July 8, 2012

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Over the past few Sundays, I have found that the scripture readings have led me to focus on a particular characteristic or virtue that was either demonstrated by the characters in the texts, or called for by the writers. Two weeks ago, I found myself focussed on the virtue of courage. Last Sunday, the texts invited us to explore the virtue of generosity. And today, I guess we need to talk about strength and, surprisingly, also about weakness.

The apostle Paul, continuing his second letter to the Corinthians, demonstrates both his weakness and his strength as a leader in the early Christian Church. What’s happening in this part of the letter is that Paul is trying to convince the Corinthians to pay attention to him and follow his leadership.

There seem to be a lot of different influences in the community, and many of the Christians in this church are being led astray by other leaders who are being touted as “super apostles”. These are people who have been given special spiritual gifts, people who have seen visions and had unusual experiences. When the “super apostles” boast of their experiences, many of the people are impressed and start looking to these others for direction instead of the man who first introduced them to Christianity and started up their church.

Paul, too, has received the gift of spiritual experiences. We remember from the account in the book of Acts how he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, how he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him and asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It was such a powerful experience, that Saul allowed God to turn his life completely around, becoming an apostle for Christ instead of a persecutor of Christians.

But I guess Paul has been hesitant to talk very much about that experience, and perhaps about other spiritual experiences that he has had. In today’s text, Paul recounts an experience of being caught up to what he calls “the third heaven” or “Paradise”, and hearing things that no mortal person is permitted to repeat. Although Paul claims that this happened to “a person that I know”, most commentators agree that he has to be talking about himself.

But Paul doesn’t want to boast on his own behalf. Or least, if he does boast, he wants to boast about his weaknesses, not about his strengths. He wants who he is as an apostle to stand on his record, on what is seen in him, and not on a bunch of talk.

And so he boasts about his weaknesses, saying “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 – the super apostles or other 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 opthalmia 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.

Without the thorn, Paul could have easily fallen into the trap that ensnared the super apostles, diverted from his urgent mission by narcissistic fascination with his 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 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.

This text is, of course, not only about Paul and his personal issues. Nor is it only about us as individuals with the challenges that we cope with while trying to follow the way of Jesus. It is also a text written for the Church at Corinth, and a text that speaks to the Church throughout the ages when it gets too focused on its own strength and influence in the world.

Over the last 20 years or so, the constant refrain in many churches has been a lament about the world “going to hell in a hand-basket”, about society no longer respecting religious customs and norms, about prayer and spiritual practices being excluded from public ceremony, from schools and government.

Most of us are probably familiar with the concept that we have come to the end of the Christendom era, when the Church held a position of power and influence in society, in which Christian leaders were honoured and respected, in which (even though not everyone was a Christian) society functioned as if we all were.

And it has been difficult for the Church to let go of the power that it once held, to accept a position of relative weakness, and to trust that God will be with us, and God will help us through, and that somehow, despite our weakness, God will work through us to touch and bless the world.

In a reflection on this text, Garrett Green explains how this point applies to the Church throughout the ages: “The Christian community forgets that Christ’s grace is sufficient for it every time it seeks to secure its existence in the world by means of its own strength and influence, every time it allies itself with worldly power rather than allowing Christ to be revealed in its weakness.”

Drawing upon ideas from the theologian Karl Barth, Garrett continues: “The ancient church, once it was no longer subjected to the official persecution of the apostolic age, all too quickly succumbed to the temptation to make itself powerful in the world, to present itself as spiritually superior to the pagan religions. And after Constantine made official its worldly position, it sought in the Middle Ages to make itself the supreme worldly power, becoming “a witness to the glory of Western man” rather than to the grace of God.

“And in the modern period, despite the efforts of the Reformers to recall the church to the gospel, the church… has by and large yielded to the temptation to secure its place in the modern world by accepting ‘its proper place in service to the new secular splendor of Western man.’”

“We nevertheless ought not to despair,” Garrett encourages us, “even though Christians will no doubt go right on seeking their security in strength rather than weakness, because Holy Scripture – as in this passage – recalls us again and again to the good news of the cross: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Jesus is the one whose way we are called to follow with our lives as individuals and as churches. And his was not a way of power and security, but it was a way of service, of vulnerability, of self-giving. He did not fight against the forces of evil that sought to destroy him, even when they mocked him, and tortured him, and placed on his head a crown of thorns.

And in the end, he was victorious. Though he was humiliated and killed, God raised him from death, and now he lives forever in perfect joy and peace.

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. Jesus didn’t ask them to be “super apostles” or even “super disciples.”

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 in their weakness, 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 and through our church. Day by day, may we learn to be content, as Paul had learned to be, with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever we are weak, then we are strong. Amen.