I am very happy being part of the Anglican Church, but sometimes there are aspects of our life as a church that strike me as being unhelpful in making the gospel clear.
One of the things that comes over again and again in the teaching of Jesus is that the world’s way of power is not God’s way. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says to Pilate and in these words he is not referring to his Kingdom being “out of this world” which is the way many Christians take it. What he means is that the way of the EMPIRE – of power, force, oppression – was not his way. He proclaimed an alternative way that did not involve sucking up to people of power and influence. He found power in weakness.
Now we in the Anglican Church sometimes forget this. Because in Britain we were an “established” church the leaders of the church naturally rubbed shoulders with the King and politicians, and the church was filled with what we call “the Establishment”.
And we model our church life on structures of power. Bishops are described as “monarchical” by which we mean that whatever they say goes. When they write official documents like my License as your priest they use the “Royal ‘WE’”. We this is repeated in the structure of a parish. What I say as PP goes. I authorise musicians, Sunday School Teachers, Op Shop workers and the like – and I can stop any of them without needing a reason. These hierarchies of power are the same as we have in the world – monarchs, governors, presidents, prime ministers, premiers. Each uses their power to have what they want.
But the Kingdom of God is not about power – we get that very clearly from the story of Jesus as a powerless baby in our Christmas stories and as a defeated and crucified felon in our Easter stories. Nothing could be more powerless than these two images.
Paul is grappling with the same paradox in the passage we read from 2 Corinthians 12 today. Paul’s leadership or authority as an Apostle had been challenged by various people in and around Corinth. It seems they claimed to be closer to the Apostles in Jerusalem, that they did amazing signs and wonders and that Paul had done none of these things.
Paul uses this as an opportunity to teach the Corinthians something really important about the Way. He says that we shouldn’t boast like this.
He somehow learned that God’s power was most commonly found in our weaknesses. This was a great relief to him, because it meant that he could let people judge him very simply on what he said and what he did. The pathway of humility is the way of Christ.
Have any of you ever explored Christian meditation? This contemplative practice of seeking God in silence has helped many people in their spiritual journeys, but one thing I have noticed about the meditation communities is that they all seem to have their gurus or people who they look to for guidance because, presumably they do it well.
Gurus may be wonderful, but they can have a devastating effect on novices – it is almost universally the case that people struggle with meditation. Their minds focus on ridiculous things when they try to meditate. They can’t stop these thoughts intruding into the space and it is very easy to think they are an absolute failure because of the overwhelming feeling that “nothing happened.”
A man once told me a wonderful thing – perhaps we as a “guru” for me in that moment. He said to me “Every time I begin a meditation I think of myself as a beginner – that kills the expectation that something will happen. Then, when it does, it will be a surprise.”
Paul discovered that he needed a constant reminder of the need to be humble – to not get “puffed up with pride” as he says. And don’t you find it interesting that he is able to use something that he really doesn’t want – this thorn in the flesh that he had prayed to God three times to be free of – as a “messenger from Satan” that keeps him on the straight and narrow way.
This affliction could have been thought by many as a sign of weakness. We don’t know what it “really” was. I like to think of it as having the flexibility to be whatever it needed to be. So if Paul was among a bunch of people who were very, very smart philosophers then his affliction would be that he was rather incoherent. If he was among a group of people who were big on signs and wonders like healing or speaking in tongues, then perhaps this affliction was that he wasn’t healed, or that he couldn’t speak in tongues when he was with them.
Whatever it was, Paul thought of it as a weakness through which Christ’s power became all the more obvious – since whatever may have happened, it hadn’t been because Paul was powerful, smart, whatever. “My grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.” This little message he carried with him where ever he was.
So the thing I have been pondering all week is how do I keep reminding myself of this? And I am wondering it that is something you need to think about, too. How do you keep yourself relying on the wisdom and power of Christ, rather than your own smarts?
One thing I do know is this. When we all understand this together the Church is a very level place – not at all hierarchical. There is no room for celebrities or monarchs or gurus. We are all on a level playing field in this spiritual endeavour.