Simon Peter denied Jesus three times; the Apostle Paul testified to a mysterious “thorn in the flesh” that even heartfelt prayer could not remove. St. Augustine cohabitated with a female “partner” for 15 years. They had a child together, yet he never bothered to tell us her name. Both Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila (age 67) and her Protestant nemesis John Calvin (age 54) died of 16th century tuberculosis.
Martin Luther died a raving anti-Semite. Baptist founder Thomas Helwys perished in a London prison around 1616. Quaker preacher Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston in 1660 for, well, being a Quaker preacher. Jonathan Edwards, theologian-sinner-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God, died from a smallpox vaccination shortly after becoming president of Princeton, 1758.
Thomas Merton, cloistered Trappist and evocative spiritual guide, had an affair with a nurse from Louisville. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, birthed a child out of wedlock. Lutheran scholar/pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered by Nazis for his anti-fascism. Beloved Baptist preacher Hardy Clemmons’ passing away this month was hastened by COVID-19.
As collective species and totally depraved (or at least partially totally depraved) individuals, we humans are all “beset by weakness,” the writer the book of Hebrews says (Hebrews 5:2), each with the potential to be innocent and conniving, brave and cowardly, wise and foolish, sick and well at any moment of our lives, vulnerable to a fault. If original sin haunts humanity, so does original weakness, born of conditions of our own creation, or beyond our control, or simply because that’s how life is. Like now.
“If original sin haunts humanity, so does original weakness, born of conditions of our own creation, or beyond our control, or simply because that’s how life is.”
In the year of our Lord 2020, we’re all are beset by global weakness, a planetary pandemic compelling us to acknowledge our shared corporeal vulnerability (13.1 million cases, 572,000 deaths), amid an ethical pandemic of ceaseless racism mirrored in race-related protests against enduring injustices worldwide.
And then there’s Jesus. The writer of Hebrews captures his role and our condition in powerful images, yet another biblical writer explaining how we can call a Palestinian carpenter/rabbi the Savior of the world, establishing the global significance of a crucified Nazarene. “He’s like a high priest,” Hebrews says, “one taken directly from the people” and “appointed their representative by God,” in order to offer “gifts and sacrifices” in response to those most basic human traits: sin and weakness.
Yet the chaos and uncertainties of our time — waiting around to catch COVID-19, mourning the loss of multitudes unknown and known, debating racism, the Confederacy, and where God might be in it all, sent me back to Hebrews’ description of Jesus as a peoples’ high priest “able to bear patiently with the ignorant and erring, since he too is beset by weakness.”
“Ignorance and error”? We’ve all had multiple cases of those inescapably mortal pandemics — besetting weaknesses that can mutate into malicious action with immoral consequences. We fall victim to choices we should never have made that carry us into places we wish we’d never gone; sometimes a combination of ignorance, willfulness and stupidity as we rue the day that we set ourselves on a perilous, compromising path. Or we end up paying for the ignorance and error of others, dragged into communal dysfunction like it or not.
And what of our struggles with/for faith in such a time as this? These days, perhaps we learn that while initial faith can come quickly, conversion to faith takes a lifetime. Sustaining faith is no mere transaction that fulfills a singular salvific requirement. It opens the door to multiple conversion experiences brought on inside us by our encounters with God and the world.
“Right now, in America and across the world, can you imagine how many people are ‘acquainted with grief?’”
Right now, in America and across the world, can you imagine how many people are “acquainted with grief?” So, we cling to hope, audaciously linked to Jesus, the vulnerable, crucified God. The text that confesses our shared weakness adds that, “In the days of his earthly life,” Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions, with loud cries and tears, to God who was able to deliver him from the grave.”
And “because of his humble submission his prayer was heard; son though he was, he learned obedience in the school of suffering, and, once perfected, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him …” (Hebrews 5:7-10). It’s still true, isn’t it? “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows but Jesus.”
Years ago, I was the last interim pastor at the 23rd and Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. It was a venerable old inner-city congregation that had flourished for generations and was the first inter-racial church I had ever served. But the neighborhood was changing, and people of multiple races were moving out. By the time I got there, the church was on its last legs, knowing they would call their last full-time pastor who would carry them through an ecclesiastical hospice. One dear wag said: “If anybody’s preaching can finish off a church, it’s Leonard’s.”
Through it all, “23 and B” remained a caring, affirming faith community, ministering to its vanishing community to the bitter end. So they elected Mrs. Jones a deacon. She was in her eighties, a church member for decades. Plagued by Parkinson’s, both she and the church were in their last years. And they elected her a deacon.
At each first Sunday Communion service, she’d come forward with the other deacons and gather at Christ’s Table. Her hands shook so badly from Parkinson’s that she couldn’t carry the trays, but she’d walk alongside another deacon as he or she served bread and cup, smiling as if she’d just come from eating and drinking with Jesus in the Upper Room.
I’ve never forgotten the image of that wonderful “saint” shuffling, shaking, serving down the aisle of a dying but determined old church, signs of inescapable weakness for congregation and individual alike, still caring, still loving — STRENGTH, St. Paul says, grimacing from his own thorn in the flesh, STRENGTH made PERFECT in weakness to the inevitable end.
Yes, faith may come quickly. Conversion takes a lifetime. Amen.
Bill Leonard is the founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.