2 Corinthians 12:2-10
I come from people who were never surprised by bad news–people with hope, with enormous resources to go on, but with a genetic strand that encountered and accepted bad news like a bill in the mail. “Ah, there you are.”
The way that worked out for me was the expectation that good things came with bad things somehow hitched along: gifts required some loss; a given talent meant some corresponding inability; get something, give some other hope away.
Paul writes about his vision of heaven–this mystical insight beyond anything that could be said–and then he says “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” And on a really deep level I’m thinking “that sounds right.”
That way of responding to to God, through whatever it was afflicted him, seems to have been helpful for Paul. But I just got stuck there, without asking for removal, because I assumed the same reply Paul received: that it was necessary. And that, it turns, out, was often a really unhelpful story to tell myself, because the losses and absences and inabilities in my life were not and are not cosmic balance for some other gift.
I say that because maybe you’ve told yourself a story like that; maybe its easy for you to decide that the thorn has a reason. After all, its “a thorn in the flesh” that has place in our talk.
But maybe, too, the way Paul understood how and why this affliction came is a distraction from the reason he tells the story.
Things are going badly wrong in Corinth.
Paul is in the midst of a long and painful argument. Its difficult to see
because of how 2 Corinthians is put together today, but its assembled from letters going back and forth, as Paul and the community reached a point of open rupture.
Other, very different people have acquired authority in Corinth; impressive people, perhaps even claiming themselves to be greater apostles. And the church seems to have been persuaded by their show of strength—maybe some of the same people who, from the beginning, cut away at Paul for his unpolished Greek oratory—“they say, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”
So, Paul arrives at the point of saying that if it has come down to boasting, ‘ok, I’ll boast.’ Its anger and heartbreak and it spills out of Paul so forcefully, that he seems to shock himself—-“I am talking like a madman” he says. He lists everything that’s happened to him since he began to travel and preach:
“imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
“If I must boast,” he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Paul has been naked against every storm. And more, he admits the inner toll of his apostleship-—how exposed his heart is to all that happens in the churches; “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” He is no immoveable tower. His passion makes him vulnerable.
Why does he admit this? Why does he lay himself bare like this?
He tells a story about how, fourteen years earlier he had his vision and received his thorn. And he asked for it to be taken away three times, and Christ said to him “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So,” Paul says “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
He’d never told them that before, but that–that word of Lord–is how he got through, the whole time. Through everything that reduced and terrified him.
Perfect in weakness—that’s the paradox of the incarnation. That’s a paradox of the cross itself.
The weak in Christ get to know something the strong never do: being loved for themselves. The weak, who know that the value of life cannot be understood in terms of what they can make, or do, or control, but in the irreducible value invested in them by God who made them; who know have nothing to grasp at, no false proof, but the company of God as a witness and assurance that they are loved. And, for most of us, that kind of knowing will be a lifetime’s journey.
I want to meditate with you on the middle part of today’s reading from Mark: the interruption in the healing of Jairus’s daughter, when a woman breaks into Jesus’ attention and into the story.
First, I want to talk about a way we often think about this story that, is, I think, a problem for the church. Then, I want to point to a way that I think this story goes right to our experience of suffering and hope. And last, I want to look hard at the way we see Jesus in this story.
Its common for this passage to be preached and understood as an example of Jesus crossing religious boundaries to redeem the dignity of a outcast woman.
It goes like this: because the woman had a flow of blood, she was perpetually ritually unclean, and probably marginalized by her community.
By touching Jesus, she committed a significant offense, transmitting her ritual impurity to him, making him unclean. Jesus apparently couldn’t care less about this
and has therefore, yet again, dismissed the ritual life of religious Judaism.
But here’s the thing: ritual impurity never gets mentioned in the passage.
There’s not much evidence to suggest that women were, in any meaningful way, isolated or shamed or shunned because of bleeding. And, really, that stands to reason. People just about couldn’t avoid ritual impurity in the normal course of everyday life.
If you were touched by a person with her kind of ritual unclean-ness, you became unclean only until sunset—not the end of the world. And if she has washed her hands in water, she wouldn’t have transmitted impurity at all. Being ritually clean mattered to Jews—it just doesn’t seem to matter very much in this story. And we can see the profound way in which Jesus affirms the dignity of this woman—God enfleshed calls her daughter!—without throwing her culture under the bus.
So, lets put that aside.
Its also common for this passage to be understood as a teaching about the power of faith. In this way of reading, the woman is the center of the story. And, in some ways, she is the center of the story—the person we connect with. The woman who has been loosing blood; loosing station—Mark tells us she had given all she had to physicians, which means this illness has slowly devoured her prosperity;
loosing hope—she has suffered much under physician after physician, trying remedy after course of remedy, and had only gotten worse. She’s is dying in slow motion
and she is desperate. And as the crowd moves with Jesus on his way to Jairus’ house,
she seizes her moment to reach out and touch him, because she has seen enough of Jesus to believe—in spite of everything that has happened to her, every dashed hope—
that even a touch will heal her.
But what about the part of the story that, maybe, we least know how to make sense of:
the picture of Jesus himself. The crowd moves together, and the woman wends her way toward Jesus from behind. She touches his cloak, and knows immediately that she is healed; the bleeding ceases. And here is what Mark writes:
“Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him,
Jesus turned about in the crowd and said,
“Who touched my clothes?”
Jesus didn’t decide to heal her. She didn’t winningly plead for mercy, or convince him of her faith. A woman who has, in a real way, lost control of her own body—a body that bleeds and will not stop—touches Jesus and discovers he is not exactly in control of his body either. She touches him, and power goes forth from him.
In the same way that the woman was immediately aware that something had happened in her body—that the flow of blood had stopped—Jesus was immediately aware that power had left him.
All he knows is that someone, among all the people pressed and jostling alongside him, has touched him in a way that has claimed something from him.
“Who touched my clothes?”
He doesn’t know. He looks and he waits until the woman, awestruck and trembling, falls before him. She tells him the truth, and he tells her the truth: your faith has made you well. Then he tells her to go and be healed of your disease, which isn’t him deciding to heal her— that already happened. Jesus probably telling her “go, now that the bleeding has ceased; begin the seven days wait that Leviticus demands,
and then be washed and give a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Then live your life, healed.”
But she was made well when the power went out of him. And there seems to have been no boundary in, or around Jesus to limit or control how he received her when she came to him. But he was no less God in that moment.
Its never been easy for the Church to be at peace with the plain and concrete sense of this story. Because Jesus is so vulnerable here–things are taken from him.
But what if that’s the point for us.
Imagine—really, imagine now—how it would feel to learn that people who knew you thought about you, and spoke about you, as weak. Some of us would rather almost anything. Many of us would be debased rather than be thought of as weak. We want to be strong. We want to be masters of ourselves and of circumstances; we think about strength as the capacity to exert control—to dominate—rather than be controlled. We are drawn to that kind of strength, and we long to see it reflected in ourselves.
If we let it, I think this story opens up our eyes to see that even as Jesus was been going about astonishing with power, he is crowded, and claimed ceaselessly;
he can stop the storm on the sea, and he is almost defenseless. Jesus is not his own possession; and he is completely free to love.