"The Power of the Weakest Link"

January 21, 1996 message
preached at Long Green Baptist Church
(as part of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - community pulpit exchange)
based upon 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," so the old adage says.

Over 15 years ago, I was a counselor at a camp for mentally handicapped children. One of my kids, Kevin, was autistic - that is, he didn't overtly communicate with anyone. His face was like a blank slate. Nobody could know what was going on inside his head.

One night, he left the cabin and didn't return. We figured maybe he got lost on the way back from the bathroom. The next morning, after a group prayer, we started an organized search. Overhearing another child speak of seeing Kevin go past his window, I continued that path from the bathroom. Through briars, across a stream, and into the woods, I followed that line until I came to a field of boulders. In it's middle was a bush, under which I thought I saw something. There was Kevin, a little scared but unhurt. Though he covered a half-mile of rugged terrain in bare feet and no shirt, there was not a single scratch on him.

Kevin couldn't talk about his experience. Yet as I carried him back to the lodge, I learned from him a little about how God loves and cares for me/us; how God empowers the powerless; how the "nobodies" in life are not really "nobodies;" how the "weakest links" aren't necessarily thus. How did Kevin communicate this? Well, when it comes down to it, I can't really say. All I know is that this autistic child "spoke to me" (if you will) more clearly that a 1,000 sermons.

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," so the old adage says.

Over a century ago, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a critic of Christianity, wrote: "The sick are the greatest danger for the healthy; it is not from the strongest that harm comes to the strong, but from the weakest." (Genealogy of Morals, essay 3, aphorism 14, 1887) In the church of Jesus Christ he saw a philosphy built on weakness, a stumbling block to the development of humankind. Nietzche's writings have had a remarkable influence upon this century. Some have taken his words an extra step by seeking to remove the sickest and the weakest. After all, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." An interesting sidenote to the quote I just shared: a year after his words were published, Nietzche was declared hopelessly insane....

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote the believers in Corinth that "the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1:18) He said "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1:25)

Furthermore, Paul wrote, "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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are..." (1:27-28) Apparently, at least as the apostle saw things, there is power in what seems to be "the weakest link" in life.

In that wonderful chapter in 1 Corinthians on the "Gifts the Spirit," where Paul describes how God blesses the body of Christ, the church, with exactly what it needs to meet the demands of the day - no more, no less (like the Manna in the wilderness); in chapter 12 he writes: "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another." (12:22-25)

I suggest to you that this lifting up of the weaker and less honorable, less respectable parts of the body is not merely a matter of democracy in action, that is: treating everybody equally so that nobody gets upset. Oftentimes, that's how we operate in the church, isn't it, trying not to ruffle anyone's feathers, trying to avoid conflict, seeking to please as many folks as we can. While there may be some wisdom in this course of action, I don't believe that's what Paul meant. Instead, he was saying that God is intentional in arranging this body of Christ, such that those parts that are weak, less honorable, less respectable are really, in God's eyes (and hopefully in our own, as we seek the mind of Christ), indispensable, of greater honor and respect.

In our congregation, there is a family which, from a worldly perspective, might be seen as a "ship of fools." Clinically, they are about as dysfunctional as you can get. Their home is as messy as their inter-relationships. They lack even some of the most rudimentary of social graces. In other words, the temptation is to be embarrassed by these good-hearted folks. But, you know, in the past two years (especially) they have proven to be an indispensable part of our fellowship. When cancer was first diagnosed in the mother, our church surrounded them with care. Now, at first, our giving to them was what I might call paternalistic. That is, we - the strong ones, saw ourselves as helping these unfortunates - the weak ones. However, God performed a miracle.

Yes, her cancer went into remission, but that's not the biggest miracle. No, God started changing the rest of us, so that we saw this family with new eyes. Personally speaking, where before I felt like these folks were always taking, for instance the mother insisting on a kiss from me every Sunday ("me" - who wasn't raised in a "huggy-touchy" family); God changed me such that now I freely give this sister-in-Christ a kiss whenever I see her. Without this family we would be much weaker. Though we have expended alot of energy upon them, we have received much more from God in return. They are indispensable. Does that make sense to you?

What is the message of the cross, my friends, what is this gospel we share? Does it not have something to do with, first of all, the recognition of our own weakness, that all of us have sinned and fallen short? None of us can lay claim to being the strongest, not one. And yet, (here's the wonderful part of the message, why it is "good" news), in God our weakness becomes his strength. God saves us, empowers us, and leads us. None of us is a throw-away, a nobody. No one in Christ is powerless. There is power in the seemingly weakest link, God's power.

Lest we be tempted to wrongly understand this power, it might be wise to remember the following words of Paul, from his 2nd letter to the believers in Corinth. Discussing a personal "thorn in the flesh," a weakness on his part which God would not take away, he wrote: "(The Lord) said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (12:9-10)

This applies to each of us, personally. It also applies to us as a body, a congregation of Christ's disciples. Remember, those parts which seem weaker, less honorable, less respectable, may be the very persons through whom God is working most mightily. Not only does this truth pertain to this church, as well as your Brethren friends down the road, it concerns the larger church of Christ as well.

Earlier in this century, the Church of the Brethren took the gospel overseas, just like the Baptists and many others. One thing we have discovered in the years since is that these mission churches, once perceived as weaker parts of the body, are now vibrant and, perhaps, more alive in Christ that their parent denomination. From Nigeria, from the West Indies, from Asia, missionaries are coming to America. From what I understand, this is not a development limited to the Brethren. It's sort of how God works. What appears to be weakest in our eyes, God makes indispensable and uses for his glory. I'm excited to see what's going to happen. Are you?

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," so the old adage says. The church of Jesus Christ, which is bigger than our Baptist, Brethren, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian (etc.) boundaries, is like a chain which links together believers around the world. We may be tempted to consider certain Christians (far away or nearby) as weaker links in this chain. Let me remind you once more, however, that there is power in even the weakest link, a power that can transform the world....

Henri Nouwen writes of his experience as a priest in a home for mentally handicapped people, a Christian community called L'Arche. Part of his work is to care for Adam, "a 25 year old man who cannot speak, dress himself, walk or eat without help. His back is curved, & his arm and leg movements are spastic. He suffers from severe epilepsy, and even with heavy medication he has few days without grand mal seizures."

Even so, Adam (on the surface a very weak link) was indispenable, for he strengthened his community through his very presence. "Adam is one of the most broken persons among us," writes Henri, "but without any doubt (he is) our strongest bond. "Because of Adam there is always someone home; because of Adam there is a quiet rhythm to the house; because of Adam there are moments of silence; because of Adam there are always words of affection & tenderness; because of Adam there is patience and endurance; because of Adam there are smiles and tears visible to all; because of Adam there is always time and space for forgiveness and healing. Yes, because of Adam there is peace among us." (Reader's Digest, 1/90, p.114-115)

You know, "a chain IS only as strong as its weakest link." In the body of Christ, though, there's power in that weakest link.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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