Christianity is apparently ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children.’ (cf. Celsus quoted in Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59) You would be forgiven if thought these were the words of Richard Dawkins, or some other New Atheist critic of Christianity. They are in fact a paraphrase of the pagan philosopher Celsus, written around ad 175. This line of argument is something Christians have had to counter for over 1800 years.
It is not true, and it relies upon the idea that the weak are somehow worse than the strong. It’s familiar from the writings of Nietzsche and others. The culture around us despises the weak. You want to be strong. Strength is good. Sadly strength is fleeting: we are not born strong, nor do we die strong. Strength comes and goes. And none of us is as strong as we think we are, or might like to be. The simple fact is that we are weak, and that’s OK. Our human weakness is not something terrible, it is simply how we are, and reminds us that we are relational beings, we exist in relationship with others, and need to rely upon the help and support of others, and primarily God.
Jesus begins the Gospel this morning by reiterating his teaching which we heard last week. He stresses the importance of His Death and Resurrection as the culmination of His earthly ministry. The disciples are bewildered and afraid. They cannot understand or appreciate what Jesus is saying to them. They love Jesus, and have seen Him do wonderful things: heal the sick, feed the hungry, and even walk on water. They have seen scripture fulfilled, but cannot yet understand where it is all pointing: to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Instead they fall back on that very human desire, to form a pecking order, to know who is the greatest of the disciples.
Rather than telling the disciples off for being childish, Jesus teaches them that, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mk 9 35 ESV) He then takes a child and says, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’ (Mk 9 37 ESV) Children aren’t high up in the pecking order, they don’t know everything, and are dependant on their family. Jesus is proposing something of a revolution, turning human values on their head. The Incarnate Word of God will wash His disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. He embodies servant leadership, he doesn’t lord it over people. The ways of the Kingdom of God and this world are opposed to each other. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love.
As St Paul says in the opening Chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. (1Cor 1:25) It is a paradox. This paradox is made apparent on the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, and heal our wounded souls and restore broken humanity. It is part of the Mystery of the Cross, the mystery of God’s love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, this is the supreme demonstration of LOVE, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile humanity. It is, with Christ’s Resurrection, the centre of our faith.
The ways of the world can be found in the first reading this morning, from the Book of Wisdom, they point forward to Christ’s suffering and death. Christ is condemned to a ‘shameful death’ so that through it God might demonstrate His LOVE to the world.
Love can only be offered. It can be accepted or rejected, and it lies at the heart of any relationship. God gives Himself to us so that we might live in Him. He gives Himself today under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that might feast on His Body and Blood, and have life in Him. He offers himself to us, so that we might share in His Death and Risen Life. Love is vulnerable, and its vulnerability is most evident on the Cross, where Christ opens his arms to embrace the world in love.
Christ’s life on earth ends as it begins: He is naked and vulnerable. God’s weakness truly is stronger than human strength because it is the only thing which can truly change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. Nothing else can. Without it we are condemned to the ways of selfishness and sin, which characterise so much of the world around us. The church is not immune as it is made up of frail, sinful human beings, just like you and me. We need God to be at work in our lives, to transform us more and more into His image. Recognising our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us, and recognising this is a sign of humility, that we know our need of God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite.
We know that we have a problem, which we are unable to solve on our own. In His love and mercy, God sends His only Son to be born for us, to live and die for us, and rise again for us. He gives us His Body and Blood as a pledge and token of our future hope, to heal us and restore us, so that we might become what He is. In this we share in Christ’s suffering, as to follow Christ is to follow the Way of the Cross, a hard road, but one which leads to the joy of Easter, and New Life in Christ. We are transformed through LOVE and SUFFERING, a journey which starts with child-like trust in the God who LOVES us. It starts with humility, knowing our need of God, and trust in a God who loves us, and who can transform us.
So my brothers and sisters, let us come to Him, trusting Him to be at work in our lives, filling us with His Love, sharing His suffering, pouring out His Grace upon us. Let us stay close to Him: nourished by His Word, the Bible, and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, where we receive a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, our food for the journey of faith, transforming us into His Divine likeness, strengthening us to live out our faith through acts of loving service, putting our faith into practice so that the world around us may repent of its foolish ways , and come to know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.