July 5, 2015

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

“Thorny Issues”

Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of being invited to commission the Camp Christopher staff and counsellors for the summer ministry that will begin later today when the first group of junior campers arrives for a week at camp. From what I have seen of this particular group of young people, ranging in age from about 15-25 years of age, they will be a wonderful team. They are energetic, enthusiastic, gifted in many ways, and they are full of love and faith to share with the many children and youth that will visit the camp this summer.

The theme for this summer’s Bible study at camp is “Power Up!” and it’s all about the Holy Spirit. And so, during the commissioning service, we reflected together on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at camp and among the staff. We remembered the fact that the Holy Spirit is a gift from God, and that it is poured out on the people of God giving them power to proclaim the gospel in word and action.

We talked about how we will know that the Spirit is working in our lives and relationships because it will produce fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all the other fruit of the Spirit. And the Spirit will also bind Christians together in love and unity, and that will be evident in the ways that the staff at camp relate to each other and work together throughout the summer.

We thought about the long days, the difficult situations, and the challenging campers that the counsellors and staff will need to deal with this summer, and we prayed for the Spirit of God to fill, equip, encourage, and comfort them in the days and weeks ahead. I hoped that instead of being constantly aware of the smoke in the air from forest fires in the north, the camp staff might instead be constantly aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power guiding and helping them in their ministry.

I know that some of the counsellors will be quite confident in their skills and abilities as leaders. They won’t be worried at all about leading games, teaching songs, telling stories, or being role models for the kids. But I actually think that the BEST counsellors will be the ones who are a little bit nervous, the ones who are aware of the magnitude and importance of the work they have taken on, and the ones who know their own weaknesses so they can ask for help when they need it from each other and from God.

This morning’s scripture readings are a good reminder that God can use people (even with our various weaknesses and imperfections) to do some amazing things. There’s a saying that I often see posted that relates to this. It says, “God doesn’t call the qualified, but God qualifies the called.”

People like King David… who could be selfish and cruel, could also be used by God to lead the people in justice and righteousness. Or the Apostle Paul… who once persecuted and tormented Christians, could also be used by God to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Or Peter and the other disciples of Jesus, who had so little faith, who didn’t understand Jesus’ message, who bickered about which one of them was more important… Jesus sent them out two-by-two to be the first Apostles, preaching, teaching, and healing in his name. They all had flaws, weaknesses, and difficulties, but God used them all to do wonders that they were not “qualified” to do.

Let’s talk about Paul, for example, who in today’s passage actually boasts about his weaknesses. He says, “Look, I have this thorn in my flesh, this trouble, this trial, this problem that I can’t get rid of… and still, look what God has done in and through me!”

He writes, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he 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.”

Anyone who has done a Bible study on 2nd Corinthians has speculated about what that “thorn” might be. Paul never says what it is, or even what kind of an issue it is, so we can only guess. Some guess that the thorn is a psychological issue – maybe sexual temptation, or pangs of conscience over persecution of the early church, or humiliation for not getting more Jews to believe him.

Others think that it must have been the external opposition that he kept experiencing – other apostles or rival missionary groups, those who oppose him in Corinth, or rough treatment by his enemies. Or perhaps it was a physical illness or disability that he longed to be rid of – pains in the head, epilepsy, or issues with his vision have been suggested.

Whatever the precise nature of this “thorn in the flesh,” it is something that Paul sees as a weakness, something that threatens to get in the way of him accomplishing his mission, something terrible and difficult that he describes as being given to him by Satan to torment him.

Many of us may live with thorns in our lives as well. We may not have thought about these things as thorns before, but they can function like thorns, making everything we do more difficult, distracting us from our goals, getting in the way of all that we would otherwise do for God and God’s purposes in the world.

Our thorns may be psychological as well – anxiety or low self-esteem or long term grief that continues to trouble us. We may struggle with mental illnesses that make each day in itself an accomplishment and participating in God’s mission an amazing feat.

Our thorns may come in the form of opponents like the ones that Paul faced – people at work who give us a hard time like the bullies that some of us experienced as children, family members or friends who question our participation in church or who constantly tempt us to put other priorities first instead of the mission of God.

Or our thorns may be physical illnesses or disabilities. I know that’s the case for many people in our church community who live with progressive diseases, with mobility challenges, and with a variety of symptoms that limit the ways in which they can serve, the things they can do for others, and the ways they can participate in the community of the church.

The tricky part about this text is that Paul is boasting about his weakness. And for those of us who have had the experience of a thorn in our own flesh, it may be rather difficult to understand why he’s boasting about it. When we think about our thorns, we may remember many days and nights of crying and wailing and praying that God would take them away! We may have bargained with God, making all kinds of promises “if only” God would relieve us of this thorn. How can Paul possibly “boast” of his weaknesses and the thorn in his flesh that has caused them?

Well, if we read carefully we will notice that Paul, too, has appealed to God to take away his thorn. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” Paul explains, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” Now that is a very difficult thing to hear from God… “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul must have had to hear that at least three times before he was willing to accept it, and eventually to boast about it.

But Paul is quite clear about where the thorns come from. They do not come from God. It’s not God who caused his psychological torment, or his trouble with opponents, or his physical challenges. The thorns do not come from a good and loving God, but from evil forces in the world – from Satan, as Paul says.

But while Paul understood his thorn as an agent sent by Satan to diminish the effectiveness of his mission, he eventually came to believe that Satan’s plan had back-fired on the enemy because the thorn actually guards Paul against getting carried away by his visions and spiritual experiences. It keeps him from becoming arrogant and totally self-reliant.

Without the thorn, Paul could have easily fallen into the trap that ensnared some of the other apostles. He could have been diverted from his urgent mission by narcissistic fascination with his own experiences and the sense of self-importance they bring. And so, he sees that which Satan sent to do harm as being transformed by grace into a good gift.

We must be careful with Paul’s line of reasoning about the thorn that continues to torment him. We must be careful not to conclude that our afflictions, or the afflictions of our neighbours, are blessed gifts from God. They are certainly not! Indeed, the troubles and trials that can be solved, or helped, or reduced, should be. God does not intend for any of us to suffer, nor can we be content to let others suffer needlessly if there is something that we can do to help.

And yet, Paul’s example may encourage us to know that we too can live with some of these thorns, that God will be with us through the challenges, and that, indeed, God can and will do wonderful things through us despite our weaknesses and limitations.

Today’s Gospel story is an interesting one to hear alongside the text about Paul’s thorn in the flesh because it reminds us that Jesus himself, and the disciples who first followed him, also struggled with hardships and challenges in their ministry. Jesus was disrespected and rejected by the people of his own hometown. It was such a devastating reception, and such a lack of faith, that he could hardly do any miracles there!

And when Jesus sent out the first groups of disciples to preach, and teach, and heal in his name, he made it clear that the journey would not bring much glory. They would experience some rejection, just as Jesus had before them, and they would need to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going.

The solution to the challenges was not for the disciples to be super-prepared, self-reliant, and ready for anything that they might encounter. And Jesus didn’t choose only wonderful, amazing, super-gifted people to be his disciples so that they could “handle it.”

He chose regular people who possessed both gifts and weaknesses. And he just asked them to be faithful, to do the best they could, and to know that God would be with them to help them, and to work through them despite whatever thorns were working their way into their flesh.

Like those first disciples, and like the apostle Paul, God has wonderful things to accomplish through us, through our church, and through the ministry we share at Camp Christopher. Day by day, may we learn to be content, as Paul had learned to be, with weaknesses and difficulties; for whenever we are weak, then we are strong. Amen.