorities out of whack because of our weakness. I’m no exception to the rule of weakness. I have a weakness for European dark chocolate. I have a weakness for beautiful woodwork in a house. Speaking of woodwork, I love basses. Upright basses, bass guitars, it doesn’t matter. Electric, acoustic, acoustic-electric. Did I mention I really like basses? Don’t get me started on violins, either. OH! And books. Lots of books. I currently have so many books that I cannot find time to read them all, so I have stopped adding. At least until we get out or worship service. After that, all bets are off. I also have a weakness for my beagle and my horses. That’s understandable, though, especially if you’ve ever seen Betty, Thunder or Rudy.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no.
To keep things on an even playing field, let’s get real about this. You have weaknesses in your life, too. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve got many weaknesses, things to which we can’t say no. Some of them are harmless, like a weakness for movies, or a TV show that we watch every week. But there are things we struggle with. Maybe that TV show that we binge-watch and then neglect stuff in our lives. Or more importantly, that caused us to overlook opportunities to interact with others. Or, dare I say, that cause us to neglect God and what He wants to see done in our lives.
The Corinthian church was that kind of neglectful mess. In 50AD Paul founded the church in Corinth, a community about 50 miles west of Athens. We have two of the three letters from Paul to the Corinthian church, showcasing a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. While we don’t possess the response Paul received from them between the second and third letters we have, the tone and content of his reply speak volumes.
The Corinthian church wasn’t what you’d call your model church. It was a catastrophe. A few of the issues they faced were: partisanship splitting the church between rival leaders; incest; prostitution; celibacy within marriage; believers who were married asking about divorce; believers married to unbelievers asking about divorce; issues of marriage and remarriage; lawsuits; idolatry; the women of the church praying and prophesying without covering their head, and the hair length of men; worship was a hot mess, with people speaking in tongues and talking over one another; the communal meal was turning into a party where some went hungry and some got drunk; people saying Jesus wasn’t really resurrected; major money issues; and Paul’s plans to travel having to change because of this. You could say they were a bit bull-headed as a whole.
In Paul’s address, he pushed them back to plumb. In return, they pushed right back at Paul. The underlying issues that lead up to the 13th chapter in the second letter from Paul were simple. People couldn’t relate to one another. They were putting themselves ahead of others, they were putting themselves ahead of God. The whole situation ended up toxic and pretty much out of control.
In chapter two of Second Corinthians, Paul talks about a trip he made that was a “painful visit.” What we see here is Paul doing his best to walk a tightrope voicing love and obedience to impart grace to the Corinthian church, but still being able to reveal the truth at the same time. So, while a model church loves and cares for others deeply, this church was pretty much the opposite.
Have we seen churches like this? Are we a church like this? Should we be a church like this? Will it bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ if we are a church like this? Are we filled with the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, relying on Christ to find us in our weakness, fill us with his power, and bring us into the designs that he has for our lives? Tough questions, but we have to ask them, and we likewise have to answer them.
In licensing school, during pastoral care class, our instructor set up a mock funeral planning meeting. We were explicitly told not to make it apocalyptic. Spoiler alert, we went full-on apocalyptic. I feel it is important to state that I may or may not have led the charge on a thoroughbred drama llama, racing for Crazytown as fast as it could carry me. With some help from my classmates, the ensuing thespianism was uproarious in nature and went even further down the rabbit hole I had opened. Though it was done tongue in cheek and was way overblown with drama, none of us could help but wonder what we would do when things got more than a little out of control.
On the one hand, I’ve witnessed a multi-combatant fistfight at a service of commitment, right in front of the casket, so my opinion was fairly open to exactly how deeply people’s brokenness can run and how it will choose to manifest itself. The funny thing was, the instructor said neither he nor any of the teaching staff had ever experienced anything even remotely approaching the mess we’d presented and of which he very deftly regained control.
But Paul sure had.
Division and disunity will bring a nasty, greasy, smoke-covered ending to any church, and the enemy just salivates at that idea. The church in Corinth was doing precisely as the Devil wanted. The issue wasn’t their sexual immorality or their failure to get along. Their problem was a lack of and in many instances, total abandonment of, a state of communion with God. No communion with God means we have no fellowship with our own self and definitely no communion with others. Communion with God makes us stronger because we exchange our weakness for His power. That only spills outward making our community stronger.
Weakness makes you … happy?
Did you notice how Paul spoke about gladness when his group was weak, but the Corinthian church was strong? Why do you suppose he said that? Was it about how strong they were by themselves? I don’t believe so. I think it was about the self-realization of the body of Christ in Corinth as weak, and the conviction that they couldn’t do life all by themselves. Paul felt deeply that would lead them to the understanding they needed God, which would balance the rest of the issues out.
You see, we’re so bent on being strong ourselves. It’s our driving motivation to have power and to have the ability to do life successfully, all by our lonesome. We will push ourselves to such an extreme in our desire to show how we’re in control and can do everything on our own. We even take Bible verses like Philippians 4:13 out of context regularly so as to validate the point, putting emphasis on “I can do all things” instead of on the one who Paul credits for the strength, and Paul’s utter submission to the will of God manifested in Jesus Christ’s Holy Spirit dwelling within him.
We’re only strong when we are in submissive communion with God.
