Reflections for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
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.