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Of Braggarts and Boasters

 

Jeremiah 9:23-34            2nd Corinthians 12:1-10               Matthew 20:20-28

 

I: — We do our best to avoid them just because we find them obnoxious. The boasters, I mean; the braggarts, the blowers. They are always blowing. We are in the middle of a worthwhile conversation when the blower spots the group and swaggers over, uninvited. (Offense #1) He “horns in” and eavesdrops on what is simply none of his business. (Offense #2) Then he butts into the conversation and takes it over, monopolizes it. Now the conversation is merely a monologue that features him. (Offense #3) You’ve been to South America ? He’s been farther south than that: Antarctica . In July, no less. (July is the dead of winter in Antarctica , in case you didn’t know.) Your daughter is graduating from university? His daughter has just been awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at a real university. You have spoken to the local bank manager about a household loan? Only yesterday he was speaking to the president of True Blue Securities – “Just to check up on the off-shore portion of my medium risk part of my investment portfolio.”

The man is a pain-in-the-neck. We find him to be an irritant. Disciples of Jesus, however, regard him much more seriously and see him as much more sinister. Disciples of Jesus, we understand, have grasped how serious and sinister boasting is and why.

In Romans 1 the apostle Paul lists the human vices evident in men and women who share in the world’s corruption. He speaks of fallen humankind as envious, murderous, quarrelsome, heartless, faithless, ruthless, abusive of parents, slanderous (it sounds dreadful, doesn’t it) and boastful.   Is boasting really in the same league as cruelty and slander and faithlessness and parent-abuse? The apostle thinks it is.

In his second letter to Timothy Paul does it again: “Lovers of self, lovers of money, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, boasters – holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” Then he adds the clincher: “Avoid such people.” We are to avoid them before they corrupt us. Lest we think Paul is ridiculous in being upset over bragging we should hear from James, brother of our Lord himself. James says, “You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

Evil? To be sure, boasting is annoying; it’s offensive. But evil? It’s evil just because it ruins discipleship. Jesus insisted that his disciples reject all titles of honour and all positions of privilege. Titles of honour and positions of privilege twist our thinking and shrivel our heart. Titles of honour and positions of privilege invariably lead to bragging, to inflated superiority, to pomposity. Titles of honour and positions of privilege invariably cause us to disdain those who don’t have titles of honour and positions of privilege. Quite simply, the disciple who has begun to brag is making herself useless to the kingdom of God . After all, Jesus washed feet. John Wesley ate with the poorest people he knew and ate the same food as they. Robert McClure, missionary surgeon all his working life, told a highschool graduating class in Mississauga (I had been asked to go along to pray) that throughout his missionary service in India he’d ridden the Third Class section of the train. He laughingly told the teenagers and their parents that he’d done this for two reasons: one, there wasn’t a Fourth Class; two, he had noticed that the Third Class section of the train travelled at the same speed as the First Class.

Scripture includes bragging in its recitation of wickedness for one reason: bragging is the self-advertisement of the person who has come to despise the way of discipleship, since discipleship entails foot washing and other forms of uncomplaining service. Bragging is the self-advertisement of someone who prefers the company of the self-important, the so-called superior. Jesus insists we are to walk the Way of discipleship with him. Boasters don’t like to walk; they prefer to strut.

The apostles, not merely James and Paul whom we’ve mentioned today but all of them together; the apostles, like the Lord they love, see a stark “either/or” where we prefer to see gradations. The either/or they put before us is as stark as any: either we follow Jesus on the Way of self-forgetful service or we brag. Is there nothing in between? They think not. Our Lord thinks not.

 

II: — Then why does Paul, who condemns boasting, also speak of a kind of boasting, a different sort of boasting, that he believes to be good? Translators of the bible, aware that we might be confused to read of both a boasting that is condemned because evil and a boasting that is commended because good, often translate boasting in the good sense by the English word “glorying.” Where the Greek text tells us that Paul boasts of the congregations under his care, modern English translations tell us that he glories in these congregations. He glories in these congregations for one reason: God is manifestly at work in them. God is doing something in them. Paul glories not in himself (this would be boasting in the reprehensible sense) but in God’s work among the people Paul loves.

