The weakness in virtue, the virtue in weakness
The hallmark of an apostle is found not in strength but in weakness, says J. Warren Smith.
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached May 11, 2010, at a summer field education commissioning service at Duke Divinity School.
Every seminary has its buzzwords, those terms or phrases that express certain ideas or ideals so central to an institution’s identity that they become mantras. Of all the words, one has a privileged place in the Duke Divinity lexicon: “virtue.” It would be hard to be on Duke campus a single week without hearing someone pontificate on the subject of virtue. In church history and Christian ethics, you are taught that “the virtues” -- prudence, courage, moderation and justice -- are habits of excellence in thought and action, cultivated by sheer repetition until they become second nature, and our way of being in the world is transformed into an image of the God who is the source of all virtues.
“Virtue” also denotes a power or strength or potency that produces an effect. As Aquinas explained, the virtues enable us to coordinate our perceptions, our rational judgment and our will to allow us to do the good that we know we should. But not only have you been taught about the virtues; you are being formed in virtue for faithful ministry. By imitating the intellectual and spiritual disciplines of scholars and holy people through the ages, you are cultivating the habits necessary to be a lifelong teacher of God’s word.
Yes, your virtue matters, and it will make a difference in your ministry. Without such virtues, how can anyone hope to lead God’s people and build up Christ’s body? But however important your virtues are for ministry this summer, the gospel I bring you this afternoon is not a eulogy for virtue. I do not come to praise the power of your knowledge or perseverance or patience. On the contrary, this is a eulogy for weakness. You see, whatever you contribute in your ministry this summer, its source is not your strength or your virtue or your excellence, but its source is your weakness. For as Paul tells the Corinthians, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now whenever I hear such words in Scripture, I hear two other voices: the first, Frederick Nietzsche; the second, L. Gregory Jones. In the one ear, Nietzsche is saying, “How typical of those Christians, especially the clergy. They are weak and cannot be anything but weaklings. So they make a virtue out of necessity, constructing a moral system that glorifies weakness in order to exert their will to power over the truly strong and virtuous.” In the other ear, Jones’ words are not far from Nietzsche’s. Jones is warning against ministerial mediocrity that masquerades as piety under the mask of humility. He’s right. God knows the church has endured enough from those who are self-righteous about their weaknesses. We all know of congregations that have suffered spiritual malnutrition at the hands of sincere but mediocre clergy. But the weakness that Paul praises, the weakness that is his strength, is not the weakness Nietzsche and Jones rightly decry: being lethargic, neglectful or unreflective.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul is defending his authority against attacks of false apostles. They have come to Corinth proclaiming a picture of Jesus that is at variance with the gospel the Corinthians first heard from Paul and in which they believed and placed their trust for salvation. So to establish their own authority, the usurping apostles spread ad hominem insinuations. His letters, they say, are weighty and strong, but when you see Paul in the flesh, he’s not so impressive. And when you hear him preach, his speech is weak and of no special merit, and you see him for the fool he is. So Paul responds, in so many words, “If you take me for a fool, then I’ll play the fool. What does a fool do? He boasts. (Exactly what the false apostles have been doing.) So I will boast, matching the false prophets boast for boast. They claim to be sons of Abraham; so am I. They claim to be servants of Christ; so am I -- and hear how much I’ve suffered in Christ’s service.” Then he says, “If you think I am weak and a fool, I’ll show you just how foolish I am. I’ll boast, not of my strength, but of my weakness.” For only a fool would boast of weakness.
Paul keeps the details of his weakness strictly between himself and the Almighty. He speaks of it only cryptically, as “the thorn in [his] flesh.” Whatever the thorn was, Paul is able to boast of this weakness because this thorn in his flesh turns out to be a blessing. For when he beseeches God three times to take it from him, Paul receives Christ’s word of comfort: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is perfected in weakness.” When Paul boasts of his weakness, he has turned the false apostles’ criticism against them. For the hallmark of a true apostle is found, not in his strength, but in his weakness.