Rev. Adrianne Meier
February 6, 2022
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
What We Hide
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1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them— though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Several years ago, Stephen Colbert was interviewed by the New York Times. The Late Show was doing particularly well; it was mid-way through the Trump administration, which only seemed to help Colbert’s ratings. Late in the interview the topic of faith was raised, and, actually, it is an interesting question because the interviewer, David Marchese, first admits to wanting to avoid the question that so many others flock to, but then he asks Colbert to justify his religious faith as objectively different than the nationalism Colbert flatly rejects. Colbert admits that, for some people, nationalism and religious faith are not different, but, for him, nationalism is “indulging the audience’s appetites.” In contrast, he says, “Faith is different. Faith is not trying to change the world. Faith is not trying to change God. Faith isn’t trying to change the order of things. Faith isn’t trying to maintain your position. Faith isn’t trying to make less of the other. Faith is asking God to change you. You are the subject of God’s love, and in accepting that, you can transform yourself and release yourself of these appetites that are almost always at someone else’s expense.” St. Paul makes a similar argument to the Corinthians, claiming the Good News of Jesus Christ—the gospel—is not about amassing power for one’s self or being an orator of such great skill that you can sway others to your side. Rather, the good news is revealed in a cross, and it is preached in weakness to reveal the grace of God that bears it all.
In most of Paul’s letters, he generally arrives at a place where he is compelled, finally, to write not a list of instructions, but a clear rendering of the gospel. In today’s passage, you can imagine him rolling up his sleeves, measuring the problem. He’s answered all these questions, and now it is time to narrow all these answers to the point: to the gospel—to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And what Paul says is so simple: he says, the gospel I have to give you, I came to have—I came to understand it—in weakness and shame. Where, in Philippians, St. Paul lists his credentials and says, that he has come to regard them as rubbish, well, as a four-letter word that means something less valuable than “stuff;” here, St. Paul names his shame. That it was out of his shame that he came to be in possession of the good news. He persecuted the church. He is the very smallest of the apostles; the least worthy. But then…God’s grace.
And that is the gospel. The grace of God that bears it all. Paul writes, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.
In my first draft this week, I wrote out a story I had seen on Facebook, about a man who had suffered a stroke and whose daughter’s occupational therapy students had created a device for him to do something he longed to do—hug his family. It was a beautiful story. It would have made you cry. But, I realized, that is not the kind of weakness we’re talking about this week. That is a romanticized weakness. We love to see that first time a deaf child hears or the come-from-behind victory of an impoverished sports team. But, that is not really the kind of weakness St. Paul is talking about. St. Paul is talking about the weakness we hide. The part of ourselves that, whenever it sees the light of day, others around us are shocked, horrified, that this, too, is us. It is a past memory that we shove down, down, but which rears it head and again and again. It is truth about what we say to our families behind closed doors. It is our secret first thoughts that seem so opposite the work we’ve committed our lives to.
It isn’t only the personal stuff, either. It is our collective shame. It is the bodies of Indigenous children, buried in unmarked graves at “schools” we established for their assimilation. It is the neglect of black pastors and black churches by the whitest denomination in North America. It is the clergy we didn’t call because of who they were, regardless of the gifts they brought. This is our weakness. This is what makes us unfit to bear the gospel.
We cannot redeem these truths about ourselves. We cannot unbreak what we have broken. Our actions have consequences. We are not worthy to bear the gospel.
So where does that leave us, Beloved? Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.” We have measured ourselves against the gospel, and have discovered our every weakness. If our faith is not in vain, then we arrive at a single question: how will God’s grace transform our greatest shame, our biggest weakness for the sake of the gospel? How will God’s grace work through weakness to strengthen the weak? How will God’s grace work through brokenness to repair what is broken? How will God’s grace work through death to bring about new life?
We are not worthy to bear the gospel. We cannot undo our past, but we can seek forgiveness. We cannot unbreak what we have broken, but we can repair, restore, renew. We are unfit to bear the gospel, yet the gospel bears us up. It supports us our fragile humanity; it structures our lives and, if we let it, our understanding of ourselves. Because of grace, our measure isn’t in our worthiness, but our unworthiness; not in our strengths, but in our weaknesses. It isn’t that we’ve done so much, but that God’s grace has done so much for us.