On another occasion Paul cries, “It’s necessary that I boast; I must boast.” But then he doesn’t start blowing about himself. Just the opposite. So moved is he at the manifest working of God in the people he cherishes that he must glory in, he’s impelled to glory in, the goodness and grace of God. He feels he must publicly extol God and praise God for God’s patience with fractious people; praise God for God’s perseverance amidst obstreperous people; praise God for God’s penetration of stony hearts otherwise impenetrable – all of which eventually redounds to the praise of God’s glory. This is what the apostle means when he speaks of boasting in the good sense, “boasting in the Lord.”

Then he brings it closer to home. He must boast of, glory in, where God is most at work in his own life. And where is God most at work in his own life?   In Paul’s weakness. It is Paul’s weakness that God has taken up and used most wonderfully. “If I’m going to boast at all,” he says, “I’m going to boast of, glory in, my weakness, for it’s precisely here that God works most effectively.”

If we were asked right now where we thought God was most at work in our life or had been most at work, where we thought we could most clearly see the hand of God tellingly at work, almost certainly we’d mention something positive: the new job we landed with a large raise, the scholarship our teenager won, the international athletic recognition our daughter finally gained, the good fortune (as it were) that turned up when we least expected it. Would it ever occur to any of us to name something negative, something painful, something confusing, even un-understandable? Would it occur to us to name a “downer,” a real “downer,” adding that we were certain God was especially effective here, in the “pits” of our life?

Paul tells us he boasts of his weakness, glories in his weakness. What’s his weakness? We don’t know for sure. We do know that he was a poor public speaker. He was so very ineloquent, in fact, that the congregation in Corinth laughed at him. His public addresses were devoid of rhetorical smoothness and polish and flourishes. Hearers snickered. As for his physique, not even the costliest fitness club could have done anything for him. When the Corinthian Christians saw the bow-legged, pint-sized man from Tarsus they laughed. (As Christians, of course, they shouldn’t have been laughing at any human being. But then the Corinthian Christians, we all know, were immature and shallow.) Paul, needless to say, would never be called to a prominent pulpit today. In fact he wouldn’t be called to any pulpit.)

Even though his speech and physique were laughable, there was something about Paul that the Corinthian Christians didn’t laugh at just because they craved it for themselves: his vivid, ever-so-vivid, psychedelic religious experience. It had been graphic, intense, striking. It had stamped itself upon him so memorably that he would never be able to forget it. “Caught up to the third heaven” is how he speaks of it. It had been an experience of such consummate intensity and intimacy and weight that no word could describe it or come close to it. When asked about it Paul could barely croak, “I heard things that cannot be told; I saw what may not be uttered.”

Myself, I have had a psychedelic experience only once. It was drug-induced. After I had been given a narcotic several times to reduce pain (this on a physician’s order,) the cumulative effect of the narcotic overtook me. Not only was I in no pain, on this particular night in hospital I was euphoric. I floated. Better than that, I flew. Better still, I soared; I soared to regions and reaches that I haven’t visited since. (Obviously I’ve never forgotten the experience.) As a result of his apprehension at the hand of Jesus Christ Paul had undergone something even more vivid – without narcotics. He could have bragged about it before the congregation in Corinth , since those people admired anyone who had been on such a “trip.” Yet before these shallow people the apostle glories in one matter only: his weakness. He knows it’s at the point of his weakness – whatever it is – that the power of the Spirit rests upon him. As he continues to glory in his weakness (boast of this) he continues to hear God speak to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, since my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

 

III: — Then it’s at precisely the point of your weakness and mine that God is going to work most effectively. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we Christians are aware that God did his most effective work precisely where, from a human perspective, he couldn’t do anything. God did his mightiest work, his “all-mightiest” work (he reconciled a wayward world to himself) precisely where, in the person of his Son, he was utterly helpless. Who, we must consider soberly, who is weaker, more helpless, and therefore more useless apparently, than a beaten-up man unable so much as to wriggle while he dies between two terrorists at the edge of the city garbage dump? In the days prior to this event Jesus had insisted that the moment of his glory – his glory, no less – (I’m speaking still of the cross) was upon him. Then we too must learn to glory in our weakness, for it is here that the power of Christ rests upon us.