An experience, not an act
If you take apart our Service of Table in the United Methodist Church, our communion is an opportunity for an experience, not just an act we do twice a month. It is literally set up to acknowledge the drawing grace of God, the conviction that we are weak, need forgiveness but cannot earn it ourselves so we count on Christ for it, are then given that cleansing forgiveness freely by God, and reassured of His never-ending love for us before we are sent. The authority I have to invoke the Holy Spirit of God over the gifts of bread and juice in Holy Communion was given to me first by God through Jesus Christ and brought under the authority of His church to me. This is all about relationship here, starting with God but not ending when it reaches us. Just as it was when Paul spoke about it, communion is about a restorative experience with God that goes beyond us. The authority given to me is for building, just like Paul’s authority that was given to him. The reignition our church desperately needs is found right there. Right. There.
Pay attention, though, there are a carrot and a stick here in equal measures. We’re given the authority to build up and not tear down. That doesn’t mean that God, from whom all power flows, can’t tear down. Still, I don’t believe God wants us to focus on the stick out of fear, but rather out of reverence. A decision made in fear and terror is coercion based on force, and it’s not a real choice. You’re not really in a relationship if you’re not truly free to relate.
The reverent respect for God and Christ’s death on the cross is found in the fact that God could quickly force us to do His will but chooses instead to love us into doing His will. It’s restraint based on a relationship that is founded in love.
That’s important here because it’s the benchmark of Christ’s church. If we’re not in communion with God, striving for full restoration, encouraging each other, finding our common ground in the cross that shows us how to live in peace, we don’t get to the last part of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians. Without communion with God, the God of love and peace will NOT be with you.
In communion, we experience God’s drawing grace. Our repentance, His forgiveness, our grace and reassurance, and our sending. Let’s focus on forgiveness for a second.
Forgiveness as a forge
Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15 that if we forgive one another, God will forgive us. If we don’t forgive one another, then God won’t forgive us. That’s pretty black and white. Dietrich Bonhoeffer broke this out by saying, “It is the fellowship of the cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden, he denies the law of Christ.” As Christians past the point of saving grace, we are called to live deeper into the righteousness of Christ, allowing our heart of stone to be replaced by a heart of flesh. The new authority inside of us commands us, not our old ways, and all that happens through a relationship we develop with God and a faith He fully implements in our lives through His Holy Spirit.
Every time I take the bread and the juice, I experience what Christ did for me. The forgiveness inside of me from Christ forges the forgiveness I give to others and the peace that comes from that. I am convicted that I need to live deeper into Christ at every opportunity in that encounter with God’s grace. It’s a wake-up call that I cannot do life alone. You and I? We need God, and we all need each other. It starts with God and flows out from us like a trickle at first, then deepening, and turning into a mighty river that feeds abundance into the lives of other people. That’s not flowery prose, that’s Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 47, and it is a foundational prophecy regarding God’s relationship with us and how that impacts the people around us.
Keep a watchful eye
There’s something to guard against here, as we are prone to idolatry. What can happen is that we look to one another for that strength, but don’t look to God as much. Twentieth century evangelist Paris Reidhead said, “Most Christians do not have fellowship with God; they have fellowship with each other about God.” Don’t mishear me, fellowship about God is essential. Christian conversation, talking about our faith testimony, what God has done for us, through us and with us lately is a key communion act. Talking about how God has blessed us and especially how God has humbled us is crucial. But fellowship with God is the end goal as well as the starting point.
It’s almost as difficult to balance that as it was for Paul to balance loving reconciliation with obedient accountability. On one side of the street, grace and the law sound a little discordant on the surface. Grace is forgiving everything, and the law is accounting for everything. Would you be surprised to find that they’re actually part of the same thing? Christ came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The law was given to us based on love, to be interpreted out of love, and followed out of it, based on communion with the God of love.
The law is the love of God enabled through the God of love.
When we take God out of that equation, by lacking in our communion with Him, the law becomes the law of condemnation, something entirely different from love. Human condemnation via the law leads to division, disunity, hatred of others, hatred of self, destruction, and a whole lot of Corinthian church-sized problems. The law God brought, came fully-equipped with forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy, true justice, broken oppression, full hearts, and healed souls. It carries a cost, as Christ said when he noted that his yoke did indeed have a burden, no matter how light. That cost is you have to not just exist beside God here on earth, but be immersed in God.
We can approach Christ on the surface, but until we get so deep in his Holy Spirit that we have him under our fingernails, in our nostrils and lungs, coursing through our veins, we will struggle to bear with one another’s burdens. That love based in the Holy Spirit is an authoritative source of fuel to reignite our church through the “more perfect way” found in the love of God. His passion for us spills over into our love of one another. Is that the Hallmark of the church? And if we think it is, could we improve on that even more?
Communion with God is a way for us to step outside of ourselves and into God. Our strength is so lacking that without God, we’ll never break down the barriers necessary to bring revival in our selves, let alone in our community. Communion carries a spark to reignition. That same spark was evident 50 days after Christ’s resurrection at Pentecost. If we want revival in our church, in our community, then we have to reignite our hearts by opening them to God.
Thomas Fuller said a long time ago that, “Some men, like a tiled house, are long before they take fire, but once on flame there is no coming near to quench them.” This is the type of reignition our church needs, and the match is found in the hand of God. When it truly strikes our soul, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, everything becomes a brand new blaze. The question we face is this. Are we experiencing a communion with God that makes ignition of that sort of fire possible? And if not, what are we going to do about it?
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.