The Cross: Power Made Perfect in Weakness

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Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:5-1
Matthew 21:1-11
April 17, 2011

True strength does not aim to make others weak, but works to strengthen others. And this boy had it. He didn’t think of himself as strong, because he was deeply aware of his many weaknesses. But out of those weaknesses came true strength that had the power to brighten the lives of others.

The two great scenes that dominate today’s service — Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion a few days later — speak to us about power. But it’s not easy to figure out what they’re saying. That’s because true power is a difficult thing for us to grasp.

For 14 years I taught just across the river at Mary Stark Elementary School. I remember one spring day the final year I taught there, I was standing outside after school when I turned just in time to see a 6th grade boy hit another boy in the face. Before I could even raise my voice, the 2nd boy returned the favor and struck the 1st boy, also right in the face.

At that point, with boys red in the face and eyes welling with tears, I intervened. They were brought into the school and had to face consequences they didn’t care for.

Observing and working with students over the years, I have thought a lot about strength. I have considered: “What is true strength?” What difference does true strength, or the lack of it, make in the life of a child on his/her way to becoming an adult. I have also seen that kids think about strength as well. And it is clear to me that, very often, their ideas are completely wrong.

Those two boys who punched each other in the face… it was clear that they wanted people to see them as tough. They always made an effort to show their toughness and strength. They would talk or joke about fights — either past or potential future ones. They would try to intimidate and threaten other students. They worked at creating this image of themselves as tough… someone not to be messed with. They did this in order to create respect in other students and to establish themselves as “top dogs.”

The irony was that while these two spent all that time and energy trying to demonstrate power, in truth they always end up wallowing in weakness.

They demonstrated their weakness every time they fell apart when they came up against difficulty. If they thought someone insulted them… if they couldn’t get their way, if they got frustrated…. They would lose control, act out and land in trouble.

And then. Once they found themselves in trouble because of what they had done, they would demonstrate weakness again by denying responsibility for their actions. They would blame others for their behavior. For example, the one boy blamed the other for hitting him first; the 2nd boy blamed the other for provoking him.

Of course, when we blame others for our actions, we declare that others control us. One of the most basic qualities of strength is knowing that we are responsible for choosing our own actions… we control our own behavior.

The third way in which these two boys’ weakness was continually demonstrated was as they sat before the principle and their parents, listening passively to what was going to happen to them. They would be separated from the class and sit alone somewhere for a few days. In other words, they lost their freedom to be with others, to be regarded as students capable of managing their lives and being among their peers.

These two boys believed they understood strength. They wanted to convince others they possessed it. But what they believed was strength was really weakness that will handicap them always if they don’t somehow wake up and see things (see themselves) as they really are.

In today’s Palm Sunday Gospel, we hear that Jesus was hailed as a king when he entered Jerusalem. He was seen as someone who possessed power. These people who were cheering Jesus didn’t know him. This was Jesus’ first trip to the great city. But they had heard about him and on the basis of what they had heard, and on the basis of what they believed they knew about power and kingly might, they had formed their own clear ideas about who Jesus was and how he was going to act once he had come to the city.

But their ideas about power were wrong. Jesus didn’t turn out to be the “alpha dog” they expected to see. He didn’t grab power, throw his weight around and drive off the bully Romans. Rather, he was betrayed, abandoned, and humiliated. He was beaten and executed. How is that strength? How is that power befitting a king?

Every year, I also have students who are just the opposite of those self-imagined “tough boys.” They are not good-looking or athletic or popular or particularly bright. If my students should rank their classmates according to their strength and power. I’m completely certain that all would place these kids at the bottom.

And yet they would be wrong. I remember a few years ago, one of these boys gave me a vivid demonstration of strength that I’ll never forget.

This boy was quiet, and avoided attention; but he was usually happy, helpful, and considerate, and so he worked well with others. He was not terribly bright, but he work hard and got C’s (and was satisfied with that). Sometimes he was insulted by other students, or was treated badly. But when that happened, he didn’t fall apart. Sure, he felt bad, but he could take it. He’d learned he had to. Life is a tough place. He didn’t throw a fit, or a punch. His mother didn’t have to be called in to hear an account of his behavior. He didn’t have to be separated from the other kids. His world rolled on in one piece. All that demonstrates real strength.

Then one day, the students were allowed to play various board games during the morning. This boy was playing a game with a couple of other students. A girl — a quiet, not popular girl — came over and began watching. The game was already underway and couldn’t take a new player, but this boy invited her to play as his partner. The game involved drawing cards, rolling dice, plotting strategy and deciding on moves. He split up these tasks with her.

The boy cheered her for a good move or a good throw; encouraged her when she made a bad move or a bad throw. Because of him, the girl (who had been left out of all the other games going on in the room) had great fun. And that is a profound demonstration of true strength… though the boy himself was totally unaware of it.

True strength does not aim to make others weak, but works to strengthen others. And this boy had it. He didn’t think of himself as strong, because he was deeply aware of his many weaknesses. But out of those weaknesses came true strength that had the power to brighten the lives of others.

These three students of mine reveal a very important truth: Real strength (true power) lies hidden from the world.

This is one of the most important lessons/truths conveyed by the cross. We see in Christ that the power of God works in weakness. And we see that what the world perceives as weakness, God shows us is strength.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians — our 2nd lesson today — proclaims this fundamental truth of the cross. “Though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

And Paul calls on all Christians to let their whole lives be transformed by this truth. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he writes.

Jesus died so that we might be free…. Free from sin and death; but free also from our self-destructive ideas about strength and power, which, in fact, lie at the very heart of our whole “bondage to sin” problem.

We are nearing the end of our lenten journey which has been leading us to the cross of Jesus. So now, when we look at the cross, we must be sure that our eyes are truly open so that we can finally see what confounds the whole world.

True power and strength lie hidden in weakness. Why? Because that is simply the nature of those gif
ts of God which give true strength to life.

True strength does not seek to control others, to force its own way, to intimidate or bully others. That is fear… and that is weakness. Rather, it is the nature of true strength to give power away, to feed and strengthen others, to have no interest in control or force or winning, but only in sharing freely with others the gifts of life it possesses. It is not strength if it doesn’t do these things.

Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

As Christians… as followers of the crucified one, we are supposed to see things differently than the world. We should live differently. This truth about power and strength, which is one of God’s gifts to us through the cross, should live in our hearts and be reflected in our lives.

We should be people who are not fooled by the world’s attraction to and obsession with false power. We do not admire or fear bullies. We do not admire people because they are popular, or deemed “cool.” We do not believe that money or fame are signs of power or greatness. Rather we trust in God’s promise to be our strength in weakness; and we know and value that true strength as we see it in ourselves and in others.

We strive to live by the words God gave to his apostle Paul: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

My 2 boys in trouble at Mary Stark were gravely mistaken about strength. If they stubbornly cling to their mistaken beliefs, they will wallow in weakness their whole lives. They will fail to manage their lives. They will be unable to take care of themselves, and most certainly, anyone else. Like their own fathers, they will, one day, fail completely to be true partners for their wives or true sources of strength for their children.

There are those, however, like that third boy, who can teach us the truth of the cross. True strength is hidden in weakness. It flows from a heart that can show mercy and kindness. These gifts are given to us through the cross. May our hearts be prepared to receive them.


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