When you had that nervous breakdown and your family (understandably) tried to protect you, and tried to cover up their own embarrassment by calling it something else; when you had that breakdown (I know, the mere memory of it is hideous,) it wasn’t an episode in which God deserted you or you had fallen out of his favour. It wasn’t a sign of unbelief or diminished faith. It was a period of weakness in which the power of Christ continued to rest upon you regardless of how you felt. What’s more, at the point of your weakness (hideous as it was to you then) others saw a vulnerability in you, even a humanness, that they hadn’t seen before. Seeing it in you freed them to admit their own vulnerability and fragility and frailty and weakness. Being freed to admit it in themselves (that is, freed from their illusion of superiority) was a work of grace. And no longer feeling guilty about their own weakness was another work of grace.

A minister told me he went to sit with parishioners whose child had just been crushed by an automobile. As soon as he was admitted to the home his carefully rehearsed palaver deserted him. He found himself crying uncontrollably. That was all he could do. He had nothing to say. (Of course a minister who finds himself with nothing to say feels useless, since ministers often think they make their living with their mouth.) He told me he felt stupid crying like that; felt inept, and felt most unprofessional. After all, aren’t ministers accustomed to dealing with this sort of thing? Months later the parents told him his very helplessness was their greatest consolation. (In fact, had he uttered his carefully worked out palaver, from a position of strength, he would have been asked to leave.)

At one time a friend of mine was the chaplain at Maplehurst Prison, in Milton . Maplehurst, like all medium-security jails in Ontario , has been upgraded to maximum security. More electronic locks and more razor wire. It houses 400 convicts. Their average age? Twenty-two. My friend was leading a workshop aimed at equipping church people as prison visitors. She was relating the suffering servant motif of Isaiah 53 to the men she sees every day in prison. You recall Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected, one from whom people hide their faces…we esteemed him not.” My friend isn’t naïve: she doesn’t pretend that men are in prison for no reason at all. They have offended, and the society-at-large has recognized their offence and reacted to it. These men have rent the social fabric; many have wounded others. The point my friend was trying to have church visitor-trainees understand was this: before the convict lands in prison for damaging something or someone, he is a frightfully wounded person himself. Long before he violates someone else, he’s been violated repeatedly himself. My friend was trying to have church folk see that in drawing near to these convicts who are despised and rejected and unesteemed we ourselves become acquainted with the presence and power and healing of God.

When she had concluded her workshop she felt she had failed. She wandered off into a corner of the church hall by herself, overcome. (Subsequently she told me that for years she has felt futile, unable to convey adequately to people like you and me the extent to which convicts, dear to her, are victims themselves before they ever victimize anyone else.) Weeks later, when we leaders of the event read the evaluation sheets, we discovered that her presentation had been moving, effective, beyond all appearances. It is always upon our weakness (or what we perceive to be our weakness) that the power of Christ rests.

 

Today I have mentioned several instances where people who were embarrassed by their weakness, even humiliated by it, were yet able eventually to see how, and how fruitfully, the power of Christ rested upon their weakness. What about those instances where no less weakness is evident in us but we haven’t seen how, let alone how fruitfully, Christ’s power rests upon us? Here all we can do is trust God for what we haven’t yet seen as surely as we cannot deny what we have already seen.

And so when our teenager runs off the rails and we are powerless over the development, and powerless again over our humiliation arising from it; when we are given the pink slip and the not-so-golden handshake at work and all we can do is rage uselessly about it; when…. You fill in the rest from your own experience. Even then we are going to trust the God who did his most effective work precisely when his own son was most helpless, most humiliated, most useless and most in pain.

 

We began today by recalling not merely how offensive bragging is, but also how dangerous it is. For bragging or boasting is the self-advertisement of those who scorn the self-forgetfulness of discipleship. In addition, braggarts always deny their own weakness and despise the weakness they see in others.

And yet Paul says we are to boast. We are to “boast in the Lord.” We are to glory in God’s activity within us and his power attending us. We are even to boast of or glory in our weakness, for it is here that God will use us more effectively than we have ever imagined. So reads the gospel of the Crucified One.

 

                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

September 2004